Behaviour change: why Unilever means business

Inspiring consumers to adopt sustainable products and behaviours is critical if the world's third-largest consumer goods company is to realise its Sustainable Living Plan vision. Maxine Perella reports

“Business as usual isn’t really an option going forward,” asserts Unilever’s Helen Fenwick as she reflects on the deeper significance of her company’s Sustainable Living Plan. “When we launched it, we basically introduced a new business model.”

The plan, unveiled to much fanfare back in November 2010, is nothing if not ambitious. It aspires to double the size of the business in revenue terms while halving its environmental footprint – all within a ten-year timeframe. Fenwick says Unilever is confident of achieving these two goals because it believes that they are interlinked – that growth ambition is dependent on operating sustainably.

“We’re very clear with our plan, it’s hugely ambitious, and we can’t do it all by ourselves. We need to work with others,” she maintains. Fenwick, who is responsible for forging those type of partnerships across Unilever’s UK and Ireland operations, says it will require open dialogue and also a wider understanding of how the company’s environmental footprint impacts across the whole value chain.

When you think that Unilever makes and sells products under more than 400 brand names worldwide, that’s a huge undertaking. Estimates suggest that on any given day, two billion people are using Unilever products so the top end of the value chain – consumer-use – is where the company is really looking to focus its efforts going forward.

“We’ve done some detailed lifecycle assessment which shows what our impact is per consumer use – so for instance, when someone does a laundry wash using Persil or has a slice of toast using Flora margarine. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, these actions account for 68% of our impact. The biggest challenge we have is around tackling consumer behaviour,” Fenwick states.

While lifestyle issues are not within a company’s direct control, Unilever can exert a strong sphere of influence in this field, both through consumer-facing activity and product functionality. In recent years, its R&D department has driven development of innovation-led solutions that can cut water, energy and material use, such as concentrated laundry liquids and dry shampoos.

Showering in particular is a target area – challenging in so much as it’s a private occasion. Around half of Unilever’s total water footprint is associated with consumer use so mapping people’s showering habits in terms of water temperature, flow rate and time spent getting wet is critical. In 2011, Unilever developed special sensors that could be used in the shower to measure these variables and the project yielded some insightful analysis.

“We found that it costs the average family around £400 a year just on showering and that using a power shower could double that cost. Power showers can also use twice as much water as a bath,” Fenwick points out.

Unilever is now going one step further to help consumers understand better both the cost and environmental implications of their habits while in the home. Last November it launched a six-month Sustain Ability Challenge in association with 12 UK households, aiming to bust the myth that environmentally-friendly living costs more.

The first phase, which focused on food waste and recycling in the kitchen, is now complete and the challenge is now entering its second phase – water and energy savings in the bathroom. The results of the challenge, along with quantitative and qualitative research analysis, are due to be published later this year. The initiative is very much aligned with Unilever’s ‘five levers for change’ approach – practical insights that can deliver meaningful and enduring behavioural change.

“With our Sustain Ability Challenge, we are studying consumer behaviour but also looking to see what interventions we can give them. Understanding social norms are really important here, as well as aspirations and cost savings,” Fenwick explains.

“Talking to people about saving water in the UK is quite a difficult thing to do because we are not seen as a water-scarce nation. So for us, it’s much more about promoting the energy that’s used to heat the water. You need to talk in terms of what it can do to help the consumer save money on bills,” she adds.

Interestingly, teabags are also proving a tough nut to crack. Through its PG Tips brand, some 20 million Unilever teabags are brewed and discarded each day – and recycling them is now considered priority.

“Our teabags are the biggest contributor to Unilever’s waste footprint in the UK,” reveals Fenwick. “We want to see these recycled, either through food waste collections or home composting and so we have been working to try and increase participation rates among households.”

Unilever has already engaged with two local authorities to introduce kerbside food waste collections and capture more of this material stream through awareness raising by utliising the PG Tips and ‘Monkey’ branding – the next stage according to Fenwick is to figure out how to scale up such pilots.

“We put a big emphasis on food waste last year and hosted a roundtable with stakeholders from across the value chain to find out more about the part we could play in helping to address this as a manufacturer,” Fenwick says. “We’ve got brands like Colman’s, Hellman’s and Knorr – these products can help people use up their food leftovers in a more interesting way if you give them the ideas and inspiration.”

Turning to where the manufacturer can exert more control – within its own operations and supply chain – Fenwick says some big strides have been made in manufacturing eco-efficiency and sustainable sourcing. In its first yearly progress statement since the plan’s launch, Unilever reported that 24% of its total agricultural raw materials are now sourced sustainably, compared with 14% in 2010.

The real success story here is sustainable palm oil – the company met its commitment to source 100% of this from certified sustainable sources early, so it has now tightened the target to ensure these sources are traceable by 2020. It is in advanced discussions with the Indonesian government to invest more than €100m in a processing plant for palm oil derivatives in Sumatra to help achieve this.

In addition, renewable energy now accounts for 20% of Unilever’s total energy use. All of Unilever’s electricity purchased in Europe is now from renewable sources, and it has increased its use of biomass to fuel boilers in its manufacturing operations in India and China.

However, behavioural change remains the holy grail. Here Unilever is looking to work increasingly in partnership with retailers, councils, think tanks and policy-influencers to try and find solutions.

Looking ahead, Fenwick is optimistic: “The generation coming through now is much more environmentally-minded, so we’ll have a new set of consumers to deal with and it will be interesting to see where their priorities lie.”

Maxine Perella is waste editor of edie

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