Why Unilever Bakes Sustainability Into Its Growth Plan

Two billion people use items from the consumer products giant every day, so its initiatives–using renewable energy, encouraging people to take shorter showers–can make a huge difference (and help the bottom line).

Why Unilever Bakes Sustainability Into Its Growth Plan

Unilever is the world’s third-largest consumer goods company, selling everything from Lipton tea to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It’s also a company that is acutely aware of the climate, environmental, and social problems ahead of us. That’s why, according to Kees Kruythoff, Unilever’s North America president, the company’s “Sustainable Living Plan is our growth model.”


The plan, launched in 2010, aims to double sales and halve the environmental impact of Unilever’s product–ensuring that sustainability is inescapably entangled with growth. This week, Unilever revealed progress made on some of its goals, including its sustainable palm oil target (100% of its palm oil will have Green Palm Certificates by the end of the year), nutrition (over 90% of Unilever’s top-selling spreads contain less than one-third saturated fat), and renewable energy (it contributes 20% of the company’s overall energy use). Unilever’s newest goal: being able to track all of its palm oil back to the individual plantation by 2020. Unscrupulous palm oil producers have been accused of destroying millions of acres of rain forest.

“We believe that because we touch 2 billion consumers every day that we as an industry can make a difference,” says Kruythoff.

Kruythoff doesn’t pretend that progress has been equal on all fronts. Some of the goals involving consumer-behavior change–i.e cutting down on the amount of heated water used in showering and washing clothes–have been difficult to reach.

Says Kruythoff: “The average American takes a shower for 12 minutes. To change that behavior is significant. When we link [the idea of using less water] to the heart of the brand proposition, we find we get some more traction.” In the case of Suave’s “Turn off the tap” campaign, that means swaying already price-conscious consumers (they buy cheap shampoo) by talking about how much money they could save by taking shorter showers.

According to Kruythoff, it’s really just good business to put sustainability front and center: “If you look at our rinse off conditioners and dry shampoo, the good thing about dry shampoo is that it goes quick, it’s more convenient. That’s where the consumer benefits. It’s also better for the planet because it reduces water use. And we’ve quadrupled this market.”

Unilever is also actively preparing for the future challenges of climate change, including wacky weather in places where raw materials are sourced. “We believe that we will have a competitive advantage,” says Kruythoff. Fortunately for all of us, other large consumer goods companies are also quickly catching on to the importance of preparing for a warming climate.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.