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Lauren Zanolli headshot

Unilever: Project Sunlight to Encourage Environmentally Friendly Consumer Behavior

There is an inherent tension in a sustainability campaign run by a company that produces millions of consumer products each day and bases its growth strategy on reaching “more customers, more often.” But with its November 20th launch of a new website and social engagement platform called Project Sunlight, Unilever is addressing some of that tension in a new marketing campaign that turns the spotlight on consumer actions to create a more sustainable mode of global consumption. (Unilever CMO Keith Weed discussed the reasoning behind the campaign yesterday here).

Project Sunlight is a means for Unilever to engage with its customers, while also showcasing the work it has been doing internally to lessen the negative environmental and social impacts associated with manufacturing and consumption. The Anglo-Dutch company launched a corporation-wide sustainability campaign in 2010, not long after Paul Polman joined as CEO. Polman has been one of the most outspoken C-suite advocates for pushing more sustainable business practices and set ambitious goals for Unilever: to double revenues to €80BN while halving its environmental impact by 2020.

The corporation is using a “profitable volume growth” strategy to achieve their 2020 revenue aim, and is increasingly focused on the nearly limitless consumer growth potential of large emerging markets — like India, China and Turkey — which now account for 55 percent of revenue for Unilever. With over 1,000 brands under its belt, including household names like Dove, Suave and Hellmans, Unilever already has astounding global reach. It reports that over the course of any given day, 2 billion people (almost 30 percent of the world’s population) will use at least one Unilever product.

Senior Vice President of Marketing, Marc Mathieu, points to the rare scale of Unilever as leverage to encourage people to adopt more sustainable habits of consumption.

“Business is the fundamental driver of change,” Mathieu told TriplePundit.com. “Programs can use the principles of marketing, which we know work, to engage people in behavior change in a way that actually improves their lives and at the same time improves the world we live in.”  

The Project Sunlight site is composed of digestible content about Unilever’s sustainability programs as well as simple nudges to encourage environmentally-friendly consumer behavior. From reminders to take shorter showers to simple tips to prevent food waste, Unilever is pitching small-scale acts of sustainability alongside its consumer goods.

“We let the [individual] brands carry the effort,” said Mathieu. “They are the ones that can engage the consumers...and take actions that help make sustainable living rewarding."

Mathieu views marketing as a mechanism that can actually help people in substantive ways and points to Unilever’s roots in pushing hygienic habits along with its products during Victorian England, when filth and disease were commonplace. Interestingly, Unilever does not have a separate corporate social responsibility department, as many large companies do. Its sustainability department is rolled into the marketing and communications wing.

“My end goal is to make marketing and sustainability two sides of the same coin,” said Mathieu. He refers to Project Sunlight as a “behavior change program,” giving a new spin to the way that corporations engage with consumers. Unilever isn’t telling people to reduce consumption, per se, but to think more consciously about resources used and how their products are sourced and created.

Mathieu notes that while there are very serious problems facing society, the public conversation about big-picture environmental, economic and social justice issues can be so negative as to be “paralyzing.” Unilever’s marketing team chose to approach these issues from a “positive side” and emphasize the advances in science and technology that can help society adapt for a better future.

“It’s about changing the conversation,” he said, and understanding “how consumption can be made more sustainable.”

[Image Credit: Unilever]
Lauren Zanolli headshotLauren Zanolli

Lauren is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. She has covered a wide array of geographies and topics, from economic and business developments in the Arabian Gulf, to arts and culture in Turkey, to social enterprise and the microfinance sector in Southeast Asia. She's also worked on the business side of things, with two years experience in strategy and marketing at a large renewable energy firm. Keep in touch: @laurenzanolli and lauren.zanolli@gmail.com.

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