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Unilever Tries to Double Its Sales While Halving Its Environmental Footprint

At an event in New York today that might have been a simple PR blitz, Unilever invited economists, lawyers, and NGOs to weigh in on how it can achieve its hugely ambitious “Sustainable Living Plan.”

Unilever Sustainable Living Plan

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Is Unilever superhuman? The multinational whose many iconic brands include Lipton tea, Dove soap, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, claims to be on track to decouple growth from environmental impact, to source 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably, and to help improve the lives of over a billion people in the process.

The atmosphere of the event began in a predictable spirit of self-congratulation. A slickly produced video talked of Unilever’s history of sustainable initiatives. Dave Lewis, Unilever’s President Americas, explained how he thought one of the best things the company could do to reach its targets was to influence consumer behavior–the greatest carbon emissions resulting from Unilever products didn’t come from manufacturing, but from the hot 12-minute showers the developed world treats itself to daily. Lewis also highlighted products like the Pureit, a water purifier that Unilever wants to use to bring safe drinking water to half a billion people. A Unilever employee even had brought in a sample of mucky water from the Hudson and run it through the Pureit, which Lewis and a colleague drank before the crowd.

But the event took a more interesting turn when it became a panel addressing the question, “Can consumption become sustainable?” To Unilever’s credit, what could have been a simple marketing event became an engaging discussion, with panelists including the renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs. Asked if he thought Unilever’s plan was achievable, Sachs answered frankly, “I’m impressed but I’m not sure.” He stressed that he appreciated Unilever’s bold targets and didn’t want to cast any negative light on the new initiative. But “I don’t think the world’s poorest of the poor can be reached through the market alone,” he said.

Sachs made several statements expressing the opinion that the greatest way a massive operation like Unilever could truly make a difference would be for it to use its clout to influence governments. You get results, said Sachs, “not just by asking people not to wreck the planet–but by not allowing them to.” If there was a single best thing Unilever could do, it would be to partner with other multinationals and leading NGOs to influence government–and to find a way of interacting with government other than through lobbyists.

“If you were a small company that had a small footprint and a small reach in the world, I’d say that exactly what you’re doing is perfect,” Sachs said to Lewis and the other Unilever employees present. “But for one of the world’s leading companies, it can’t be enough to just talk to consumers. It has to be put in the public policy sphere as well.”

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Later, Sachs told me that his comments were meant less in the spirit of criticism than in “wanting to help the program achieve its goals.” Other panelists, though, were more unreservedly jubilant. Daniel Esty, a Yale environmental law professor, was particularly excited by the example Unilever was setting by taking the broad view on the life cycle of its products, looking both upstream to how it sourced its materials and downstream to how consumers actually used it.

Unilever’s Dave Lewis wrapped up the event by saying that its purpose had been both to communicate his companies new targets but also to contribute to a conversation. To Unilever’s credit, what could have been a simple PR blitz was actually more of a debate, where a roomful of cautious skeptics urged the multinational to not back up its words with actions.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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