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Unilever Hopes to No Longer Be 'Unique in its Audacious Ambition' to Drive Purpose

News Deeply, in partnership with Sustainable Brands, has produced a series of profiles looking at how brands are tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges. The goal is to examine trends and gather insights from a new wave of corporate citizenship – in an era when the private sector is increasingly expected to play a positive role in improving our lives and societies. This is the 6th article in the series.

News Deeply*, in partnership with* Sustainable Brands*, has produced a series of profiles looking at how brands are tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges. The goal is to examine trends and gather insights from a new wave of corporate citizenship – in an era when the private sector is increasingly expected to play a positive role in improving our lives and societies. This is the 6th article in* the series.

Jonathan Atwood is VP of Sustainable Business & Communications at Unilever North America. He has been there four years, after consulting to the eight largest global chocolate companies on a project to eradicate child labor in the cocoa supply chains of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.

Kathleen Dunlop is the global brand director for Vaseline at Unilever, and has been at the company for 17 years. She is leading the launch and rollout of Vaseline’s social mission, the Vaseline Healing Project.

We caught a few minutes with them at SB’16 San Diego in June to hear their thoughts on the role of purpose in business.

In your mind, what is the role of companies now?

Jonathan Atwood: We have to be a part of solving societal issues. We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. It’s changing very rapidly. It’s politically changing. It’s economically changing. In order to be relevant as an organization, in order to make it relevant for 400 brands and 179,000 employees operating in 190 countries, we’ve got to have brands that are addressing real societal needs.

If they’re not addressing those needs, then the question has to be, “What are they doing, and how long are they going to be around?” Through brands with a purpose, we’re actually solidifying the brand and its role in society on issues that matter – but we’re also creating this consumer dialogue and conversation on an issue that they can relate to, they can see, they can feel, so they can say, “I’m proud to be a consumer of that product.”

Right now I have a feeling from a lot of organizations that there’s nerves around, “Am I going to get it right? Do I wait for the framework to arrive? The famous framework about how to do it right.” But there’s no framework that’s going to fall out of the sky that’s going to say, “Here’s how you do sustainable development goals.”

First, understand - do you have a purpose as an organization? Business overall is lacking in trust. Let’s all collectively give business its soul back.

What do you find encouraging, and what do you find troubling about the world of business in solving these problems?

Atwood: I’m extremely encouraged that the conversation has dramatically changed, at least for me, in the past four years. I think a lot of companies now see the business case. There is no business case for enduring poverty, for gender inequality or for hunger.

What encourages me is the conversation here has changed from, “Look at the cool thing I’m doing! Did you see that cool technology?” to “Hey, I’d love to join you in that thing. What do you think about this?” The spirit of collaboration is what’s encouraging to me.

How far are we from where we need to be? What troubles you about that?

Atwood: I’m worried that we’re not going fast enough, that we need to continue to encourage each other to go faster. We need to encourage each other to remember that a lot is at stake right now. Whether it’s the climate change cliff that everybody talks about, or whether it’s another kid going to bed hungry tonight in the United States.

Kathleen Dunlop: I recently had a conversation about sustainability in which someone said, “We need time to figure this out.” I got really frustrated because I said, “We don’t have time.” I think the really liberating thing that our CEO, Paul Polman, did for us at Unilever was to set a target, and say it’s non-negotiable. We’re going to reach this in 10 years. It’s non-negotiable. It unleashed all the smart minds in Unilever to focus on that target, not to argue, “We can only get this far by X date.” There was none of that. It was, “Where are we now and how do we get there?”

Atwood: Unilever will be at 100 percent renewable energy in the United States by 2020. We’re not entirely clear how that’s going to happen. When you think that ambitiously, it absolutely requires you to talk to other people. It’s not simply go back to your desk and figure it out.

I think we, as a community, need to encourage each other to say, “Time is running out.” Although I could go into this ominous place in my mind that says, “We're not going fast enough, and therefore I need to threaten people with really bad images to …,” I think that’s actually not the right way to go. I think the right way to go is to be optimistic about, “If we get together, this is the future that we could create for people. Whether it be my son, who’s 11 years old, or someone else’s daughter that’s living in Syria.” I think we can do this, but it means that everybody’s got do things they’ve never done before.

