Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Unilever’s Sustainability Plan: “almost insanely ambitious”

First there were the sustainability plans of retail giants Tesco and Marks & Spencer.

In the mid-2000s, Tesco began by setting goals for increasing locally-sourced products, making their stores and transportation of goods more efficient, and investing large sums into sustainability research.

Meanwhile in 2007, M&S introduced its lengthy and much more comprehensive Plan A, aiming to make both broad and specific improvements in areas including climate change, waste, and natural resources. The firm now has 180 targets to hit, with a solid record of achievement to date on many of them.

But in 2010, Unilever became the bigger kid on the block (in terms of turnover anyhow) of sustainable business when the corporation launched its ten-year Sustainable Living Plan.  The firm is four times as large as M&S.

Now, just over six months in, implementation of the plan has achieved initial success, yet will soon face achieving long-term goals that may prove to be impossible to realise without substantial help from partnering companies.

An analytical report on the plan, published in the July-August edition of Ethical Corporation magazine, examines Unilever’s notable progress while pointing out the challenges on the horizon and how partnership can help.

Unilever’s plan sets out specific quantifiable targets for the company to achieve over the next ten years.  The plan is composed of four pillars: improve health and well-being, reduce environmental impacts, enhance livelihoods, and support people.  

Its main goals include making Unilever’s entire agricultural sourcing 100 percent sustainable, halving the waste associated with the disposal of their products, and making drinking water available to 500 million people.

With such extreme tasks, the company’s aspirations are “almost insanely ambitious,” admits Unilever advisor John Elkington in the briefing published by Ethical Corporation.

Through the plan thus far, Unilever has provided 20 million people with safe drinking water, runs all of its Netherland factories on renewable energy and use only sustainability certified cocoa in its ice cream products, states the report.  The company also offers more sustainable product offerings and provides all of the company’s branches with tools to evaluate sustainability progress.

But in spite of these early achievements, the report reveals that Unilever is now facing challenges in terms of meeting its biodiversity improvement goal and evaluating the water use of its factories, products and consumers.  Additionally, consumer-based targets remain Unilever’s most difficult commitment because of marketing’s limited effect and one-on-one training’s expense.

As such, the report shows the report shows that the key to the success of Unilever’s plan lies not only in speeding up their progress, but more importantly teaming up with outside companies to accomplish their goals.

 “The ground breaking scale of Unilever’s commitments means it has big challenges ahead – challenges that will have to work with others outside the company to achieve,” says Mike Tuffrey, director at consultancy firm Corporate Citizenship and a long-term advisor to Unilever in the report.

So far, Unilever has reached out to conservationist charity WWF to work on its biodiversity targets and non-profit group Water Footprint Network for its water goal.

If Unilever manages to successfully collaborate with outside companies, the corporation’s bold plan stands a chance of accomplishing not just its individual targets but also its overarching objective of inspiring companies to tackle more ambitious sustainability goals, according to the report.

To read Ethical Corporation’s complete Unilever briefing, go to this link.