CEO Paul Polman delivered the call to arms while unveiling Unilever’s new Sustainable Living Plan, which aims to help the company ’decouple business growth from environmental impact’.
Unilever claims the plan will help the company double sales and halve the environmental impact of its products over the next 10 years.
Polman, who launched the plan simultaneously in London, Rotterdam, New York and New Delhi, says the company’s drive for sustainability will help “create preference for our brands”.
He adds: “This is not a project to celebrate, but a business model to implement. The consumer wants [action on sustainability], the retailer wants it, and it often results in innovation and in lower costs. But we don’t have all the answers. We will all have to work together – Pepsi will have to work with Coke, the US will have to work with China and Greenpeace will have to work with WWF.”
The announcement follows a two-year comprehensive audit across 1,600 products and 14 countries. Water, waste and greenhouse gas emissions were all assessed across the lifecycle of brands like Dove, Persil Knorr, Pot Noodle and Lipton. Some 50 social, economic and environmental targets have been set.
Unilever refused to be drawn on how the plan will affect marketing budgets, or whether more budget will be allocated to its more sustainable products. Gavin Neath, senior VP for global communications and sustainability, says there wasn’t a plan to phase out unsustainable products but assured the company will be “dramatically better”, in terms of sustainability, by 2020 than it is today.
Jonathan Porritt, co-founder of Forum for the Future, and an advisor to Unilever, says the company has brands which will be easier to link with sustainability messaging, while others, like Magnum, would prove a much harder sell. Porritt says success can only be judged in terms of what is delivered, not in terms of what is being promised, but the Plan is “the best out there” for big global companies.
In order to meet its 2020 targets, some products will be reformulated, while others will go through complete packaging overhauls. Some will also require a very different engagement with the customer, with a view to ’co-creating’ the environmental benefit by using the product in a different way.
Procter & Gamble (P&G) recently announced plans to communicate its 2020 sustainability commitments through brand marketing in the UK. In partnership with WWF, P&G has pledged to reduce its use of petroleum-derived materials by 25%, reduce its packaging by 20% and ensure 30% of the power in its operations is sourced from renewable energy by 2020.
The new commitments will also be communicated to consumers through P&G’s existing consumer-facing initiative Future Friendly, which aims to educate consumers on how they can reduce waste and save energy and water.