In 2010, Unilever launched its Sustainability Living Plan that frames seven categories: health and hygiene, nutrition, greenhouse gases, water, waste, sustainable sourcing and better livelihoods. Unilever believes that using sustainability lens throughout their business helps them enhance their brand, reduce costs and wastes, drive innovation, and positively contribute to the environment and society. They are honest about their vision to double in size while reducing environmental impacts and positively contributing to social conditions. I appreciate their frankness about growing a profitable business is still their core mission. They recognize that their performance must be aligned with values and that consumers are their top priority.
Unilever has done their homework. With much thought and input from others, they developed their own Sustainable Agriculture Code to set priorities and guide their efforts when providing a fair market to farmers and small-scale operators. The Code is comprehensive and covers each of the seven elements of Sustainability Living Plan framework. They also have plans to source 100% of their agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources by 2020.
They recognize that smallholders need assistance in the form of training, better quality seeds and fertilizers to help them improve yields (and income). So, they help them. In their tea program alone, Unilever has trained 450,000 farmers in sustainable practices – just think of their potential scale in all key products. As they strengthen their positive contributions to farmer livelihoods, Unilever sill place a special importance on women who they consider have a ‘multiplier effect’ on lifting families out of poverty.
Unilever has also measured their products’ carbon and water footprints to gain a better understanding of where their impacts and opportunities exist along their supply chains. The majority of their greenhouse gas emissions and water impacts come from consumer use of their products (68% and 85%, respectively) followed by raw materials production (25% and 15%, respectively). They have goals to reduce both the carbon and water footprints in half by 2020.
They are trying to create new products that reduce the impacts during use by the consumer. They also work to address the raw material stage of the supply chain.
Traceability remains a challenge for Unilever in some commodities but they are actively working on solutions. They have initially used ‘book and claim’ certificates to address impacts associated with palm oil but are working with partners and suppliers to enable them to trace their palm oil back to the plantation.
Lastly, but certainly not least, they recognize that real breakthroughs are needed which requires strong partnerships. Innovation and science-based solutions will both be required.
While there are limitations to Unilever’s impact, they are having significant influence and are creating the elements (e.g. trainings, codes, metrics) that are adopted by others who do not have the resources to create this initial change. Unilever is also motivating and enabling positive change throughout their supply chains as well as setting higher expectations of other brands and sparking competition with competitors to make similar strides.
I hope more companies, big and small, follow Unilever’s lead.
 “Book and claim” certificates represent the social and environmental attributes associated with a certain quantity of certified palm oil even if that oil is not used in the buyer’s supply chain.