Sustainable ambition: Unilever pledges to halve enviro impact

Consumer goods giant behind Knorr's, Lipton and Ben & Jerry's says there should not be a conflict between growth and sustainability.

NEW YORK - Unilever, the massive consumer goods company behind brands like Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Knorr sauces and Lipton tea, has adopted an ambitious sustainability program that will steer its company strategy between now and 2020. Under the new Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, it has pledged to:

  1. Decouple business growth from environmental impact. Specifically, Unilever is aiming to reduce its negative footprint by half for greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and disposal of its products. Where there isn't recycling infrastructure in place to server emerging markets, it will help build one.
  2. Source 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials sustainably and link more than 500,000 smallholder farmers and small-scale distributors into its supply chain. Today, approximately 10 percent of its agriculture and forestry products come from sustainable sources, and the goal by 2012 is 30 percent.
  3. Help more than 1 billion people improve their hygienic habits and bring safe drinking water to 500 million people, both with the aim of reducing life-threatening diseases such as the devastating cholera outbreak in Haiti. Indeed, executives say the company is in the process of sending its Pureit water purification technology to the devastated country.

During a press conference and sustainability discussion in New York, Dave Lewis, president of the Americas for Unilever, says there should be no conflict between sustainable growth and sustainable consumption, meaning that businesses can still meet growth objectives while becoming better citizens of the planet. Indeed, Lewis and others believe this action is not optional.

"We do not have the luxury of choice," Lewis says. "We cannot choose between growth and sustainability."

Here are some of the areas in which Unilever has already demonstrated its leadership. It was "in" on the creation of the Marine Stewardship Council back in 1995, along with the World Wildlife Fund; the company has converted more than half-million ice-cream freezers to ones that use Hydro Carbon natural refrigerants; became the first mainstream company in 2007 to commit to sustainably sourcing all the teas in its Lipton and PG TIps teabags by 2015; committed in 2008 to buying all palm oil from sustainable sources by 2015, up from 30 percent today; and earlier this year it committed to Fairtrade-certifying by 2013 every possible ingredient possible across the Ben & Jerry's ice cream brand line.

During a discussion following Unilever's ambitious announcements, a panel of sustainability experts praised the company's leadership example as "bold" and "courageous" but suggested its goals will be tough to meet in the absence of government policy, especially in the area of inspiring clean energy investments.

"The thing that I find missing here is policy and government. ... I want to make a plea that good intentions be followed by good policy," says Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Institute at Columbia University. Sachs is also the Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management, Columbia; and Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Lewis agreed that Unilever's plan is ambitious, especially since there are few international policies for what constitutes, for example, a sustainable farm. But he suggested that the business world needs to take a leadership role and use its research and development might to offer solutions. "In the absence of a framework, we won't let it stop us from what we need to do," he says.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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