What’s the best evidence that the needle can move when business gets behind the boulder and pushes uphill?

Atwood: Brands with a purpose grow faster; 50 percent of the entire company’s growth is coming from the brands that are actually addressing societal needs. And there are stronger bottom lines on those same brands. Others should look at this carefully and say, “There’s something to that story.” We’re not talking about CSR, we’re not talking about philanthropy, we’re not talking about having huge foundations. We’re talking about making it the core of the business, that when you do responsible business and address societal needs, that works. That’s the way forward, and it’s also a way for Unilever to differentiate itself from others.

But it needs to be relevant to the brands. If it’s self-esteem, and it’s girls’ confidence, and it’s Dove, that makes sense. If it’s Lifebuoy soap – having another child reach the age of five, simply through the act of handwashing, then I am totally proud. I’m happy to tell anybody who says, “If another kid lives, and I sell more soap, we win, he wins, she wins.” I want that story every single day of the week. There’s no shame in that story.

Dunlop: A brand that I used to work on, Dirt Is Good – a laundry brand in other parts of the world – when that brand launched in Vietnam, it launched with a PR campaign about kids have to get dirty, they need free time, they need recess at school in order to play and experience life.

In the school system in Vietnam at the time, they didn’t have recess. And the ministry of education took notice of what at the time was a marketing campaign. They got in touch with our child development experts who had helped us write a white paper, and they changed their curriculum and they added recess to schools.

It was a completely unintended side effect of our purpose-led campaign. There are lots of these stories, and what we’re finding now is that you could do it across more brands, and more systematically throughout the company. We have 400 brands at Unilever. If all of them are doing that, we can make some incredible change.

Atwood: It’s about using the leverage, and the scale of our company. Two billion consumers use our products every single day, and there’s a responsibility that comes with that. If we get the power and the leverage right, the idea would be that we go after systemic change as opposed to small one-offs. The danger is that it becomes a series of small one-offs that don’t add up to much. We will focus our attention on the big issues that are relevant to our business, that ultimately help solve an issue, and help grow our business.

We’ve been talking about unintended consequences. For example, the story in Vietnam – it ends up being recess. The other unintended piece of the story is the employee piece for Unilever – the attraction of new employees. How is it that Unilever is #3 on LinkedIn, globally? How is it possible that a company like ours is getting 2 million resumes a year? Everyone wants to work on the brand that is addressing a societal need because it makes it more relevant to come to work.

Your sustainability plan has been described as “unique in its audacious ambition.” How do you feel about that description?

Atwood: We have said publicly - we want to grow our business while decoupling the environmental impact, while at the same time increasing the positive sales impact. We have been very clear about our vision. A lot of folks don’t want to talk about the first thing, which is, “We’re going to grow the business.” But our model falls apart if we don’t grow.

The second thing we did was, we got very clear about our mission globally, to make sustainable living commonplace - in other words, to make it available to everybody. We bring them in to the conversation as a consumer, as a mother, as a father, as a governor. We’re going to help 1 billion people. We put that on paper and I think a lot of people choked. But we’re close to 500 million already.

I can’t speak for anybody else in the company, and you should ask anybody you want to ask, but to me, that’s why I work at Unilever. That’s the single reason - the audacity of the agenda. I call it the grand experiment. Will it work? I'm really confident it will, but I’m not 100 percent confident. Why? Because it’s so dramatically different from what others are saying. We’re saying to Wall Street, “we’re not going to behave the same way. We’re not going to do quarterly earnings results. We’re not going to provide guides going forward.” Why? Because we’re looking at the long term. We’re looking at making long-term business decisions based on systemic change.

How did you create that culture? Some of your brands seem to have been born with a sustainability ethos, while others have come into it. Did you have to import that ethos from one to the other?

Atwood: To me, what makes Unilever somewhat unique is that we talk about personal purpose. We cherish personal purpose, we encourage personal purpose, and most importantly we encourage you to have one. It’s less about what it is - it’s most important to have one. Bring that energy to work. It becomes infectious! It becomes this idea that we’re all working in different ways, through different lenses, on the big issues.

What worries me most is if I run across people who are not clear about their purpose. Can I tell you today that 179,000 people are lit up with a personal purpose? That would be unfair, but I can absolutely tell you that there are thousands at Unilever.

