Unilever's corporate headquarters in Blackfriars, London.
Running a profitable business in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry isn’t easy – especially when inflation has consumers pinching pennies and hunting for basement bargains. Add that to the list of challenges the CPG industry is facing, which include lingering pandemic hurdles and conflict-zone embargoes that suppliers and manufacturers are obliged to observe.
Meanwhile, companies are under pressure to monitor their risks and impacts on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. That means not just finding and monitoring their ESG data, which can be a huge task on its own, but also developing a strategy complete with targets and accountability measures to reduce ESG risks and minimize negative impacts from business activities.
So, how in the world are business leaders supposed to do all of that?
The answer lies in the “G” of ESG. Strong corporate governance and commitment from C-suite executives are how organizations can manage today’s business requirements and thrive under the opportunities that this new landscape presents. After all, ESG-focused funds proved resilient even amidst recession fears — attracting $37 billion of net inflows in the fourth quarter of 2022, compared to $200 billion of net withdrawals in the broader market, according to research from Morningstar.
TriplePundit sat down with Jonathan Gill, global head of sustainability advocacy at Unilever, to gain insight into the governance mechanisms that drive ESG strategy in the CPG industry. The key takeaway? ESG strategy must be integrated into overall business strategy, with the two components working in coordination to drive success across all brands.
If there’s one thing to know about driving a successful ESG strategy, it’s this: ESG strategy has to be integrated into overall business strategy. Without integration, the two objectives will be competing for priority rather than working in tandem.
“Unilever’s purpose is all about making sustainable living commonplace. So that’s kind of the North Star, the way we think about everything,” Gill explained. “It’s been years since we had separate strategies for sustainability and for business. It’s one integrated strategy.”
For Unilever, this integrated strategy — which it calls the Unilever Compass — is “locked into the governance side of things,” Gill said. "The board oversees it. We have an external advisory council to make sure we’re making the right decisions and choices. It’s locked into our remuneration, but also into our structure.”
In the CPG industry, a parent company will own many different brands. While those brands have different priorities in business and in ESG strategy, the structure and the relationship between the parent company and its brands needs to facilitate ESG progression.
“We’ve got five semi-autonomous business units within Unilever, and each and every one of those business units have sustainable priorities within them,” Gill continued. "That’s agreed by the most senior level, by the executives, so the delivery is really embedded into it.”
When it comes to actually developing an ESG strategy and identifying key performance indicators (KPIs), it’s crucial to have a clear understanding of what is important to stakeholders from the beginning and throughout an organization’s ESG journey.
Whether that’s from investors, customers, employees, brands or the broader community, understanding the expectations of stakeholders will align and drive ESG strategy, Gill said. For example, the company holds bi-weekly sessions with employees and executives and operates 37 “People Data Centers” around the world to keep its finger on the pulse of what customers are looking for — among many other ways in which it engages with stakeholders.
Organizations that listen to stakeholder voices are better positioned to perform well on the metrics that matter, driving ESG performance and business growth.
It can be tempting to delegate to brands what their ESG priorities should be and how they should approach the subject. Parent companies are ultimately responsible for their brands, after all. But it is much better when those companies facilitate that development and allow brands to grow their ESG priorities organically.
“Within the Unilever Compass, the three priorities we have around sustainability are planet, health and wellbeing, and social. Our brands’ purposes generally fall within those three spaces, but we don’t have a formal way to make sure brands are focusing in specific areas,” Gill explained. “The brands themselves are responsible for identifying what their purpose is and delivering that. It has to be organic, it has to be real, and therefore top-down just wouldn’t work.”
When asked about the value of transparent accounting, Gill said, “We think it’s quite an important lever for change to accelerate the transition toward sustainability.”
As global ESG reporting and accounting standards are being hashed out around the globe, transparent accounting is not only important to today’s investors and consumers, but it’s also soon to become a requirement. Businesses that incorporate this practice before legislation is finalized will benefit from the ease of transition to mandatory reporting, as well as from the influx of investor dollars into ESG funds. Having the right technology in place to gather, track and report on ESG data will be essential for businesses in the future.
Transparency in ESG goals, progress and communication is vital for highly visible, consumer-facing companies like Unilever. The company reported regularly on the progress of its 10-year sustainability strategy, the Sustainable Living Plan, from 2010 to 2020. Some of its targets were reached, some were narrowly missed, and others fell well short. Whatever the case, the company was open about its progress and the challenges it faced along the way — and it continues to report on the new Unilever Compass strategy.
This type of transparency builds trust. Trusted voices in the ESG sphere are exactly what investors and consumers are looking for amidst the tsunami of ESG information being released by companies looking to attract today’s consumers and investors.
Finally, accountability measures must be built into the structure of the organization. Naturally, the market will act as its own accountability measure as investors and consumers pull money from companies that are underperforming and redirect those funds to companies with stronger ESG strategies.
Internally, Unilever ties ESG performance into its executive remuneration scheme. “We have essentially eight metrics, and if you perform well on those, your bonus is higher,” Gill said. “If you’re motivated by money, then obviously you’ll be motivated to deliver on those sustainability goals.”
Not everyone is motivated by money, but it’s a strong measure to incentivize performance and show commitment to ESG strategy.
One of the biggest challenges facing business executives in all sectors with regards to ESG and corporate governance is the uncertainty of reporting requirements. There are different global reporting standards, all of which are similar but none of which are mandatory — at least not yet.
“The challenge we’ve got at the moment is there are three big standards — from the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the European Union (EU) — and they are big beasts of information that need to be prepared,” Gill explained. “Making them standardized — not necessarily the same, but interoperable — would be very helpful, and we’re very keen to see them being mandatory for all companies above a certain size.”
The biggest challenge in Gill’s eyes is that with the sense of urgency to enact mandatory reporting and organizations rushing to comply, there are likely to be some errors in reporting, or errors made by assurers on the audit side that could provide the anti-ESG cohort some extra fuel for their fire. In the midst of our climate emergency, the onus is on legislators to not only get the requirements in place quickly, but to make sure it’s done right.
This article series is sponsored by Workiva and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Regardless of inflation risks, shifts in the regulatory environment or industry challenges, ESG is here to stay. Our partner on this series, Workiva, offers an end-to-end solution to help companies unlock value. You can find out more here.
Images courtesy of Unilever
Andrew Kaminsky is a freelance writer with no fixed location. He travels all corners of the globe learning about the different groups that call this planet home, seeing natural wonders, and sharing laughs with the people he finds along the way. An alum of the University of Winnipeg's International Development program, Andrew is particularly interested in international relations and sustainable development. In his spare time you are likely to find Andrew engaging in anything sport-related, or finding common ground with new friends over a craft beer.