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Unilever raises the green flag
Comment by John Elkington

No chief executive in their right mind would tell investors to go away, but that's exactly what Paul Polman of Unilever did when launching the company's sustainable living plan.

"Unilever has been around 100-plus years," he explained. "But we want to be around for several hundred more years. So if you buy into this long-term value model, which is equitable, which is shared, which is sustainable, then come and invest with us. If you don't buy into this, I respect you as a human being, but don't put your money in our company."

So remarkable was this challenge that journalists raced around trying to work out what it meant—and to discover what mainstream investors made of it all.

The Unilever plan runs through to 2020 and includes some pretty tough sustainability-related targets. Among other things, Polman is committing Unilever to grow the percentage of raw materials from sustainable sources from 10 per cent today to 100 per cent within 10 years—and to reduce the company's environmental footprint of new factories by half.

One of the most interesting aspects of the plan is the pledge to help more than one billion people to take action to improve their health and wellbeing. And a critical component of the campaign will be aiding a change in the habits and behaviour of ordinary citizens.

Behaviour change is an issue fast gaining momentum. Still, when we talk to businesspeople about the change agenda, many push back, saying this isn't something that business can do.

So we point out that business does it all the time, as when persuading consumers to use new products such as the internet or mobile phones. And, under pressure, particular industries have also found ways to help people change problem behaviour in areas such as smoking, driving, obesity, chronic disease and, now, carbon and water usage.

Polman is taking a big gamble. Still, this is one of those moments where it might be an even bigger risk to do nothing. Most investors will be pretty nervous about this agenda, but ultimately they will have little choice but to change their own mindsets and behaviour—and buy into it.

John Elkington is executive chairman of Volans (www.volans.com) and non-executive director at SustainAbility (www.sustainability.com)