Dunlop: I joined Unilever 17 years ago, out of business school, and before I went to business school I was in the NGO world. I worked for a microlending fund in Poland. I went to Kellogg to major in nonprofit management. I thought: This is going to be my only chance to join the business world so I should do it for two to five years. That was my horizon, and I’m still here 17 years later because Unilever has a purpose that I agree with, and I can find my own personal purpose through all these pockets within the company. I think the culture has always been there. I think we’re activating that culture now, and we’re now improving for that culture.

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is the number one biggest recruiting asset that we have. It’s why I’m still here 17 years later. I’ve worked on personal care, I worked on Dove for a while, a very rewarding brand. I worked on another laundry brand that addresses the needs of low-income consumers in other parts of the world. Again, another rewarding brand to work on because we were helping these women who didn’t have a lot of resources and it’s a very basic need to take care of your family through doing the laundry. Everywhere I can find an alignment with my own personal purpose. The latest is the Vaseline Healing Project.

Atwood: We are blessed with leadership. Paul Polman is not the only one in the senior ranks who is living, breathing and activating our personal purpose. I would also say what encourages me, but also at some level scares me, is the new employee who comes in and is pushing. There is this feeling of pushing from the newer employee who has just joined Unilever, and is excited for the world, and is excited for change, and doesn’t understand slow, doesn’t understand impossible - is just saying: “I came here because of this. I’m in finance, I’m in HR. I’m lit up. I have a purpose. I want to play. What do you want me to do?”

We want to make sure that we harness that energy, that we channel it into things that matter, and we make it relevant in wherever they’re coming from in the company. How do you keep up with the demand for action?

Dunlop: That doesn’t scare you. You welcome it.

Atwood: When I first arrived, a bunch of employees came to me and said, “We want to have a community garden at the headquarters. We’ve been asking for it.” I said, “Start digging today.” We have a community garden now. Hundreds of employees are out there with plots, and doing their thing. That’s important - it’s meeting the needs of our employees, and meeting the needs of society. It’s all coming together.

Dunlop: We have a person in our management training program. She’s in her second rotation at Unilever, and she’s really excited about the Vaseline Healing Project. What she’s doing is connecting it with her campus group to get college students across North America to figure out ways to extend the reach of the Vaseline Healing Project. It’s incredible. Through all these bright people who have new ideas, and a desire to get their hands dirty and help, we can extend the reach. We could double our target.

Atwood: I don’t think this is about creating lots of new things. I think this is about integration. This is about pulling together now. I think there’s a lot of things that we need that are around already. Can we connect? Can we integrate? Can we leverage? Can we make something bigger? A smaller idea, make it bigger. I don’t think we need to wait - I want to get to it with people that are wholeheartedly in, ready to go in to the places that may be a bit mysterious, or maybe the journey doesn’t look clear, I don’t know what the destination is, we just need to get with it and go.

What do you love most about doing this?

Atwood: I feel like I’m making a difference. For too long it was all about me, to be straight about it. I always say that I wasn’t much, but I was all I thought about. A lot of us have crucible moments in our lives when something changes. I had a moment in my life when something changed, and it became less about me, and became about “we.”

I’m around really inspired, cool people every single day. I feel pushed. It’s not hard for me to justify what I’m doing. How will I feel if I failed? That I didn’t do my part to pull people together, that I didn’t put myself out there and say, “We can do better, people.” I have no interest in playing the small game where it’s safe. I thrive in feeling unsafe. I thrive when it feels so big, and so impossible, and so audacious, that’s when I feel like I have energy to get out of bed and really go to work, and seek out people that think the same way, and say, “Are you ready to go?”

What are the deepest lessons you’ve learned about what it takes to be effective as an individual working in this space?

Atwood: I think I’ve learned that maybe I was being shy for too long. I had a bit of a herd mentality. I think that our world now requires lots and lots of people to stand up and say what their truth is. Say it clearly, say it loudly and say, if you can respect or hear what I’ve said, join me. I think there’s a lot of smart, caring, creative people whose voices are not being heard. I think we have to be a little bit more indignant, and a little more angry about where we’re all headed, and bring that energy to positive change for the world.

Dunlop: I think we have to tell the stories, and make it really personal. I think your mind follows your heart, so if we can capture people’s hearts and get them to care, then we’ll figure out a way. That’s the first step.