Unilever aiming to reinvent consumption
FMCG megalith Unilever sits in a significant position. Not just because of its massive, worldwide reach and range of brands, but also because of the ambitious and specific targets it has set for revenue and corporate social responsibility. CEO Paul Polman has told GreenWise Business the company has a “unique opportunity to reinvent consumption,” with ambitious goals of both halving its environmental impact while doubling its size.
If it achieves the targets it has set over the next decade, its sheer size means the contribution it will make towards a more sustainable global economy will be nothing short of mammoth. If it fails to meet those targets, it could irreparably damage the public’s perception towards socially responsible initiatives by business.
Containing more than 50 targets, the overall aims of the ‘Sustainable Living Plan‘ are to help more than one billion people improve their health and wellbeing, to halve the environmental impact of its products, and to source 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably. All by 2020.
To sell the plan to investors, Unilever CEO Paul Polman admits the only way was to add another goal, to double the size of the business: “At the end of the day we have to convince our investors that it’s also a good business model for growth. That’s why I always emphasise that we’re doubling our business, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
But despite Unilever’s immense size, Polman points out that the main measure of success will be when such initiatives spread to other businesses: “In our own factories, we’re responsible for around three million tonnes of CO2. But if we add in suppliers and consumers, it’s around 300 million. Now, we’re on track to reduce our own emissions by 50-60%, but if we take the whole value chain and achieve cuts of just 10%, that adds up to 10 times what we can do ourselves.”
Developing economies hold the key, says Polman: “There’s incredible consumer demand coming onstream from countries like China, India, Indonesia, Brazil – partly because of population growth, partly because of rising standards of living. Now, if it’s mindless consumption like we see in the West, it’s not going to be very pretty. So we have a unique opportunity to reinvent consumption, to bring about what we could call ‘mindful consumption’.”
The last couple of years have seen Unilever begin corporate brand promotion in Australia during advertising for its brands (Proctor & Gamble have followed suit), as it has done internationally. Polman sees the umbrella brand becoming even more prominent in the future, and predicts that by 2020 consumers will look past the individual brands to what values the company stands for.
Polman calls out the cynics and sceptics in the press and elsewhere, but with such a specific list of targets, 2020 will be make or break for the company, and possibly for the face of corporate social responsibility as well.