Inside Unilever's Big, Broad, Bold Sustainability Plan

Unilever unveiled its 2020 sustainability plan yesterday, and no one can accuse the company of playing small ball.

The global consumer products giant ($57 billion in revenues in 2009) intends to improve the health of 1 billion people, to buy 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources, and to reduce the environmental impact of everything it sells by one-half, while doubling its revenues.

Those are big hairy audacious goals (to borrow a phrase from Jim Collins), befitting a company that touches two billion consumers a day. Unilever's brands include Lipton, Dove, All, Hellman's and Ben & Jerry's.

The biggest idea here -- and the one that will probably prove hardest to achieve -- is that a company can grow its sales without growing its environmental footprint. As Dave Lewis, president of Unilever Americas, put it: "We cannot choose between growth and sustainability. We have to do both."

This is what U.S. consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble implicitly said it could not do when it announced its sustainability goals back in September. Unilever is also hedging its bets some -- it is promising a 50 percent reduction "per consumer use" -- and it acknowledges that it can only grow sustainably by changing consumer behavior. That's no small matter and one that is largely beyond its control.

Still, Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan, as it's called, breaks new ground for a number of reasons.

It is comprehensive, setting more than 50 social, economic and environmental targets.

It is rigorous; the company says its has measured the carbon, water and waste footprints of 1,600 products, representing 70 percent of its volume.

It's far-reaching, taking into account the full life cyle impact of its product, from "seed to disposal," as one executive put it.

It builds on an impressive past history when it comes to sustainability.

And it goes well beyond green, including efforts to improve nutrition --

    By 2020 we will double the proportion of our portfolio that meets the highest nutritional standards, based on globally recognized dietary guidelines.

and global health --

    By 2020, we will help more than a billion people to improve their hygiene habits and we will bring safe drinking water to 500 million people.

and poverty --

    Our goal is to link 500,000 smallholder farmers into our supply network. We will help to improve their agricultural practices and thus enable them to supply into global markets at competitive prices. By doing so we will improve the quality of their livelihoods.

The Unilever plan was announced with fanfare in London, New York, Rotterdam and New Delhi by CEO Paul Polman, other top company execs and outsiders who had been been briefed on the effort. (In New York, they included Columbia's Jeffrey Sachs and author Dan Esty.) Early reaction has been favorable. Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Porritt, the founder and director of a British corporate responsibility organization called Forum for the Future, said:

    Is this a game-changer for Unilever? Absolutely. Is it the best Plan out there for big global companies? I believe it is.