Speaking exclusively to edie, Sigismondi said business leaders should instead be empowering employees with “a sense of real purpose” and collaborating with others to build long-term social, environmental and economic strategies.

“I think there is a lack of focus – a lack of understanding about what the real company purpose is,” Sigismondi said. “That is the secret to sustainable success – having a common purpose that embraces everyone in the company to go beyond their own boundaries.

“What is the ultimate objective of a business? If it is only to generate profits and performance on a quarterly basis, sustainability initiatives may be very difficult to carry out because they require long-term thinking.”

Walk the walk

Sigismondi speaks from experience. Unilever is widely regarded as the number-one corporate sustainability leader, with the group’s ambitious Sustainable Living Plan – a 10-year commitment to double the size of the business while reducing its environmental and social impact – in full swing.

One of Unilever’s biggest green achievements so far came at the start of the year when it achieved a target to send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill from its global factory network of 240 factories in 67 countries. In 2010, only 52 sites had achieved zero-waste, but a renewed focus on embedding a ‘zero-waste mind-set’ throughout the organisation accelerated the speed programme so much so that the 2020 target was hit five years ahead of schedule.

“We quickly realised that engaging with employees was the best way to make us sustainable,” explained Sigismondi. “They are the ones who have to find the solutions locally in the different geographical areas we are in. It has not been something that we have had to push down from the top – we provided guidance, knowledge and inspiration and then it became a movement within the company.”

“But we could not it alone. It is only possible to achieve these major sustainability goals through collaboration. We are not experts in processing the waste we generate in our facilities – but we realised it could be a feedstock for another company which generated a very viable business proposition for them.”

Next challenge

Unilever is not stopping there. Sigsimondi’s next goal is to ensure the company’s entire global operations – which span 190 countries – achieve zero-waste status. “There will be no single country where we do business that we dispose any waste to landfill – that’s our story from now onwards,” he said.

“It’s a challenge which is twice as big as the one we have just achieved – particularly as there is less infrastructure in many of the countries we export to. But we will get there.”

Such a significant and wide-reaching sustainability commitment will of course come at an initial cost to the business, particularly in regions that need new waste infrastructure. But the potential return on investment is clear to see – Unilever is already saving more than €200m in waste costs thanks to its zero-waste achievements.

Not about the money

In fact, for Unilever, the business case for sustainability couldn’t be clearer: chief executive Paul Polman recently revealed that the company’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands accounted for half of the its growth in 2014 and grew at twice the rate of the rest of the business.

But Sigismondi had an important final point to add: “Some businesses are starting to see the benefits from an economic point of view, and I think that’s where the sustainability movement will actually gain even more momentum. But it cannot be about the money.

“If you can empower your employees to understand that a small action can make a big difference, they will come back to you with an immense amount of positive energy and changes will happen. If you speak from your heart into the hearts of people, they will follow you without any problems.

“It is very energising, very fulfilling and it’s a real source of pride for us to be engaged with a much bigger purpose. I feel very proud of being where I am and privileged as well.”

Video: Unilever’s Zero Waste Heroes

Inspired? Have your own sustainability success story to share? Enter edie’s Sustainability Leaders Awards 2015. 

Luke Nicholls

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie