Unilever has announced that 100% of its agricultural raw materials will be ‘sustainably sourced’ by 2020.

16/11/2010 Guardian  Unilever’s environmental audit and sustainable agriculture plans are a gamechanger for the way that global companies behave says Jonathon Porritt.Better late than never, John Elkington.  For the last two years, Unilever has been carrying out a comprehensive ‘audit’ of the impact on the environment from the use of its products, in terms of water, waste and emissions of greenhouse gases. It already had all the data relating to the manufacture, processing and transport of its products, and has been making good progress in
reducing all those direct impacts over the last 10 years or more. But those
direct impacts turned out to be relatively insignificant when compared with what
happens when customers actually use these products.
Having amassed the data, category by category, brand by brand, the Executive
Team then set targets for reducing those impacts, unleashing an unprecedented
search for innovative solutions across the entire company. Some of those
innovations will require reformulating the product itself, or completely
redesigning the packaging. Some will require a very different engagement with
the customer, with a view to ‘co-creating’ the environmental benefit by using
the product in a different way.
To be honest, I’ve never seen a process quite like this. The data-gathering has
been rigorous (as is always the case in Unilever), and the targets are seriously
ambitious. If it’s all delivered, then the net impact on the environment in 2020
will be no greater than it is today even though the company is simultaneously
setting out to double its revenues during the same time period. Doubling
revenues and halving impacts is going to be one hell of a challenge.
On top of that, Unilever have also announced that 100% of its agricultural raw
materials will be ‘sustainably sourced’ by 2020. Since 1997, Unilever’s food
brands have been developing a Sustainable Agriculture Code for all its
suppliers, covering every aspect of production. It’s an extraordinary document,
and makes most governments’ guidance on ‘good agricultural practice’ look
extremely crude. Its work with the Rainforest Alliance on certifying its main
tea brands, and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil have been widely
acknowledged as groundbreaking. But to put in place systems of certification and
self-assurance covering every single ingredient in every single product is a
vast undertaking.
It’s important to point out that it may be a little premature to get too excited
about all this! It is, after all, just a Plan. Success can only be judged in
terms of what is delivered, not in terms of what is being promised. There’s a
long way to go before 2020 – and even if every target is achieved, in every
country all around the world, environmentalists will still point out that the
use of Unilever’s products is still having a huge impact on the natural world.
The lion’s share of that growth will be in developing and emerging countries
where there are still billions of people for whom the benefits of good food,
balanced diets, hygiene and sanitation are still not available. Some of
Unilever’s growth will be achieved in meeting those basic needs, and some in
terms of more aspirational consumer products that will be more problematic
environmentally. But who is to say that the average citizen in India has less of
a right to enjoy a Magnum ice cream than the average UK citizen?
Finally, for me personally, one of the greatest strengths of the Unilever
Sustainable Living Plan, is the holistic vision that lies behind it – combining
all the environmental metrics with nutrition and hygiene targets, community
investment and educational projects, employee engagement and so on.
In this a game-changer for Unilever? Absolutely. Is it the best Plan out there
for big global companies? I believe it is.
• Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future
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