Goliath goes green
Two billion people use a Unilever product every day, so environmentally friendly tweaks to the product line can make a huge difference
Saving the world can’t just be done by individuals and small companies. At some stage the giants have to do their part. British-Dutch multinational Unilever, whose brands include Lipton and Bertolli, Dove and Lifebuoy, Persil and Surf, is weighing in.
Its Sustainable Living Plan commits it to halve the environmental footprint of its products by 2020, help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being, and source 100 per cent of its agricultural raw materials sustainably.
Sebastian Lazell, the head of Unilever’s Australian and New Zealand operations, says the $45 billion company is getting smaller to get bigger.
“There was a recognition going into 2010 that the only acceptable and indeed competitive model for significant and aggressive growth is a strong drive for sustainable growth, that you cannot double your business and also double your environmental footprint or your impact, so hence these three big bold goals in the sustainable living plan,” Lazell says.
When the plan started, less than 15 per cent of its global purchases of tea and palm oil came from sustainable sources. Unilever is the largest buyer of palm oil in the world.
Lazell says this year more than a third of its palm oil and half of its black tea will come from certifiably sustainable sources, with the target being 100 per cent by 2015. The Sustainable Living Plan has 47 targets and workstreams, and Australasia has focused on the 20 most relevant to this part of the world.
These include improving the nutritional profile of the food products, sourcing sustainable ingredients, and reducing packaging waste and energy footprint.
“We look at the total lifecycle impact of our products. In general companies find less than five per cent of environmental impacts comes from inside the operation, the manufacturing and distribution etc,” Lazell says. “Looking at the whole footprint of our laundry detergent business in New Zealand, the likes of Persil and Surf, we identified that getting on to 50 per cent of the carbon footprint came from the sourcing of material long before it reaches factory, then 45 per cent is energy used in consumer use.”
Earlier this year Uniliever replaced the phosphates used for water softening, which have to be mined in China, with a much lower energy set of ingredients.
“That reduced by 32 per cent the tonnes of carbon the product uses each year.”
More concentrated formulas reduce the size of packaging and the number of road trips needed to distribute the product.
Lazell says the commitment to sustainability makes employees proud of the company.
The programme is motivating, inspiring, energising people and they are able to help in practical ways from improving recycling within the office, reduction of food waste, simple things around putting in place movement sensitive lights, reduction in power usage through blinds that keep out sunlight so you don’t need air conditioning – all those sorts of things.
“Being a big company means two billion people are using our products every day, so a third of the world’s population.
“Through product design and information we can drive small behaviour changes each day with brands that are in their homes – turning the temperature down a little bit, running the shower shorter, rinsing with water one less time.
“A lot of small actions which feel tiny to one individual, add them all up with a billion people and you can make a big impact,” Lazell says.