As Unilever passes more sustainability landmarks, the thorny issue of how to engage consumers remains

Unilever is making headway with its Sustainable Living Plan, recently announcing that half of its factories have achieved zero waste to landfill.  The development follows the breakthrough in July 2011, when Unilever UK was the first operating country to achieve zero waste to landfill. In less than two years, 17 other countries have followed suit.

As one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, Unilever has set a high bar with its Sustainable Living Plan, established in 2010, which sets more than 50 environmental and social targets across its value chain, including cutting its waste to landfill down to 2008 levels or lower, despite increased production. In fact, Unilever reported annual sales of more than €51bn in 2010, up from €40bn the previous year, pledging to double the size of business while reducing its environmental footprint by 2020.

In light of the progress made on waste reduction, Unilever recently upped the ante, pledging that 252 factories would send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill by 2015.

“The UK achievement was proof that it is possible, and today we are implementing best practices from all over the world, including the UK, actively using the global supply chain network to create more environmentally responsible factories,” says Tony Dunnage, group environmental engineering manager at Unilever. “By using this ‘design once and deploy everywhere’ philosophy, we are driving a sustainable model that is good for the environment and saves costs.”

Given the breadth of Unilever’s operations and ambitious targets, the company is not without its challenges. Dunnage highlights the variance of the recycling infrastructures in the countries where it operates. “This is improving all of the time, and we help to stimulate local markets for the better, but it does mean that some countries will prove to be a tougher challenge than others.” 

Consumer behaviour

But, isn’t Unilever just tackling the low-hanging fruit? “Well if they cannot get the low-hanging fruit, the more difficult fruit will never be achieved,” says Timothy Devinney, professor of strategy at the University of Technology, Sydney, and co-author of The Myth of the Ethical Consumer. “You can always criticise companies for not doing enough, but it is best to at least accept that any organisation will always go for the low-hanging fruit first.”

And then there are consumers, whose oft-expressed desire to act more sustainably fails to translate into their daily behaviour. With that in mind, in 2011 Unilever came out with its Five Levers of Change approach to help educate and inspire consumers to adopt long-lasting sustainable habits. The company also recently launched a sustainability challenge in the UK to motivate consumers to reduce the amount of household rubbish sent to landfill by 25%.

But Devinney says such initiatives are “fairly meaningless”, as they only engage a small fraction of society. “Addressing the consumer demand side is really very difficult, and the only way it is done is by delivering value that consumers demand,” says Devinney.

“They do not look to Unilever to make them more ethical, and it would be insulting to think that this is Unilever’s job. What Unilever can do is show that they can deliver the best products in the least detrimental way to consumers who demand those products.”

consumers  Environment  Jeni Bauser Yaghoubi  sustainable living  Unilever 

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