The FMCG giant reveals that its most sustainable brands grew 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70% of its sales growth last year

Brands like Dove, Lipton, Hellmann’s and Knorr, designated Unilever’s most sustainable products, outperformed the rest of its business for the fourth consecutive year last year, the company announced this week.

The sustainable living brands now number 26, up from 18 in 2016. As a group they grew 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70% of its growth in turnover. In 2016 the brands grew 50% faster than the rest of the business, and delivered more than 60% of its growth. The company, which sells more than 400 brands in 190 countries, generated sales of €53.7bn last year, up a modest 3.1% on 2016. 

Unilever describes the sustainable living brands as “furthest ahead” on the journey to meeting its ambitious sustainability targets, announced in 2010, to decouple growth from environmental impact and create positive social impact. 

The new additions include:

  • Sunlight laundry detergent, which uses SmartFoam technology to break down suds faster, and has been a bit hit in drought-affected South Africa, where women do most of their laundry by hand.

  • Vaseline, which is providing dermatological care to people affected by poverty or emergencies in a partnership with Direct Relief.

  • Sunsilk, which has a programme to train and support salon entrepreneurs and beauticians in countries including India, Brazil and Vietnam.

  • And ice cream brand Wall's, which has a social impact scheme that provides paid work experience to people who are having trouble kick-starting their careers, which the company intends to extend to 100,000 people in 20 markets by 2020.

  • Other additions were all B Corporations acquired by Unilever in the past year: Brazilian organic food company Mae Terra, organic tea maker Pukka, US eco-laundry brand Seventh Generation and Sundial, a US haircare brand that serves consumers of colour. As part of the latter deal, Unilever announced the creation of a $50m fund to empower women of colour entrepreneurs. 

Paul Polman, Unilever's CEO, said the performance of the brands shows that Unilever's long-term approach to creating value for all its stakeholders is working. “Ever since we launched the USLP [Unilever sustainable living plan] in 2010 we have reported openly on our progress. We have made great strides in meeting many of the ambitious targets we set ourselves and the fact that our sustainable living brands are continuing to deliver growth shows that this is a business model that works.”


Campaigns on improving health and well-being has reached 600 million people. Credit: Febyuka Azalia

The company said it is on track to meet around 80% of its commitments, which include improving health and wellbeing for 1 billion people by 2020, reducing environmental impact by half by 2030 and enhancing livelihoods for its millions of employees, suppliers and retailers by 2020.

According to the sustainable living brands progress report, by the end of 2017:

  • 601 million people have been reached through Unilever’s programmes on handwashing, sanitation, oral health, self-esteem and safe drinking water.

  • 109 manufacturing sites across 368 countries were using 100%  renewable grid electricity, accounting for 65% of total grid electricity consumption;

  • 56% of Unilever’s agricultural raw materials were sustainably sourced, and in February this year Unilever became the first company to publicly disclose the suppliers and mills the company sources palm oil from both directly and indirectly;

  • Unilever enabled around 716,000 smallholder farmers to access initiatives aiming to improve their agricultural practices or increase their incomes.

Unilever also announced that it is carrying out its largest ever “listening exercise” on the future of sustainable business. More than 40,000 of its 161,000 employees responded to the ‘Have Your Say’ project, setting out their views on where Unilever should focus its sustainability efforts in future.

In an hour-long interview with Ethical Corporation last month, Polman was asked what the  greatest challenge for the sustainable living brands is going forward, he said: “We’ve been working on the sustainable living brands for seven or eight years now. At first you go for the low-hanging fruit, or the fruit you can reach with a little ladder.” 

The next step, he said, is “transformative impact at scale. That requires others to participate. It requires governments to function etc. So, how do we get faster transformative growth at scale at a time when global governance isn’t quite functioning.” 

See Paul Polman: I feel like it’s my first day at Unilever, and there’s a lot to do and Greenpeace is right to hold our feet to the fire on deforestation, says Unilever chief

Main photo by Mashka/Shutterstock


Unilever  CSR  Dove  Wall's  Sunsilk  Sunlight  Mae Terra  Seventh Generation  Vaseline  Sundial  FMcGs  Consumer Goods Forum 

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