Unilever launched its Sustainable Living Plan yesterday. The London launch had some interesting quotes, especially from the CEO Paul Polman, which signal future directions for business and sustainability.
Yesterday I was at the London launch of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. It has rightly garnered lots of coverage (see the Google news search here, which has lots of coverage in Indian newspapers). Forum for the Future, where I work, has been involved in the plan. Personally I’ve had little involvement, but too much to comment on the plan directly here. Instead I thought I’d pull out a few quotes from London launch. I think you can get to a recording of the webcast here, but to be honest it’s not that clear.
“We cannot choose between [economic] growth and sustainability – we must have both” Paul Polman, CEO. The central feature of the plan is ‘decoupling’ – growing the revenues without growing the environmental impact. Economic growth is one of those polarizing issues in sustainability circles. Many deep-green environmentalists believe that growing economics require growing material throughput and energy use, and inevitably drive reduced environmental quality. Therefore, growth is a terrible thing. Conversely, mainstream opinion has been adamant that growing economies are needed to grow people’s welfare and keep them employed in jobs. Therefore, growth is a wonderful thing. The problem is that both opinions may be right. Tim Jackson calls this the ‘dilemma of growth’ in his work on Prosperity without Growth.
The plan puts Unilever in the vanguard of finding a way through the dilemma: growing welfare and economic value without growing environmental impact.
“Sustainable business must make money”, Jonathon Porritt, Forum for the Future. A point from the floor implied that the only true demonstration of sustainable motive was to lose money. I come across this a lot: to prove your motive is honest it must cost you. In the next breath, people wonder why there is no business case. Well, you’ve just pre-defined sustainability as a cost! This is the sort of double-bind that traps people.
“Soap is the most cost-effective health intervention. Governments don’t get people to use it; marketing does.” Oliver Morgan, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health. The launch made a lot of Unilever’s heritage bringing soap, and therefore hygiene, to the masses in late Victorian England. This quote reminded me again that some of the best development ‘interventions’ are small things that we take for granted. Also, as much as I think health is a public good which is best delivered by public bodies, these basics are best done through the market. Can anyone say they don’t want Unilever to make a profit from encouraging people to wash their hands?
“We must attract the right investors. If you buy into our approach to long-term value creation… then invest in us. If not, I respect you as a human being, but don’t invest in us.” Paul Polman, CEO. If only more companies took this approach. There is a big investor case here to match long-term value creation with long-term liabilities like pensions. If Unilever can convince the big funds then they will have done the world a massive service.
“[Achieving these goals…] is a business model that you develop over time.” Paul Polman, CEO. Two years ago only one person I know was saying ‘business model’ with respect to sustainability (hello Sally Uren, Deputy CEO, Forum for the Future). Yesterday Paul said it at least 5 times. I think companies are reaching the limits of what can be done through product or service innovation. They need to innovate the fundamentals of how they create and capture value, which means innovating business models.
There were several other themes – the need to enrol stakeholders in collaboration; Unilever saying they didn’t have all the answers; questioning from the audience whether Unilever can really deliver these ambitions – but these are the quotes that stuck with me.