This year marks the ten-year anniversary of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). It comes at a difficult and unusual time, with millions around the world reeling from the devastating human and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
We have learnt much in recent months. Not least, we have a new appreciation for who really are the heroes in society. The frontline health care workers, of course. And others too, from factory workers and truck drivers to supermarket staff and delivery people. Their selflessness and dedication are truly awe-inspiring.
Building a better future: our ongoing purpose
At the same time, the pandemic has brought many of the world’s ongoing challenges into sharp focus. I’m talking about today’s big issues, like the climate emergency, rampant social inequality and the terrifying spectre of ecosystem collapse. If we are to address these challenges and build a better future, then a new model of capitalism will be needed.
It was this same determination to create a more sustainable way of doing business in which people and the planet mattered that led us to launch the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) ten years ago. The plan set out three big goals to transform our social, environmental and economic performance across the value chain.
Underpinned by multiple commitments and time-bound targets, the USLP represented a first-of-its-kind plan, in terms of its breadth, size, scope and ambition. At the time, we had no clue how we might achieve all these goals, although we knew it would take immense ingenuity, dedication and collaboration.
Looking back, it has been quite some journey. Some goals we have met, while others we have missed – and we have certainly become a better business for trying. So, while I am immensely proud of all the great things we’ve achieved, I am equally conscious of all that we still have to do.
USLP journey: a ten-year learning curve
Many highlights exist from the last ten years. If I had to make a selection, then one would definitely be the growth of our purpose-led brands – like Dove, Lipton, Hellmann’s, Omo, Seventh Generation and Pukka tea. These ‘sustainable living brands’, as we call them, have continuously and consistently outperformed the average growth rate of Unilever.
Other success stories include the cost savings we have achieved – over €1 billion since 2008 – by improving water and energy efficiency in our factories, and by using less material and producing less waste. Another remarkable statistic is the almost 90% of employees who feel proud to work for Unilever – a reflection, I believe, of our commitment to sustainability and building a better world.
Photo by Unilever employee Yanamurti Nindya, Indonesia
Our USLP journey has also presented us with many hurdles. We have many programmes to improve livelihoods and to enhance opportunities for women, for instance, but measuring their actual impact has proved extremely difficult. Likewise, the complexity of many of the global supply chains that we source from has made our sustainable sourcing targets extra challenging.
We always knew it wouldn’t be a smooth ride. With that in mind, we have consistently sought to view hurdles less as setbacks and more as opportunities for learning new lessons. One critical lesson from the last decade has been the importance of remaining flexible. In a world in which change is inevitable, being nimble and open to new approaches is key to staying ahead of the curve.
Perhaps the most important lesson of the last decade relates to systems change. As a company, we can do much to mitigate the impacts of our direct operations. Yet the bulk of our footprint – be it social or environmental – occurs outside our four walls. To reach our sustainability goals, therefore, we need to work with others to change how key systems such as water and energy are structured.
After a decade, the USLP is drawing to a close. But let me be clear: this is not the end. Our journey towards making sustainable living commonplace for the world’s 8 billion people continues.
This is definitely not the end. Our journey towards making sustainable living commonplace for the world’s 8 billion people very much still continues.Alan Jope
Unilever Compass: our new, fully integrated corporate strategy
Now more than ever is the time for action. The pressures on the planet are getting worse and social inequality has reached a critical point – a reality made even more severe by the pandemic we are currently experiencing.
So, as we consider our next steps, what priorities should we focus on? We put this question to 40,000 employees and hundreds of external stakeholders. This listening exercise set us three key challenges: to drive purpose and encourage behaviour change through more of our brands; to embed sustainability further into every part of our business; and to do more to actively bring others along with us.
I am convinced that these three action areas will deliver the highest possible value not just to us as a business, but to all our stakeholders. This is why we are making them central to the Unilever Compass – our new, fully integrated corporate strategy.
The Compass very much builds on the past ten years of the USLP: the successes, the failures and the lessons learnt. It lays the pathway for us to realise our vision of being the leader in sustainable business globally – as well as to finally putting to bed the debate of whether sustainability is good for business.
Giving focus to the Compass will be 15 multi-year priorities that cover the full spectrum of our business and wider ecosystem. We are still finalising all these priorities and their associated targets, but I can confirm that they will be more holistic, inclusive and far-reaching than ever before.
Similarly, we will put in place a new set of industry-leading, company-wide sustainability commitments for all our brands. These commitments will tackle the key challenges of our time, such as packaging and waste, gender equality, human rights and fair value – plus, of course, climate change and social inclusion.
Repairing capitalism: a model for our collective future
As we look forward to the future, none of us really know what the world will look like after Covid-19. But I am convinced that there will be no future unless we double down on our commitments to look after people and the planet.
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 NGOs, government organisations, academics, suppliers, customers and other partners – to drive a new model of capitalism, and build a better future.
Main photo by Unilever employee Dariusz Solowinski, Poland