Last month the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published its annual Living Planet Report. In these reports, the scariest figure is always how many “Earths” the human population is consuming in terms of renewable resources. Right now we are using 50% more resources than the planet can generate. By 2030 (a year or so ago it was 2035) we will be using renewable resources and land at the rate of 2 planets each year, and just over 2.8 planets each year by 2050. Clearly, such consumption is not sustainable. But even with food prices soaring and water becoming scarce, we are not tackling the issues either collectively or individually – which is why Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, launched this week, is really worth getting excited about.
Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan is designed to deliver three key outcomes by 2020:
- Help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being
- Decouple the company’s growth from its environmental impact across the product lifecycle, with the goal of halving the environmental footprint of the making and use of Unilever products
- Enhance the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in the company’s supply chain.
To achieve these ambitions Unilever has defined specific targets, along with metrics to judge their progress, in seven core areas of impact as follows:
- Health and hygiene: Help more than 1 billion people improve their hygiene habits and bring safe drinking water to 500 million people to help reduce the incidence of life-threatening diseases such as diarrhoea.
- Nutrition: Double the proportion of the company’s portfolio that meets the highest nutritional standards, based on globally recognized guidelines, to help people achieve a healthier diet.
- Greenhouse gases: Halve the greenhouse gas impact of the firm’s products across the lifecycle by 2020.
- Water: Halve the water associated with the consumer use of Unilever products by 2020.
- Waste: Halve the waste associated with the disposal of the firm’s products by 2020.
- Sustainable sourcing: Source 100% of Unilever’s agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020, and 100% of palm oil by 2015.
- Better livelihoods: By 2020, link more than 500,000 smallholder farmers and small-scale distributors into the company’s supply chain.
While you could easily have read this on the company’s website (http://www.sustainable-living.unilever.com/ — well worth a look) you may not have done so and it is important to understand the scale and ambition of this plan. To deliver on all of the above in just 10 years, Unilever is going to have to innovate faster and dramatically change its internal capabilities and ways of working, as well as everything from packaging to product formulations to manufacturing to marketing and distribution. At the same time, they are going to have to work across the entire product lifecycle, driving significant changes in raw material sourcing and supplier networks as well as in consumer behaviours.
It is a mammoth task which will require working with a huge range of external partners, and yet the company still expects to be able to grow and to deliver on its business case which includes greater consumer preference, improved customer collaboration, innovation, market and financial growth, and cost benefits. Understandably, Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO suggests that “Delivering these commitments won’t be easy…Ultimately we will only succeed if we inspire billions of people around the world to take the small, everyday actions that add up to a big difference – actions that will enable us all to live more sustainably.”
So apart from the scale of ambition, why is this plan so exciting? What makes it different from the countless sustainability initiatives undertaken with the best intentions by companies, governments and NGOs around the world? Our view is that there are 5 significant elements which make this plan a first of its kind:
- Unilever has put sustainability at the heart of its vision, strategy and brand portfolio. This is not a CSR department dreaming up some great, isolated initiatives which run independently of day to day business. This plan HAS to be an integral part of day to day operations, innovation, marketing, and more – across its brand portfolio – if the company is to deliver on its globally announced targets.By setting out metrics, it has invited the world to judge its progress.
- The plan mobilizes and engages the entire organization. Again this is not a silo or one department “play.” Everyone in the organization has a role – and more importantly, clear, inspiring and energizing ambitions towards which they can aim. These ambitions will make a difference to the employees personally and their communities, opening the potential for unprecedented employee engagement.
- The company has focused outward, not inward. The plan is focused not just on the products the company supplies but on the whole lifecycle from raw materials to consumer use and behaviours. Every product has been analyzed in terms of impact at each step in the lifecycle, allowing the company to clearly understand where their efforts can make most difference, which is in the sourcing of raw materials and consumer use at home as these represent the largest environmental impacts.
- Unilever is tackling big problems through small steps, allowing consumers to get involved. Often the magnitude of the challenge of addressing our global resource issues deters companies and individuals from taking it up. People say, “We can’t make a difference.” What Unilever is doing is showing how lots of small steps by the billions of people who use its products daily can make the necessary difference – making it easy for consumers, customers and suppliers to get involved.
- The company recognizes it can’t do it alone. It actively wants to partner with governments, NGOs, suppliers and others to make the difference it aspires for. Wouldn’t it be nice of the G20 could do the same?
There are many things to be excited about in this “next generation of sustainability” plan, and many implications for how other companies and entities tackle pressing global issues. We will explore these in further blog posts, as well as articles and interviews.
For now, we invite you to think about how your organization could “steal with pride” from this plan, and what it would take to implement it in your organization.