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Unilever’s New Sustainability Director Wants Competitors to Close the Gap on ESG Performance

“We need to keep that competitive advantage and continue to innovate so that we can really make sustainable living commonplace. It’s constant innovation; and we want others to come along on the journey with us.” — Niki King

Even before the pandemic, North America was gaining ground on Europe for corporate sustainability leadership. Europe is home to almost half of the world’s most sustainable publicly listed companies. But companies representing the US and Canada are quickly closing the performance gap, according to EcoVadis — whose latest Risk & Performance Index earned the North American region a record high score, closing the gap on Europe to just a few points.

An increasing number of executives are waking up to the fact that sustainable practices, products and models yield a tangible competitive advantage. The US Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent decision to vote in proposals to make climate risk reporting mandatory for all public companies will further fuel progress.

Against this backdrop, Niki King’s move to become Unilever’s new Head of Sustainability in North America is all the more exciting. The region is undeniably the consumer goods giant’s most important market, its $10 billion turnover accounting for 16 percent of the Group’s total. Here, more than 8,000 people work in Unilever’s offices, 14 factories and 11 distribution centres. It is a big business with a heavy presence across multiple categories, including skincare, ice cream, tea, deodorant and mayonnaise.

After positions at Novo Nordisk (most recently, as Director of Corporate Sustainability) and Campbell Soup Company (latterly, as Director of Supply Chain Sustainability), King is happy to continue working within companies that “get it.”

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“Unilever is a company that I always looked up to,” she told Sustainable Brands™. “During my time at Campbell, Unilever was top of my list when it came to benchmarking; and I always sought to understand whether sustainability was truly integrated. Eight months into my time at Unilever and it’s been quite amazing so far, because it is truly integrated.”

It was Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan (SLP), launched in 2010, that trajected the firm into the sustainable business spotlight. CSR practitioners saw then-CEO Paul Polman’s company as a beacon of hope — a giant organization with the influence and leverage to seriously turn the dial on a range of social and environmental issues, from the climate emergency and ecosystem collapse to social inequality — a giant organization for other giant organizations to look up to and emulate.

Over ten years, Unilever championed its so-called Sustainable Living Brands including Ben & Jerry’s, Dove and Seventh Generation — just as proud of their commercial performance as their sustainability. The Group’s cost savings of €1 billion since 2008 — achieved by improving water and energy efficiency in its factories, and by using less materials — gave the business more confidence to win over investors and challenge the need for quarterly reporting.

Fast-forward more than 12 years and the SLP has given way to the Unilever Compass, described by CEO Alan Jope as “our new, fully integrated corporate strategy” that “finally put[s] to bed the debate of whether sustainability is good for business.”

It is certainly something front and centre of King’s mind as she works to implement the firm’s global sustainable business strategy in North America, ensuring that it retains its leading position as a global leader in ‘doing the right thing.’ Decarbonization is going to be a big focus for King, and building out roadmaps to make sure Unilever knows exactly how it will reach carbon neutrality.

“What’s exciting to me is trying to figure out how we’re going to do it without using offsets,” she says. Unilever seems to be in an exciting exploratory phase, seeking out the best technologies for the business to employ at its factories and offices. “It’s a challenge. But by the end of this year, here in North America, we will know what it’s going to take for us to fully decarbonize by 2030.”

For many businesses, investors are playing a bigger role in pushing for increased performance in managing risks associated with social and environmental challenges such as the climate crisis. Increased attention on ESG issues by the investment community has been largely welcomed; and Unilever has enjoyed a healthy relationship with enlightened investors. It was surprising then to hear Terry Smith — one of Unilever’s biggest shareholders — accuse the firm’s management of being “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business.” What was King’s take on that?

“Investors have their own opinions; I guess I’ll leave it at that,” she said before quickly moving the conversation on. “The winning businesses of tomorrow are going to be those that anticipate and respond to the huge changes that are shaping people’s lives across the world — the brands that capitalize on the power of data and biotechnology.”

Brands having an authentic purpose — and then living that purpose — will be crucial, King adds.

“Yes, we have brands such as Dove and Seventh Generation that have sustainability at their core. But we really want all of our brands to have a purpose.”

Right now, her team are working with SheaMoisture — a brand Unilever acquired after snapping up parent company Sundial Brands back in 2017. As part of an “intensive bootcamp,” the brand will redefine its purpose to really understand who they are, what they mean to the Unilever family, and how they can impact society at large.

“We do that with all of our brands. It’s a really exciting piece of my work,” King says. “SheaMoisture is such an amazing brand. It’s about trying to rebuild their identity and figure out how they can make a bigger impact in the world. They’re super cool.”

Unilever has been leading on corporate sustainability for the last decade. But now, its competitors are playing catch-up; and the business must maintain momentum to hold a leadership position that is so important to its customers and shareholders alike. King acknowledges it’s possible to slip off track. It’s important to understand that decarbonization, circularity and purpose are hard to achieve: “They require human resources, they require financial resources, they require constant innovation.”

King plans to stick around until Unilever’s Compass goals come to an end in ten years’ time — “I want to be able to say that North America led in the efforts to achieving our sustainability goals” — but she also wants her competitors and peers to catch up, too.

“We want them to be sustainable companies, as well. But we also need to keep that competitive advantage and continue to innovate so that we can really make sustainable living commonplace. That’s our vision. That’s what we stand for as a company. It’s constant innovation; and we want others to come along on the journey with us.”