22 key sustainability challenges for Unilever

I”ve just come back from a conference on Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan progress on year on.

I did warn readers that this week is “Unilever week”.

No other large company would get this many tweets or blog posts about it written by me.

But Unilever is the exception. No other company of its size has equivalent sustainability ambition. Unilever deserves our serious attention and congratulations.

Here’s a podcast interview, no log-in needed, that I taped with the CEO Paul Polman last week.

Here are the 22 challenges that I heard discussed, many by senior company executives this morning.

I also know they are already working on many of these. But there’s of course a long long way to go.

So here goes, in no particular order:


  1. Palm Oil: Unilever may well need to move beyond the RSPO and GreenPalm certificates (like carbon offsets). This is because it may become obvious that not enough
    forest will be left by 2020 to make the current approach and “no deforestation” targets credible a few years
    down the line from today.
  2. Consumer behaviour change / Engaging citizens in altering habits. We have to tell ourselves that it can be done. Evidence to date shows business has not yet been smart enough to get this right. There are a million miles to go here. But what an opportunity.
  3. B2B Sustainability collaboration: Getting retailers and logistics companies / traders on board. How far can/should Unilever push them to raise their game (GreenPalm certificate take up by other large companies being a good example of this) Here’s a good example of what the company is already doing.
  4. Persuading Governments to think long term, or even beyond the next election cycle. Paul Polman co-chaired the World Economic Forum this year: Can he push WEF to push Governments harder? (I asked him about that in this podcast last week)
  5. Lobbying Governments in the short term: How far can Unilever push Mexico’s Government on land titles for women famers in Southern Mexico, for example? (Female farmers improve yields, cut impacts)
  6. Encouraging NGOs to collborate and focus. Yes this will be like herding cats, but serious efforts must be made. Liberia has 400 NGOs, including a landmine NGO in a country with no landmines. Big players will have to help with better co-ordination, tough job though it will be.
  7. Working out how to help smallholder farmers run better businesses in a sustainable way.
  8. Making boundary decisions: Should an FMCG company run an agricultural bank? If yes, where does that end in terms of operational spread? Should it?
  9. Talking about the water impacts of increased handwashing due to Lifebuoy campaigns.
  10. Turning shower timers into a commercial business
  11. Investing in emerging economies and helping them move up the value chain (Using the latest £100m Indonesian processing plant investment news as the platform for further profitable investments)
  12. Funding serious research and start ups who can show us where the business models of the future will come from outside of Unilever’s direct work


  13. Bringing marketers and brand managers on board: Moving from ‘consumers’ to ‘users’ as a paradigm.
  14. Maintaining standards as the company grows (China for example).
  15. Adjusting buying and procurement practices across the board further to support sustainability goals.
  16. Allowing more constructively challenging stakeholder voices to be seen/heard internally.
  17. Making difficult decisions about whether or not to sell unsustainable/unhealthy products in the face of internal opposition.
  18. Using the right language: Not talking about RSPO / GreenPalm as ‘sustainable’ but ‘more sustainable‘. Not describing recycled plastic as ‘biomass’ when it is waste.
  19. Shifting towards integrated reporting and making the communications of both areas unified and ‘sticky’.
  20. Setting criteria for losing (‘unrecruiting’ as Paul Polman puts it) employees when their values do not match those of the plan.
  21. Getting the new Chief Sustainability Officer up to speed and accepted.
  22. Taking sustainability in Research and Development to the next level: Disclosing progress and IP on closed loop thinking for new and existing products.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few. I’m equally sure readers of this blog may have a few thoughts to add in the comments section.

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