By Vincent Neate, head of climate change and sustainability at KPMG in the UK
I have many fortunes in my role and the most recent was to be invited into the audience at Unilever’s update on their progress with their Sustainable Living Plan on Tuesday 24 April. The Sustainable Living Plan is Unilever’s commitment to being a different sort of company – one that shifts the global economy onto a more socially and environmentally responsible footing.
If there is a gold standard in consumer markets this is probably it. They are much admired for their efforts so I was delighted to be asked along and excited to hear what Unilever Chief Executive, Paul Polman, Senior Vice President for Sustainability, Gail Klintworth, and others in their leadership team would have to say.
I offer three impressions.
The first is of sincerity – every time Paul speaks you believe that this is a strategy that is not just at the heart of his weltanschauung but is what he really thinks life is about. Across the board the company can produce excellent examples of what it is doing for commercial, environmental and social good – from educating children on handwashing to driving the use of sustainable palm oil to changing how we use the shower.
The second is of honesty – there is an openness to talk about the challenges that is refreshing and inspiring. I am a great believer that progress requires transparency and the standard set here was high. Keith Weed, Unilever’s Chief Marketing & Communication Officer, was interesting on the challenges of influencing consumer behaviour – one I am very familiar with having tried to live the Sustainable Living Plan with one of my teams for a month. That is another story.
The third impression builds on this and is of challenge. Challenged about the naked consumerism of the brand Axe or Lynx the defence was that this product was socially beneficially because it dealt with issues of self esteem among teenage boys. I don’t think this is an appropriate response given the potential seriousness of teenage esteem issues faced by many young men and it is in stark contrast to the wonderful new Dove campaign supporting self esteem for young women and girls. But then that is Unilever’s point – is isn’t easy and as Paul Polman himself said, if it was everyone would have solved the global challenges of sustainability.
But overall, this was an inspiring, insightful and challenging event.