External commentary

Our external advisers – the Unilever Sustainable Development Group and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board– share their views on our progress.

Unilever Sustainable Development Group

The Unilever Sustainable Development Group (USDG) comprises external experts who provide advice and guidance on the development of our strategy.

The Group’s expertise covers a broad range of environmental, social and economic issues in developed and developing countries. It meets twice a year with our senior leaders to critique our strategy and share insights on sustainability issues and trends. Their perspectives feed into our leadership teams and our Board’s Corporate Responsibility Committee.

The Group’s four members are:

Jonathon Porritt: Founder Director of Forum for the Future, UK

Malini Mehra: Founder and CEO of the Centre for Social Markets, India

Ma Jun: Founder Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPEA), China

Helio Mattar: President of the Akatu Institute for Conscious Consumption, Brazil

Below three of them express their views on our progress:

Jonathon Porritt Jonathon Porritt

Unilever has been ‘doing sustainability’ in one way or another for a very long time – some would argue from the first moment back in the late 19th century when the founder of the company first committed to producing affordable soap to help tackle the hygiene conditions of Victorian Britain.

But it’s only in the last few years that sustainability has worked its way through to the heart of the business – and in Unilever, that means the brands.

Whilst there have always been a handful of brands that had a great sustainability story to tell (Dove, Lipton, Lifebuoy and so on), all the major brands are now being asked to ‘own’ their share of the targets outlined in the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, and to share that with consumers, creatively and compellingly, in order to ‘make sustainable living commonplace’.

That’s where the real energy needs to come from now, reflected differently in all the different countries where Unilever operates. By any reckoning, this is one of the most ambitious ‘change management’ programmes going on in any big company today. As this Report shows, progress is good, and some individual projects are hugely inspiring.

But there is still a long way to go before the USLP is lived and breathed by every single part of the business. For instance, it’s only in the last couple of years that Finance has seriously addressed the challenge of aligning all those processes focused on ‘the numbers’ of the USLP. ‘Doubling the size of the company’ and ‘halving the footprint’ have to become one and the same ambition – not separate drivers.

‘Mainstreaming sustainability’ sounds like such an easy thing to do. But it really isn’t!

Malini Mehra Malini Mehra 

This year’s Progress Report continues the ‘warts and all’ tradition Unilever adopted with its first report.

In a world of fakery and green-wash, Unilever stands tall for being different. This is not a report that shouts ‘we got it all right’ but dares to say, when it needs to, ‘we’re not on target – yet’ and ‘we find this very difficult’.

This modesty is entirely appropriate for the times. Today’s readers don’t want tough challenges hidden from view. They want to know what they are and how the company intends to address them. For example, how to deliver on the social dimensions of sustainability – something that requires more complex socio-cultural interventions. Or how to reduce growing inequalities and wealth gaps – which will as profoundly affect the context Unilever works in globally as much as resource security.

Unilever has made huge strides in its efforts to support vulnerable groups in its supply chain – from smallholder farmers to rural women entrepreneurs. It now needs to build on that base to more actively address the growing socio-economic divides that will bedevil delivery of the Plan. The good news? Unilever knows this is a problem area and has appointed a Global Vice President for Social Impact to address it.

In a post-MDG world, this is one area where Unilever’s straight-talking leadership will be needed more than ever.

Helio Mattar Helio Mattar

The journey towards a more sustainable future is advancing in a world that is still largely unsustainable. Sustainability is achieved only gradually, step by step. And each step is truly earned, as progress is made against a headwind of ‘unsustainability’. Unilever is navigating its way with clarity of decision-making, persistence and transparency. Some targets have already been attained, and we should celebrate these achievements rather than criticise the company for the targets that it has not yet achieved.

Unilever’s ambitions are bold. This is particularly true of its aims of changing consumer behaviour, where it has recognized the need to educate people so that they understand and value sustainability.

By working in partnership with NGOs, civil society and governments, the company can tap into existing networks to reach more people, focusing on changing specific habits that will help to make sustainable living commonplace. Its Five Levers for Change methodology was developed to encourage children to wash their hands and brush their teeth more regularly. It is now being extended to other activities such as reducing water use in laundry.

As a good corporate citizen, Unilever knows that its role encompasses not only developing, producing and distributing products but also helping the world become a better place for everybody.

Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board

The Board comprises experts from diverse backgrounds such as NGOs, research institutes, companies and academia. Its members advise our procurement function on key aspects of our Plan – the sustainable sourcing of raw materials and engaging smallholders – and the various areas that impact sustainability in our value chain, such as biodiversity, the use of chemicals, labour conditions and poverty alleviation.

The Board’s 11 members are:

Janet Barber: Independent, UK

David Bright: Oxfam GB, UK

Tom Burke: Independent, UK

Colin Chartres: Independent, Sri Lanka

Ken Giller: University of Wageningen, Netherlands

Alan Knight: Independent, UK

Christophe Liebon: Intertek, Hong Kong

Richard Perkins: WWF-UK, UK

Camilla Toulmin: International Institute for Environment and Development, UK

Anne Wallin: Dow Chemical, Switzerland

Tensie Whelan: Rainforest Alliance, US

Below two of them express their views on our progress.

David Bright David Bright

I would note two areas of progress around the USLP. The first is its target to deliver positive social impact by engaging 500,000 smallholders to improve their livelihoods.

To deliver on this target Unilever has both begun to identify its own actions and align actions with multiple suppliers. This requires clarity on which men and women smallholders are targeted and on how risk and benefits can be more fairly shared through supply chains to improve smallholder livelihoods. Given the extended nature of global supply chains, the work to identify smallholders and the ongoing effort to monitor this change at farm level should not be under-estimated.

Secondly, Unilever works hard to bring together other companies, academia and civil society to try to both lead and learn on delivering sustainability as a sector, for example in putting land grabs and biofuels on the agenda of the B20 Task Force on Food Security in 2012.

Richard PerkinsRichard Perkins

WWF strongly advocates that companies make their sourcing more sustainable by buying to independent standards (third-party verified, with multi-stakeholder governance and ISEAL compliant, eg Forest Stewardship Council). WWF does not accept self-verification as equivalent to such independent standards.

There are a huge number of products for which there is no applicable independent standard. In these cases, Unilever’s 100% sustainable sourcing strategy has to consider other ways of making production more sustainable. Self-verification is one approach that WWF supports Unilever using in these cases.

Self-verification should not be used in cases where a relevant independent standard exists. I have suggested in my advice to Unilever that self-verification might be buttressed by statistical sampling of those submitting self-verification to add confidence.

It is great to see Unilever employing self-verification to make progress on sustainability with suppliers where independent standards do not exist.