How Unilever crowdsourced creativity to meet its sustainability goals
Unilever had painted itself into a corner.
After the global consumer goods company published its Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan laying out ambitious sustainability goals, company leaders realized meeting those goals was going to be tough. So they got creative.
Working with GlobeScan, they created an online collaboration platform with one clear purpose – to enable Unilever to hit its sustainability targets for 2020. “We can’t solve these issues on our own,” explained Miguel Pestana, VP Global External Affairs, “We need to engage with civil society, companies, government and other key stakeholders. It’s about developing new models of collaboration.”
The response was huge: More than 2,200 sustainability leaders and experts, representing 77 countries, registered for the first Unilever Sustainable Living Lab, a 24-hour live, online, moderated dialogue that ran from April 25th to 26th. Their task: Collaborate and co-create ideas and solutions for moving to the next level in sustainable living.
Some described the Lab, designed by Unilever and GlobeScan in partnership with Fenton Communications, as a ‘crowdsourcing’ solution to sustainability. But, as with Unilever’s Open Innovation platform, it was important to have the right ‘crowd’ interacting. Therefore, participation in the event was by invitation only, to opinion leaders identified by GlobeScan and Unilever.
The canvas was broad, with discussions held across four topics, each theme representing a different component of the value chain: sustainable sourcing; sustainable production and distribution; consumer behavior change; recycling and waste. Along with colleagues at SustainAbility, GlobeScan moderated the discussions, with input from 80 invited senior-level guest contributors. Over 100 Unilever managers from across the business, from R&D, procurement, marketing, and customer development, also participated at key points in the Lab discussions.
Across the four discussion streams, a total of 3,900 posts were made over the 24 hours. Consumer behavior change was the most active discussion theme, generating the most comments overall.
When we look in detail at discussion across the topics during the whole 24 hours, some clear cross-cutting themes emerge:
- ‘Whole system’ approaches: participants in the Lab steered toward addressing challenges at the system, rather than issue, level.
- Products to services: from ownership to shared access and from packaging to refills, the notion of rethinking delivery models came up in both the Consumer Behaviour Change and Recycling and Waste discussions.
- Collaboration: moderators and observers of the Lab noted that collaboration ran through many of the discussions across all four streams.
The strongest indicator of enthusiasm for collaboration came in our follow-up survey. Of more than 400 people who responded, 95 percent said they would participate in a future Sustainable Living Lab.
So, following this marathon 24 hour conversation, what are the lessons to be learned about engaging with stakeholders? We have identified four key factors that ensure that stakeholder engagement and consultation goes beyond a traditional sharing of views.
The first factor is the opportunity for collective deliberation. The Lab was designed to be interactive and inclusive, an iterative conversation developing from a starter question. At times the conversation became challenging to follow, with ‘fast-paced’ dialogue across several strands. This is something we’ll address in future Labs.
The second factor is mobilisation toward a common purpose. In convening the Lab, Unilever’s stated aim was to ‘make more progress on the big sustainability challenges’ – a purpose shared by those invited to participate and many more beyond.
The third factor is the development of partnerships – both existing and new. The Lab event as a whole represented a partnership approach to addressing sustainability challenges. But more specifically, Unilever, and participants, are following up on some new partnership opportunities that emerged in the discussions.
The fourth factor is about commitment from companies and the importance of action, accountability and responsiveness over time. The Lab is one small step in Unilever’s journey with stakeholders. Among the hundreds of feedback comments received, ‘what happens next?’ was a common question. Indeed, the real hard work has now started, with Unilever teams reviewing the rich content of the Lab to tap into ideas and solutions and turn them into action. “The discussions touched on a wide ranging set of ideas’, says Miguel Pestana, “We’re mining these to take back actionable ideas into the business.”
Unilever’s Sustainable Living Lab was a new way to engage with stakeholders on a live and global scale – it’s been described as ‘unique’, ‘inspiring’, ‘stimulating’, ‘a great open platform’, even as a ‘community’. But its true success will be judged in terms of its fitness for purpose, that is, its contribution towards achieving ambitious sustainability goals. As one participant commented, “This was a great step to enable external specialists to collaborate with internal Unilever experts on key issues. This in itself was a significant step. The next step is to see how this could lead to collaboration that helps Unilever to drive more change to create a more sustainable sector."