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Unilever unveils sustainability programme

Guardian Environment 15th November 2010

Sustainable Living Plan aims, over ten years, to halve environmental impact of its products and give farmers and distributors in developing countries access to its supply chain

Consumer goods group Unilever will today unveil an ambitious new sustainability plan that aims to double sales and halve the environmental impact of its products over the next 10 years.

The initiative will cover not just Unilever's greenhouse gas emissions, waste and water use – but the impact caused by its suppliers and consumers, from agricultural growers to the packaging and waste water produced by consumers of Unilever brands, which include Dove, Persil, Bertolli, Flora and PG Tips.

"More than two thirds of greenhouse emissions and half the water in Unilever products' lifecycle come from consumer use," said the company, "so this is a commitment on an unprecedented scale."

The Anglo-Dutch group also intends to improve the nutritional quality of its food products – with cuts in salt, saturated fats, sugar and calories – and link more than 500,000 smallholder farmers and small scale distributors in developing countries to its supply chain.

The group's new Sustainable Living Plan – to be launched simultaneously in London, Amsterdam, Delhi and New York – is the result of 12 months' planning. Chief executive Paul Polman told the Guardian that the plan was essential because "continuing to increase our environmental impacts as we grow our business is not viable".

He said he was "decoupling" growth from the group's environmental aims and that the changes constituted a "new business model".

Polman said it was essential that companies took responsibility for the damage they are doing to the planet as concerned consumers were starting to "vote with their wallets on responsible products".

"Consumers want more", he said. "They see food shortages, malnutrition and climate change, and governments are not addressing those problems. Companies that do this will get a competitive advantage. Those that do not will put themselves at risk."

He added that it also represented an opportunity for multinational corporations to improve the battered image of big business: "This is a unique opportunity to step up to the plate and change the reputation of business."

The new sustainability plan aims to slash the carbon, water and waste impact of its products in half "primarily through innovation in the way we source, make and package them". Measures will range from reducing truck mileage to producing washing powders that work at lower temperatures and coming up with new products to cut the amount of hot water used in baths and showers, although the company admits: "We do not yet know how we will do this".

Other targets include

• sourcing 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2015, including 100% sustainable palm oil. Unilever buys 3% of the world's annual supply of palm oil.

• change the hygiene habits of 1bn people in Asia, Africa and Latin America to help reduce diarrhoea – the word's second biggest cause of infant mortality. Unilever will push sales of its Lifebuoy soap brand and teach consumers when to wash their hands to achieve this aim.

• make drinking water safer in developing countries by extending sales of its Pureit home water purifier

• improve standards of living 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.

Polman denied that some of the aims in the plan were designed primarily to boost sales of Unilever products and that sustainability inevitably means consuming less. "There are billions of people in the world who deserve the better quality of life that products like soap, shampoo and clean drinking water can provide... We shouldn't be ashamed of growth.

"But growth at any price is not viable. We have to develop new ways of doing business which will ensure that our growth does not come at the expense of the world's diminishing natural resources."

Unilever is the world's second biggest food and personal care goods company. It is the biggest seller of packet tea in the world through its Liptons and Brooke Bond labels and the world's biggest ice cream manufacturer, through Wall's and Ben & Jerry's. Other major brands in the company's portfolio include Cif, Omo, Knorr and Hellmans.

The new sustainability initiative is not entirely new territory for the company, which sells its products in 170 different countries. The firm has been a sector leader of the Dow Jones Sustainabiity indices for more than a decade.

The Unilever plan comes in the wake of an array of new sustainability pledges from larger rival Procter & Gamble.

The US group, whose brands include Pampers, Ariel and Gillette, recently set a number of environmental-based targets designed "to improve more consumers' lives in more parts of the world more completely".

P&G's targets include: powering its plants with 100% renewable electricity, using 100% renewable or recycled materials in all products and packaging, sending zero waste to landfill, maximising the conservation of resources and delivering effluent water quality that is as good or better than water used.

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