Unilever – A Case Study in Sustainability

Case Study posts like this one profile the Sustainability efforts of well known companies. The purpose of these posts is to provide insights as to the broad range of issues that Sustainability comprises, and examples as to how those issues are being addressed.

The Survey

GlobeScan and SustainAbility, both international consultancies, recently released the results of a survey of expert Sustainability stakeholders from business, government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academia. Experts from 87 countries participated. [1]

The key question on the survey asked participants to list up to three companies that they recognized as leaders in integrating sustainability into its business strategy. For the fourth year in a row, Unilever received most mentions — 33% of the respondents mentioned Unilever, far more than any other Company. Comprehensive deployment into all aspects of Unilever’s global business distinguished Unilever’s Sustainability efforts in the view of those who responded to the survey. [2]


Breyers Ice CreamUnilever is a major multinational producer of consumer products. Unilever’s brands are produced and sold worldwide. Unilever offers over 400 brands, of which 14 enjoy annual revenues of a billion Euros or more. Their more familiar brands include Lipton tea, Breyers and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Ponds cold cream, Vaseline, along with Dove and Lifebouy soaps. Total global revenues are about 59 billion Euros. Unilever competes directly with Proctor & Gamble and Nestle. [3]

Unilever’s Approach to Sustainability

Unilever’s Sustainability efforts follow from statements of purpose and of vision: [4] [5]

>> Purpose: “to make sustainable living commonplace”

>> Vision: “to double the size of the business, whilst reducing our environmental footprint and increasing our positive social impact”

Purpose and vision are then expressed as three primary global goals:

>> Improve Health and Well-being: “By 2020 we will help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being”

>> Reduce Environmental Impact: “By 2020 our goal is to halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of our products as we grow the business”

>> Enhancing Livelihoods: “By 2020 we will enhance the livelihoods of millions of people as we grow our business”

Achievement of these primary global (strategic) goals is to be attained through localized (tactical) objectives and implementation plans for each brand (business unit) and for each country in which Unilever operates. The specifics of each of these depend on the particular nature of the products offered and the market served. However, each tactical plan addresses the three primary goals mentioned above through nine action areas:

>> Improving Health and Well-being is addressed through:

> Health and hygiene

> Improving nutrition

>> Reducing Environmental Impact is addressed through:

> Greenhouse gases

> Water use

> Waste and packaging

> Sustainable sourcing

 >> Enhancing Livelihoods is addressed through:

 > Fairness in the workplace

> Opportunities for women

> Inclusive businesses

 For Smaller Manufacturers

Obviously, Unilever isn’t anybody’s idea of a “smaller manufacturer”, although some of their brands (business units) might well be. Still, there is lot in Unilever’s efforts that is useful to consider in Sustainability planning for any size manufacturing business unit.

To be more specific, notice that:

>> Sustainability is about a zoomed out scope of management attention.

>> Sustainability is not about compliance. Efforts toward Sustainability presume adherence to applicable laws and regulations.

>> Sustainability enhances profitability. Sustainability does not preclude business growth.

>> Sustainability involves your entire value chain, from raw materials through disposition of your product when its life cycle is complete.

>> The specifics of an effective Sustainability plan are local and situational. There is no “one-size-fits-all” Sustainability plan.

Capture - Chuck Joan and Cat - Ventura 2014Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

P.S: Contact me when your organization is ready to pursue Sustainability … CH

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published on Wednesday evenings.

[1] Learn more about GlobeScan at www.globescan.com and about SustainAbility at www.sustainability.com

[2] For more on this survey, see: Eric Whan, Survey: Unilever maintains sustainability leadership amid change, published on Green Biz.com, 23 May 2014 http://www.greenbiz.com/print/57413

[3] For general information on Unilever, see Unilever’s website, www.unilever.com or Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unilever

[4] Unilever’s Purpose and Vision embrace the Triple Bottom Line view of Sustainability. For an introduction of the Triple Bottom Line as it applies to smaller manufacturers, see this blog: Double Take on the Triple Bottom Line, http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2012/10/04/double-take-on-the-triple-bottom-line/

[5] Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan is available for free download at: http://www.unilever.com/sustainable-living-2014/our-approach-to-sustainability/unilever-sustainable-living-plan-summary/