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Unilever Crowdsources Sustainability Innovations

Joi Sears headshotWords by Joi Sears
Investment & Markets
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In an age when we’re desperate for new answers to old questions, the traditional top-down approach to business is no longer going to cut it. Now, more than ever, we see innovative brands shifting to more open and collaborative methods when it comes to fueling social innovation. More companies are crowdsourcing ideas from consumers.

Unilever recently unveiled the new Foundry Ideas platform at the Cannes Lions Festival. It will amplify the company's current efforts, acting as a hub for consumers and entrepreneurs to work together to tackle some of the most defining sustainability challenges of our time. It invites users to share their ideas on the platform, collaborate with others to make the idea better and have the chance to win prizes while making a big impact.

The challenges


Unilever is specifically looking for ideas and innovations that help make sustainable living more mainstream. Challenges will be regularly uploaded to the Foundry Ideas site where participants can either submit ideas or add to the ideas of others. At publish time, three ideas are open for entries, which encourage people to solve issues in sanitation, hygiene and nutrition.

The Future Shower Challenge invites participants to design the shower of the future. As we know, water scarcity is a pressing problem in many parts of the world. This challenge encourages people to invent a shower which significantly reduces the amount of water of used, while preserving or increasing the quality of the experience.

The Sanitation Challenge poses the question: How can we help 100 million people have access to toilet sanitation by 2020? Nearly 1 billion people around the world still practice open defecation, and even more use facilities that are poorly maintained, manually emptied or makeshift. This problem will not be resolved by simply building more toilets. For many, this type of behavior has been practiced for thousands of years. They do not see the need to change.

In this challenge, sponsored by Domestos household cleaning brand, participants are encouraged to present solutions that could potentially provide access to affordable and effective sanitation. These ideas could address anything from education to infrastructure to offering specific products or services. Access to proper sanitation is a basic human right and would reduce a number of preventable diseases and sanitation-related deaths.

Lastly, the Improving Global Nutrition Challenge, which is sponsored by Knorr, a Unilever food brand, addresses the issue of malnutrition by inspiring 20 million people in Nigeria to cook more nutritiously. Malnutrition is a global epidemic affecting every sector of the world. Anaemia, of which approximately 50 percent of cases are due to iron deficiency, is a major public health issue in many countries, including Nigeria. Knorr is committed to improving the health and happiness of people by making nutritious food preparation more desirable, easy to understand and affordable. With this challenge, Unilever is crowdsourcing ideas and partners who can enable behavioral change in a low-cost and repeatable way, with a population in rural locations.

The process


After the ideation and collaboration phase, the community is invited to vote for their favorite ideas. The best contributions are shortlisted to move forward and are rewarded with various prizes from a week at a top cooking school in London to sustainable home appliances. The top ideas and innovators are invited to work with Unilever (or collaborate with other partners) to develop their idea into a prototype or bring their innovation to scale.

Unilever hopes crowdsourcing puts fresh momentum behind its Sustainable Living Plan to halve the environmental impact of its products and extend its supply chain to farmers in developing countries by 2020. Since it launched it 2010, the Unilever Foundry has crowdsourced ideas from marketing campaigns to products and packaging. The latest development, Foundry Ideas, is the first time its crowdsourcing efforts will be dedicated solely to sustainability.

"We’re 5 years in to our 10-year Unilever Sustainable Living Plan to make our operations and brands more sustainable,” said Sue Garrard, senior vice president of sustainable business development and communications at Unilever.  “We have made huge strides in our factories and with our suppliers.  The next stage is to find people with new and innovative ideas so that together we can help transform the way we live our daily lives, for us all to become more sustainable.”

Joi Sears headshotJoi Sears

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

Read more stories by Joi Sears