Why Unilever is betting on open innovation for sustainability

What happens when global companies look outside their walls for sustainable innovation? They sometimes find it.

That’s the bet Unilever is making, based on its announcement last week that it was launching an online platform offering experts the opportunity to help the company find the technical solutions it needs to achieve its ambition of doubling the size of its business while reducing its environmental impact.

Open innovation isn’t exactly new, and Unilever -- which just this week was named No. 1 in corporate sustainability for the second consecutive year by a global survey -- isn’t the first to harness it in the quest for sustainability solutions. For example, I wrote recently about the design firm IDEO’s challenge to use open innovation and crowdsourcing as a means of rejuvenating cities. Unilever has been using open innovation for years, and in 2009 established an open innovation unit to work with outside partners.

But Unilever’s recent efforts go an extra step, perhaps unprecedented, by publishing a list of its “wants” -- a dozen key areas in which the company is seeking help. That strikes me as a bold move, broadcasting to the world the areas in which it wants to innovate. The list includes some broad topics -- better packaging, safe drinking water -- as well as some specifics -- sustainable washing, preserving food.

All of these efforts sync with Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, set in late 2010, which set ambitious goals, including sourcing 100 percent of agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2015; changing the hygiene habits of 1 billion people in Asia, Africa and Latin America to help reduce diarrhea, the word's second biggest cause of infant mortality; making drinking water safer in developing countries; and improving living standards by working with agencies such as Oxfam and the Rainforest Alliance to link 500,000 smallholders and small-scale distributors to the Unilever supply chain.

I recently caught up with Roger Leech, Open Innovation Portfolio & Scouting director at Unilever, to find out what was behind the company’s most recent announcement: Why it is harnessing open innovation, the rationale behind publishing its “wants,” and what the company is learning about innovation along the way.

I started by asking him what drove Unilever toward open innovation around sustainability: Has the company’s ambitions grown, is it having trouble finding solutions on its own, or has the nature of innovation simply changed?