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Unilever Details How It Is 'Making Progress, Driving Change' in Living Plan Update

It’s said that the likely success of any company initiative can be gauged by the support and involvement of the senior management. If this is true, then the support demonstrated by the presence of so many of Unilever’s top team at the latest ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ update gives a clear demonstration of the organisation’s commitment to achieve and exceed the goals set.

Speaking at an event on Monday, which was supported by a global webcast, CEO Paul Polman started the presentation with an overview on progress since Unilever’s 10-year Sustainable Living Plan was launched in November 2010. Following a theme of “Making Progress, Driving Change,” Polman said:

“In the three years since we launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, we have learned that sustainability drives business growth and a much deeper connection with our employees and consumers. In 2013, we’ve seen good progress, particularly on targets within our direct control. Our Plan is helping us to save money, reduce risk and drive innovation, and brands that have done the most to embrace sustainable living, like Dove, Lifebuoy, Pureit and Domestos, are enjoying some of our fastest growth.”

Polman’s opening remarks were followed by brief, dynamic presentations from other senior Unilever figures; the common theme running through each was the intention to further expand Unilever’s Sustainable Living ambitions, to bring about broader change on a global scale. All of the presentations were supported by impressive sets of figures that underlined Unilever’s commitment to progress.

Chief Sustainability Officer Gail Klintworth reported progress in sourcing compared to the 2010 figures, including a substantial increase in sustainably sourced agricultural raw materials, now standing at 48 percent (up from 14 percent). Through the Lifebuoy, Signal, Pureit and Dove brands, some 303 million people have seen improvements to health and wellbeing (up from 52 million), and over 570,000 smallholder farmers have been helped through training.

However, Klintworth also noted that more work needs to be done in the area of greenhouse (GHG) emissions in the full value chain, where an increase of 5 percent has been reported due to the heating of water by customers for showers and bathing. The growth in hand-washing laundry in developing countries has also highlighted the need to further address issues in the consumer-use phase.

Chief Supply Chain Officer Pier Luigi Sigismondi outlined the progresses made in combating global deforestation and sustainable sourcing of palm oil. Although concerns have traditionally concentrated on deforestation’s contribution of 15 percent of GHGs globally, Sigismondi suggested that it’s now becoming a concern for public health as well as public concern, and reiterated the company’s goal of sourcing 100 percent of palm oil from certified traceable sources by the 2020 target date.

President of Refreshment Kevin Havelock reiterated Unilever’s support for sustainable agriculture amongst smallholder farmers, and cited the tea and vanilla markets as outstanding examples of the company’s progress to date. Lipton, the world’s best-selling brand, has enjoyed the support of Rainforest Alliance certification since 2007, and currently obtains 80 percent of its supply from sustainable sources with a goal of increasing this to 100 percent by 2015. Some 60 percent (416,000) of farmers have been trained in Kenya, with the intention to train the remaining 40 percent by 2016. Similarly, some 60,000 smallholders in the Madagascan vanilla industry have already been trained in increasing yield within sustainability best-practice guidelines.

President of Home Care Nitin Paranjpe discussed tackling poor hygiene and water scarcity. He explained that two million children under the age of 5 die each year as a result of these issues, and through innovations in the Lifebuoy brand for example (Lifebuoy colour-changing handwash helps encourage children to wash their hands with soap for long enough by changing colour after 10 seconds), Unilever is demonstrating its commitment to resolving these issues. And distribution of the company’s Pureit water system has so far provided 55 million people with safe drinking water, he said.

Antoine de Saint-Affrique, president of Foods, outlined initiatives including reformulating ice cream for children to be less than 110 calories per portion; the decision 15 years ago to take the Knorr brand back to its roots of taste, nutrition & affordability, with the aim of 100 percent sustainably sourced ingredients by 2015; and encouraging the lowering of consumer cholesterol via the Flora and Becel brands’ “3 week challenge.”

Chief Marketing & Communications Officer Keith Weed rounded off the morning’s presentations by summarising the “Project Sunlight” film initiative. The enormously popular first clip (70m+ video views, 3bn+ media impressions) was aimed at soon-to-be parents expecting their first child. Now Unilever is inviting people to take on challenges around household habits, with the aim of making sustainable living truly mainstream. This new challenge focuses on ‘reusing, recycling and upcycling’ to reduce energy use and create less waste.

Weed said that with over two billion people using its products every day, Unilever is perfectly positioned to help consumers through its “massive reach, brilliant brands and marketing skill.” However, Weed reiterated that this can only be done through partnerships, and echoed Polman’s opening remarks by citing an old African proverb:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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