Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan has been out front in promoting and promising to reduce the company’s environmental impact, improve health and enhance livelihoods worldwide by 2020.
Six years into his job, Unilever CEO Paul Polman is delivering on those promises with 37 percent fewer emissions than in 2008, while productivity is up and waste going to landfills is down 85 percent.
But the world’s third-largest consumer goods company by 2012 revenue, after Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, and second-largest advertiser in the world, is finding that turning the ship is more difficult than anticipated.
Unilever owns over 400 brands and the top 14 have sales of over $1.07 billion (1 billion euros): Axe/Lynx, Dove, Omo, Becel/Flora, Heartbrand ice creams, Hellmann’s, Knorr, Lipton, Lux, Magnum, Rama, Rexona, Sunsilk and Surf.
Specific company initiatives to shift top brands toward sustainability include:
Two recent Unilever ads talk about responsible resourcing and sustainability. The first is for laundry brand Persil (Omo in some markets).
The second is for Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.
Other Unilever brands Flora, Comfort, Sure, Dove and Knorr are seen in ads flying into the Unilever ‘U’ logo that CMO Keith Weed has called the “trust mark of sustainable living.”
“If there is a standout company in sustainability, it is Unilever,” said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, in the New York Times. “That doesn’t make them perfect. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a long way to go. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to accomplish. But Paul Polman sees these issues in a very comprehensive and visionary way.”
Critics of the company range from human rights advocates protesting poor conditions at Unilever tea estates in Kenya to India where the company is accused of failing to clean up a contaminated factory.
As Unilever strives to better the world, its must look to its own house as well. As the New York Times notes, “to even come close to delivering on the sustainable living plan, [Polman] will need suppliers to become vastly more efficient. He will need governments to incentivize conservation efforts and set stringent new regulations. He will need consumers to change deeply ingrained habits. And as he is discovering, even modest goals, like sourcing sustainable soy, are inordinately complicated tasks.”
On the marketing front, Unilever is also changing the process, telling its story differently as the sustainability conversation comes mainstream. “You can’t have marketing in one corner ‘selling more stuff’ and sustainability in another trying to save the world,” said Weed, in Fast Company. “Bring them together because they are two sides of the same coin. Let’s try and do marketing in such a way that we are addressing real social challenges. That way we’ll create a business that is much more vibrant than red bottle versus blue bottle.”