Unilever: ‘Marketers are the biggest barrier in embracing sustainability’

Marketers are still behind the rest of the business and too slow when it comes to embracing sustainability according to Unilever’s global VP for sustainable business Karen Hamilton.

Although Unilever’s “sustainable living brands”, such as Dove and Ben & Jerry’s, accounted for half of the company’s growth last year and grew twice as fast as other brands in its portfolio, Hamilton says that the FMCG giant is still finding it tough to convince marketers of its sustainability strategy.

Speaking yesterday (July 14) at the Havas ‘Meaningful Brands’ conference, she said: “The biggest challenge to our on-going shift to become more sustainable is our marketers.

“We do regular staff surveys to check our progress around sustainability and marketing is 20 percentage points behind the rest of our business when it comes to embracing these changes.

“Marketers know we are asking them to think in a completely different mindset and that can be quite daunting.”

Unilever set out its 10 year Sustainable Living plan back in 2010, which included targets such as halving its environmental footprint and making 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably sourced.

Hamilton said progress has been strong over the last five years. However she insisted that brands looking to follow its lead must ensure there is support that filters from the boardroom down.

She added: “It isn’t just our CEO Paul Polman but leaders across the business who have opened the door and backed the vision of brands doing more to create positive change. I think the results of our sustainable living brands show there is definitely real value in moving to a sustainable model.”

Short-termism is holding back brands

Speaking at the same event, Oxfam’s research and policy advisor Katherine Trebeck said that short termism is holding brands back when it comes to embracing sustainable ideals.

Brits would not care if 94% of brands disappeared, according to Havas Media’s latest Meaningful Brands metric of brand strength, which also claimed that people believe only 3% of brands improve their quality of life. Trebeck said marketers must think long term to regain trust.

She said: “Unfortunately there are still too many companies succumbing to short termism and that profit driven view makes it impossible to achieve anything ethical long term.”

Meanwhile, Nationwide’s marketing director Stephen Leonard urged financial brands to do more to achieve ethical changes.

“As we’re a building society, we don’t answer to shareholders so can behave in a different way,” he said. “We’re working with Macmillan and have set up bespoke staff to deal with our customers who are suffering financial implications due to cancer as one in seven people lose their house due to the disease.

“I think financial brands must tap into the collaborative economy and look to unlock that feeling of togetherness – we are trying to make a meaningful difference to people’s lives.”

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