Unilever's Alan Jope on repairing capitalism, Covid-19 and Sustainable Living Plans

Providing an update to Unilever's flagship Sustainable Living Plan as it enters its 10th and final year, chief executive Alan Jope reflects on the need to double down to protect the planet and society during the pandemic by "driving a new model of capitalism".

Unilever’s chief executive Alan Jope reflected that amidst a global pandemic it was the duty of business to repair a broken capitalism mode

Unilever’s chief executive Alan Jope reflected that amidst a global pandemic it was the duty of business to repair a broken capitalism mode

The consumer goods giant’s Sustainable Living division, which aims to integrate sustainability into the group's products and values has proved that sustainability can drive business profitability. The brands in the division grew 69% faster in 2018 than the rest of the business. Seven of the consumer goods giant’s largest brands – Dove, Knorr, Persil, Sure, Lipton, Hellman’s and Wall’s Ice Cream – notably fall within the Sustainable Living brands division.

Speaking at a virtual stakeholder event to reflect on the Sustainable Living Plan – which has entered its final year before new targets are set – Unilever’s chief executive Alan Jope reflected on the “gamechanging” plan, but that amidst a global pandemic it was the duty of business to repair a broken capitalism model by placing the planet and society at the heart of decision-making processes.

“The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan was a game-changer for our business. Some goals we have met, some we have missed, but we are a better business for trying. It has required immense ingenuity, dedication and collaboration to get to where we are now. We have made very good progress, but there is still more to do,” Jope said.

“The pressures on the planet are getting worse, and social inequality has reached a critical point, being made even more severe by the devastating pandemic we’re living through. These issues are just as urgent as they were before Covid-19 struck, and - like Covid-19 - they will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. More than 700 million people live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day, and The World Bank estimates that an extra 40 million to 60 million people will fall into extreme poverty in 2020, as a result of Covid-19. The climate crisis risks adding hundreds of millions more.

“Businesses across sectors, governments across continents, NGOs, academics, researchers, scientists… we must all come together. We can’t put climate action on hold. We can’t tell the people who live in poverty to wait. 2020 is the year in which an unthinkable amount of public money is going to be spent in support of getting the economy back on track. But we should not be seeking to get the economy ‘back to normal’. Instead, we must emerge stronger and more resilient than we were before; ready to take decisive and definitive action to look after people and the planet.

“As the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan journey concludes, we will take everything we’ve learned and build on it. We will do more of what has worked well, we will correct what hasn’t, and we will set ourselves new challenges. And while we don’t really know what the world will look like post-Covid-19, I am convinced that there will be no future unless we double down on our commitments to look after people and the planet.

“Before the Covid-19 crisis, it was already clear that the current capitalist model is in need of repair. Globalisation and capitalism are good for a business like ours, but globalisation and capitalism at the expense of people and the planet are not. It’s therefore up to businesses like us, working with partners– NGOs, government organisations, academics, suppliers, customers – to drive a new model of capitalism, and build a better future.”

“The USLP is drawing to a close after 10 years but the journey towards achieving our purpose of making sustainable living commonplace certainly isn’t. In fact, as the world is changing increasingly quickly, our employees, our consumers, our customers, our suppliers, our partners expect more from us. We know that we can continue to lead the charge, but we need to be better, bolder, and faster.”

Sustainable Living Plan

Unilever has reported progress targets in its Sustainable Living Report. Milestones listed in the report include reaching 1.3 billion people through health and hygiene programmes and enabling more than 2.3 million women to improve their safety and develop skills. Unilever is notably moving towards a gender-balanced workforce whereby 51% of management roles are held by women.

On the environmental front, Unilever had reduced its waste footprint per consumer use of products by 32% and has achieved zero-waste to landfill across all factories.

Last year, Unilever has revealed that all its buildings across Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America are now powered by 100% renewable electricity. It has also reduced emissions from manufacturing by 50%.

The announcement builds on Unilever’s target of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. The company also generates solar electricity at facilities in 18 countries.

Investment into energy efficiency programmes has also led to a 28% fall in energy consumption and a 50% reduction in carbon emissions per tonne of production since 2008. The use of a €40/tonne internal carbon tax has meant that Unilever has been able to invest in energy and climate projects with no net-costs to the business. Since the internal carbon tax was introduced in June 2016, more than €120m has been raised and spent on renewable energy at manufacturing sites.

Several of the Sustainable Living Brands have notably achieved B-Corp certification, including Ben & Jerry’s, which has vocally campaigned on issues such as the Paris Agreementonshore wind in the UK and aid for refugees.

When the USLP framework expires next year, the company will unveil a new set of targets, created after an engagement exercise with more than 40,000 of its employees. The aim of the exercise was to create a collaborative framework which prioritised the action areas which staff either consider personally important or where they believe the company could have the most impact.

Matt Mace



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