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Interview: Eric Ostern on the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan

By Ali Hart

Last week at Sustainable Brands ’11 in Monterey, I had a chance to sit down with Eric Ostern, Unilever’s Senior Manager of Corporate Responsibility and Community Relations to learn about some of the progress Unilever has made since the launch of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan last fall.

3p: What distinguishes the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan from other sustainability efforts?

EO: The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is really a comprehensive plan that is integrated into our business model and the plan has three core features. The first is that it runs across our entire portfolio including all of our brands and the 170 countries in which we operate. Second is that the plan covers not just the manufacturing facilities, but it also covers the entire lifecycle of our products, from how they’re sourced and manufactured, all the way through consumer use and disposal. And the third thing that makes the plan unique is that it’s not just about the environment. We find is that there are a lot of plans that focus on the environmental impacts associated with one’s manufacturing facilities but this plan has a social and economic component as well.

3p: The plan was launched in the fall of 2010 and it’s now June of 2011. Can you speak to any progress thus far?

EO: When we launched the plan, we said that we had an ambitious plan. We had set some ambitious targets and we had three big goals: the first which was to help over one billion people take action to improve their health and well-being; second, to halve the environmental impact associated with our products; and third was to source 100% of our agricultural raw material sustainably. … Sustainable agriculture has been something we’ve been doing now for over fifteen years. Recently we announced that we just bought the first available certificates for sustainable soy. Soy makes up approximately 1% of our agricultural raw materials. Unilever is a significant purchaser of agricultural raw materials. We buy about 7.5 million tons of agricultural materials on an annual basis. … This complements some of the work that we’re doing in terms of moving ahead and moving the needle forward on other crops that we purchase, like Lipton and our commitment to buy 100% of our teas sustainably sourced by 2020.

In addition what’s new with our plan is that we’ve also been starting to engage with consumers differently. One of the areas in that space is around water and water consumption. We know from some of our research that the average American woman spends about 10-12 minutes in the shower and yet at the same time, the majority of our greenhouse gases from our water and skin business are generated from consumer use of our products. And so we’re looking at – and this is a critical part: how do we create behavior change among consumers?

Suave, one of our leading hair care brands and presently in over 50million homes, has now launched a new initiative called “Turn off the Tap” and they’re talking to consumers right on pack – where consumers are using the product – on the benefits of reducing their hot water usage in the shower. And the critical thing here with Suave is that a lot of consumers are aware that greenhouse gases are bad for the environment but they’re not motivated by talking to them about “Hey, you should reduce your shower usage because it’s about greenhouse gases.” We’re talking to consumers in a very relevant and real way for them and the way that we’re doing that is talking to them about how they can save money. So we’re putting out facts to consumers. For example, “Did you know that the average family can save about $100 on their utility bill and about 3,200 gallons of water?” We’re actually talking to the consumer in a way that is meaningful to her and that’s driving a critical benefit for her, as well.

One of our commitments was that we wanted to increase recycling and recovery rates because one of our goals in halving the environmental footprint of our products is to halve the amount of waste associated with our products. Dove and Suave have formed a partnership with Recyclebank and it really is designed to engage the consumers in rewarding them for taking small everyday actions to recycle plastic bottles and waste. This is about how consumers want to do the right thing but they don’t always know how – nor do they have the resources to do it. So the partnership with Recyclebank is designed to help educate consumers, provide them with information, empower them, and at the same time reward them so ultimately it’s a win for the consumer because she’s getting valuable rewards from Recyclebank and it’s a win for the environment because they’re increasing recycling rates.

From an energy perspective, Unilever Canada has signed an agreement with Bullfrog Power. We will now be the largest purchaser of renewable energy in Canada and we will be purchasing renewable energy for our manufacturing facilities as well as our two offices there, which will cover about 90% of the energy Unilever purchases, which is a sizable commitment. Based on our partnership with Bullfrog Power, Bullfrog even created a new category for their partners because we are the largest purchaser.


I also asked Mr. Ostern about whether Unilever had considered converting some of its liquid products to powder to reduce water use, packaging materials and GHG emissions associated with transport but he was unable to answer my question. He also declined to provide details regarding what kind of materials Unilever is considering for their refill sachets, which fall under the company’s efforts to increase reuse of packaging. We look forward to hearing about these issues as more info becomes available.


Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.

Ali Hart headshot

Ali Hart is a media strategist and content producer helping change agents harness the power of humor. From developing creative TV and web concepts to managing comedians to strategizing grassroots campaigns, she has devoted herself to exploring which messages and messengers inspire behavior change for good. Ali holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, where she currently laughs.

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