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.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Fukushmia & Tepco's kamikaze ethics

A group of Japanese pensioners shot to fame last month when they volunteered to lead on the clean-up of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Their rationale was straight forward: should they develop cancer, it will take ten to twenty years until the condition becomes fatal. And by that stage, they’ll be dead anyway. The press labelled them the ‘Kamikaze Pensioners’. To belittle their stance is cynical and unfair. Amid the tragedy of the tsunami that hit the Japanese coast earlier this year, examples such as these demonstrate the remarkable Japanese trait of solidarity and self-sacrifice.

It’s just a shame that Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) has not shown a similar calibre of ethical commitment. Jon Entine’s recent feature article in Ethical Corporation details a raft of incidents dating back over decades that raise serious questions about the company responsible for operating the Fukushima plant. Faked safety reports, internal cover-ups and blackballing of whistle-blowers seem par for the course at the world's largest privately-owned electricity utility.  
Entine highlights two critical failures in the Tepco case that are relevant to any sector. The first centres on the relationship between companies and their regulators. In Japan’s power sector, cosiness reins. That breeds complacency and, worse, collusion. Politicians and civil society need to be awake to such scenarios and hold regulators to account. 

The second lesson is more immediate to corporate management. How should senior company executives respond in the wake of an ethics crisis? Japanese leaders, more than most, are quick to accept responsibility for misdemeanours that happen on their watch. How different the reluctant response of BP’s TonyHayward after the Deepwater  Horizon spill to the mea culpa performed by Tokyo’s  president Akio Toyoda after the Japanese automaker’s recall crisis? Yet a company must be seen to take action as well, not just offer mere words. Following a major safety cover-up scandal at Tepco in the early 2000s, its chairman and president were made to resign - only to be then given advisory posts at the company. Other executives were demoted, but later took jobs at companies that do business with the utility.

Nobody could have predicted the tsunami. What happened at Fukushima was, and still remains, a tragedy. One’s left thinking, however, that if Tepco had taken stronger action in the wake of earlier ethical breaches, then it’s a tragedy that could have been mitigated.