Unilever story: Sustainability at the heart of business

17 December 2015

The bigger you get, the more your actions affect the environment, people and businesses along the value chain. Unilever is a great example of a multinational company that has understood the importance and business potential of responsible conduct.

Ruth Newsome, Procurement Operations Manager, Sustainable Sourcing at Unilever says that responsibility is deeply rooted in this company’s strategy and daily way of working.

“The spirit of our mission – helping people to look good, feel good and get more out of life – forms a thread that runs throughout our history.”

Back in the 1890s William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Bros, wrote down his ideas for Sunlight Soap: his revolutionary new product that helped popularize cleanliness and hygiene in Victorian England. The aim was ‘to make cleanliness commonplace, to lessen work for women, to foster health and contribute to personal attractiveness, that life may be more enjoyable and rewarding for the people who use our products’. This was long before the phrase ‘corporate mission’ was coined, but these ideas have stayed at the heart of Unilever’s business.

Ruth Newsome
Ruth Newsome

“In 2010 we launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, a natural step in our history that helps us grow our business while reducing Unilever’s environmental footprint and increasing our positive social impact,” Newsome says.

Many of the ambitions outlined in this plan were already in place, but it gave Unilever concrete goals and a roadmap for achieving them. These goals include improving the health and wellbeing of more than a billion people around the world, boosting the livelihood of people throughout the value chain, and substantially increasing the use of agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources with a view to achieving 100 per cent sustainable sourcing by 2020.

“We have always been a sustainability driven organisation, but we hadn’t articulated or communicated this as broadly in the past,” Newsome explains. Unilever’s committed strategic decision also meant that they began to measure, evaluate and even challenge all of their suppliers.

“Sustainable sourcing is a key pillar of our agenda. This is why we value suppliers who share our vision. We continuously measure the performance of our suppliers and the sustainability of their products and services.”

Newsome underlines the significance of transparency, collaboration and partnership in sourcing.

“Responsible sourcing is such a fundamentally important – but also massive – topic that it’s impossible even for a company as large as Unilever to change things alone. There are always opportunities to share knowledge and learn something new.”

Transparency and synergies

Newsome and her team are pursuing Unilever’s agenda of eliminating deforestation, which involves close collaboration with their wood fibre purchasing teams.

To manage responsibility for sourcing, Unilever has defined its top ten commodities and drawn up a roadmap for each of these to achieve a 100 per cent sustainability rating. Wood fibre is one of these commodities. The company’s new Sustainable Sourcing Policy announced in April 2015 emphasises the traceability and origin of fibre.

“Under our new sourcing policy, the wood fibre used for our product packaging will need to be certified in order to be considered sustainable,” Newsome explains.

Unilever is quite near the end of the supply chain, which sometimes makes it tricky for the company to benefit from potential synergies or to manage risks effectively. Even so, Newsome says that having reliable and responsible suppliers is beneficial for all parties involved.

“Responsible sourcing is not only good risk management, but also an opportunity to connect with the millions of consumers who use Unilever products daily and to raise awareness of sustainability. Together with our suppliers, I think we are in an excellent position to do this.”

Unilever

  • Founded in 1929 by the merger of a Dutch margarine producer and a British soapmaker • Turnover EUR 48.4 billion (2014)
  • More than 400 health and wellbeing brands
  • More than 172,000 employees
  • 43% of Unilever managers are women
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