Unilever Commits to Halve Environmental Impact by 2020

Unilever, the huge consumer products company, says that two billion times a day “somebody, somewhere” uses one of its brands, such as Lipton Tea or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. That impact on people’s lives is one reason the company’s new “sustainable living plan,” featuring a goal to halve its environmental impact by 2020 while doubling sales, might be an influential and game-changing moment in the brief annals of corporate sustainability. The plan, released this week, envisions three outcomes by 2020:

1) “We will help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being.” The plan says it will help  people improve their hygienic habits and bring safe drinking water to 500 million people.2) “We will decouple our growth from our environmental impact, achieving absolute reductions across the product lifecycle. Our goal is to halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of our products.”  Reductions will include greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and product disposal. Where there isn’t a recycling infrastructure in place to serve emerging markets, it will help build one.

3) “We will enhance the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in our supply chain,” by sourcing 100 percent of agricultural raw materials sustainably and linking more than 500,000 smallholder farmers and small-scale distributors into the supply chain. Today, approximately 10 percent of Unilever’s agriculture and forestry products come from sustainable sources, and the goal by 2012 is 30 percent.

The idea, according to CEO Paul Polman, is to “create a better future in which people can improve their quality of life without increasing their environmental footprint.”

On GHGs, the company expects that CO2 emissions from energy at its factories will be at or below 2008 levels despite higher volumes by 2020. This represents a 63 percent reduction per ton of production and a 43 percent absolute reduction (versus a 1995 baseline).

On product disposal, Unilever will reduce the weight and size of packaging; provide reuse packaging and increase recycling and recovery rates.

The company plans to more than double its use of renewable energy to 40 percent of its total energy requirement by 2020, which is the company’s first step towards a long-term goal of 100 percent renewable energy.

Unilever also expects its CO2 emissions from its global logistics network to be at or below 2010 levels despite significantly higher volumes by 2020, representing a 40 percent improvement in CO2 efficiency. This will be achieved by implementing several measures, including reducing truck mileage, using lower emission vehicles, employing alternative transport such as rail or ship and improving the energy efficiency of its warehouses.

Bold? Yes. Courageous? Definitely. Doable? We’ll see; supplier and government cooperation will be necessary. But Unilever deserves praise for recognizing that it does not have the luxury of choice between growth and sustainability. Polman adds that “growth at any cost is not viable…We do not believe there is a conflict between sustainability and profitable growth.”

writer, editor, reader and general good (ok mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by

2 responses

  1. Great, except here’s my qualm: if you’re halving environmental impact but doubling sales, doesn’t that even out? Current levels of production cannot be sustainable.

    Isn’t a more sustainable model to want to not produce so much? Even if you make the stuff more environmentally friendly, let’s face it, it takes an enormous amount of water and fuel to make all these things and get them to us, not to mention waste and resource extraction. More sales from a huge consumer products company means more ice cream cartons and plastic packaging and bottles. Recycling them is resource-intensive too. I think Unilever should be more like Patagonia in wanting to have people consume and purchase less.



    1. Amanda, I agree that the “treadmill of production” needs to slow down for the goal of decreasing overall consumption, but we should not look to food and toiletry companies to lead that overall reduction, given that global populations are growing and a cup of tea can’t be reused the way a well-made Patagonia sweater can. More consumption of drinking water and ice cream isn’t as much of a problem as the associated packaging. So, in the long run, a transformational change might involve re-useable packaging or a “service delivery” mindset to provide more people with clean tap-water etc.

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