3 big revelations from Unilever's TED talks

3 big revelations from Unilever's TED talks

Did you know that India's water scarcity challenges are just as much linked to inefficient pumping infrastructure as to stressed aquifers? That it takes 27 gallons of water to grow a banana? Or that it's possible to earn a doctorate in public health, with a concentration in the hygienic benefits of handwashing?

Those were just three of the wide-ranging revelations to emerge last week during a Unilever-sponsored TED program in New York showcasing sustainable business experts from within and without the company—including former World Bank economist Nicholas Stern and business author Andrew Winston.

The session was equal parts inspirational presentations and cheerleading for some of the consumer products giant's ambitious 10-year sustainable business projects, including the push to improve health and hygiene for 1 billon people by getting soap and personal care products into the hands of families in emerging economies. Aside from external guests and media, the company randomly selected employees to attend the session.

"The cost of inaction is more than the cost of action," said Unilever CMO Keith Weed, who was a catalyst for the company's Sustainable Living Plan.

That framework includes 50 time-based targets that Unilever reports against every year, including its vision to source all agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020. "You can't have a healthy business in an unhealthy society," he said.

The ideas discussed during Unilever's event were organized around two themes: "We are all connected" and "Food for thought." Here are three of my key takeaways from an overwhelming afternoon:

1. Remember the human network

Next Drop, a mobile messaging service being piloted in Hubli-Dharwad, India, started out with a simple mission: letting residents know when water was due to be piped to their neighborhoods. Unlike established economies, you can't just turn on a tap, and residents need to stock up on water when it's available. What's more, very few Indians apparently use voicemail, so broadcasting information is difficult.

Along the way, Next Drop discovered the texting service could help utility workers monitor water quality and detect leaks in its infrastructure, said Anu Sridharan, the U.S. civil engineering student who moved there to run the company.

The model currently uses "human sensors" to share information and has about 30,000 active subscribers. A two-way service that will allow residents to respond is under development, and Bangalore is next. "Sometimes the most basic solutions are the most powerful," Sridharan said.

2. Prioritize long-term thinking

It's time to ditch quarterly briefings with investors who don't care about true value creation. That's the somewhat heretical notion put forth by Andrew Winston, whose latest book on sustainable business, The Big Pivotwas published earlier this year.

"We need to flip priorities in a way that tackles our largest challenges first and works backwards from there. … Wall Street is more of a casino than a market," he said.

That means thinking about product development in an entirely new way, like Ford did when it decided to lightweight the next generation of its F-150 pickup trucks with a military-grade aluminum chassis that eliminates 700 pounds.

"This is their best-selling vehicle that they're altering," Winston noted.

This sort of heretical thinking is absolutely mandatory for the future. "Business won't thrive unless society and the planet are thriving, so what's your heresy?" he asked. "How will you challenge your models?" 

Nicholas Stern also spoke out sharply against "negligent, short-sighted" economic priorities that have contributed to temperatures we have not seen for tens of millions of years. Although literally millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, particularly in China, he asked: "What is the value of this growth if our cities are unlivable?"

Business leaders need to be far more decisive about investing in clean energy alternatives to coal, and embracing sustainable forest management practices, in particular. "The world as a whole is moving far too slowly, the depths of understanding are not there yet," Stern said.

3. Don't quit your job; use it for good

One of the more riveting presentations of the afternoon came from Unilever global customer service manager Viviana Alvarez, who almost left her position in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake to join her family's humanitarian work there.

Instead, she opted to use her business background and connections to create an NGO (H2H, Help to Haiti) that delivers specific investment funds for schools and business projects, rather than dispensing charity. "Shut up and listen… don't let your best intentions dictate" what a community needs, Alvarez said.

Her work in Haiti is being used to inform Unilever projects in underserved markets: "There are so many models that work, steal them with pride and apply them."

The idea of becoming a social business was also advanced by Mike Brady, president and CEO at Greyston Bakery, the Yonkers-based supplier of the brownies that go into Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream.

The benefit corporation is equally famous for its open hiring policy: it will offer an apprenticeship to anyone who applies regardless of their background, provided an opening is available. That includes addicts, convicts and the chronically unemployed.

Make no mistake, the $17-million company pays strict attention to its financials, which it publishes very transparently. But its most important stakeholder is the health of the community in which it is located.

Brady challenged other companies around the United States to adopt a similar mindset, one that uses business as a vehicle for addressing poverty and other social issues. "We need to update the business model," he said. "How do we use this great force to solve these problems" on a much larger scale.

Top image: Viviana Alvarez speaks at [email protected], September 17, 2014, Cedar Lake, New York, NY. (Credit: Ryan Lash/TED)