What's Behind the Big Sustainability Push at Unilever

Last fall, Unilever announced the impressive goals of its Sustainable Living Plan: cutting environmental impacts in half by 2020, sourcing 100 percent of agricultural materials sustainably, and helping more than one billion people improve their health and well-being.

These would be ambitious goals for any company, but particularly for one of Unilever's scale (over 100 brands, sales in 170 countries, and annual revenues over €44 billion [US$63 billion]). The company has made clear that they intend to decouple financial growth from environmental impact, and have ambitious plans for increasing sales as well.

Their definition of environmental impact includes the full lifecycle of products, including effects from consumer use, which accounts for 68 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and the production of raw materials, which accounts for another 26 percent. After a recent presentation on the plan at Sustainable Brands 2011, I had the opportunity to interview Gavin Neath, Senior Vice President, Sustainability at Unilever.

Adele Peters: You've noted in the Sustainable Living Plan that consumer behavior accounts for a large portion of the sustainability impacts of your products throughout the product lifecycle. How do you aim to address the significant challenge of consumer behavior change?

Gavin NeathGavin Neath: The first and most important thing to say about consumer behavior change is that it is an enormously difficult thing to do.

You and I know in our own lives how difficult it is to do simple things like eat less and exercise more, drink less, etc. Changing consumer behavior in whatever area it might be -- washing or cleaning -- is no easy matter, and it takes time. The first thing that has to be recognized is that people need to be given an incentive to change -- in the end, I think there has to be something in it for them.

In our industry, where we've been recently successful in Europe and in a number of other markets has been to encourage consumers to do their laundry at lower temperatures. All of the time that ourselves and others, like Procter & Gamble, have talked about that to consumers, we have placed great weight on the benefits that they will get from doing that, which are basically two-fold: Their clothes will last longer, and they will save money because their electricity bills will be lower because they're not heating water up to high temperatures.