October 16, 2019

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Partnerships & Policies: Creating Sustainable Models At Unilever

Business has a big role to play in striving for equitable and sustainable growth, but large-scale change will only come about if there is real collaboration between companies, governments and NGOs.


By Gail Klintworth, Chief Sustainability, Unilever

In this third and last blog post responding to the many questions that came up during our recent Twitter chat, I will focus on questions related to partnerships and policies. Some questions that I will cover: 

  • You can’t do it alone, so which partners are most instrumental to helping you achieve your Sustainable Living goals? [From @mccaffreymike]
  • How have you been able to engage your supply chain in your Sustainability Living Plan goals? [From @csrconsultant]
  • Have you shared #SustLiving secrets with competitors to magnify impact? [From @csrconsultant]
  • What is Unilever's point of view for influencing government/regulatory to raise the bar? CO2? [From @howardconnell]

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, we see considerable progress.

However, we also face challenges, which we cannot solve alone. To reach our goals and achieve large-scale change, Unilever believes even more collaboration is needed between companies, governments, NGOs and consumers. We firmly believe business has a big role to play in striving for more equitable and sustainable growth, but large-scale change will only come about if there is real collaboration between companies, governments and NGOs across all these areas.


This is exactly why we continue to work with others – governments, NGOs, customers, suppliers and other businesses – to drive progress in:

  • Sustainable forestry and agriculture
  • Improving smallholder farmers’ livelihoods
  • Providing more safe drinking water
  • Sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and
  • Encouraging sustainable consumption

Sustainable Forestry and Agriculture

One example, which also answers the question of sharing ideas with competitors and working with peers is related to our work in sustainable forestry and agriculture. Unilever has actively led the Consumer Goods Forumprocess of building a public-private partnership between the U.S. government and the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a large industry body made up of almost all the world’s major retail and consumer goods companies, to reduce and eventually eliminate deforestation associated with the sourcing of palm oil and pulp and paper in the first instance.

The Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 was announced at the Rio+20 Summit and, in addition to the CGF and U.S. Government, the Dutch and Norwegian governments have signed up and we held our first Summit in July hosted by the Indonesian government in Jakarta. Many companies and NGOs came together with governments to agree a set of actions that will enable the scaling up of solutions to enable zero deforestation in Indonesia.

Improving Smallholder Farmers’ Livelihoods

Another example relates to improving smallholder livelihoods: Unilever, the Netherlands-based Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) co-fund farmer field schools. Between 2007 and 2012, 450,000 farmers have been trained to the Rainforest Alliance standard [in preparation for certification].

In 2012, Unilever, IDH and partners agreed to invest a further €4 million to take our sustainability initiatives to scale. This training will benefit not only Unilever but the tea industry as a whole.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

On water, sanitation and hygiene, Unilever and Domestos are working with UNICEF, the World Toilet Organisation and others to make toilets more accessible and affordable to those who need them through the Unilever Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is to improve quality of life through the provision of hygiene, sanitation, access to clean drinking water, basic nutrition and enhancing self-esteem. 

Sustainable Consumption

To encourage sustainable consumption, we have worked on ‘A Better Future Starts at Home,’ a joint shopper program with Tesco for the last three years. It combines advice on sustainable living with promotions of sustainable products. Nine countries including the U.K. and China have run the sustainable consumptionprogram.

In 2012, we launched a joint program "The Living Project" with Walmart to help 200 million shoppers every week make sustainable choices. So far it has been implemented in Brazil, China and the U.S. Looking ahead, partnering with governments, kitchen and bathroom appliance manufacturers, retail customers and consumers will be key to making progress.

Policies: The Role of Business in Driving Legislation

I was pleased to see the questions on the role of polices and how these are part of driving the much needed large-scale change. Especially if you remember the outcome of Rio+20 and the recent vote in the European Parliament on addressing the carbon emission trading.

It is crucial that we actively engage with governments and regulators to create an environment that can help us achieve the commitments set out in the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. The private sector, governments and NGOs can achieve a lot more if they work together in partnerships.

We believe that Unilever should play an active role in shaping legislation and regulations that enhance positive social and environmental outcomes. For example, the biggest contribution we can make toward tackling climate change is through supporting the call for ambitious reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions – as we did at the UNFCCC Conference in Durban in 2011 and the UN united nations framework on climate changeConference on Sustainable Development in Rio in 2012, and as we will continue to do in preparation for future sustainability summits.

During 2011, we implemented a new approach to advocacy.

We created a new advocacy team with the aim of working together with other stakeholders to bring about changes in public policy in key areas of health and sustainability. We chose areas where we can make the biggest difference and which are most relevant to achieving the ambitious targets in our Plan.

These include:

  • Influencing greenhouse gas policy to achieve a policy environment which promotes low carbon
  • Promoting the importance of washing hands with soap in countries where this issue is not high on the public health agenda
  • Improving recycling and waste infrastructures to increase national recycling rates, and
  • Enhancing trade policy terms for sustainably sourced agricultural commodities to encourage a more systemic shift towards sustainable agricultural practices.

We are now actively engaged in these areas and working with a wide range of NGOs, experts, practitioners and intergovernmental institutions. We are also encouraging our companies to engage with local governments and other organisations to help inform public policy.

Post-2015: Looking Beyond the Millennium Development Goals

[@steveacohen asked: What policies would advance aggressive #sustainability strategies?] Last but not least, our CEO Paul Polman was invited by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to become a member of the UN High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP). The group comprised of 27 representatives from government, civil society and business was tasked with advising the Secretary-General on the future development agenda when the current UN millenium development goalsMillennium Development Goals expire in 2015.

Their recommendations were presented in May in a report called A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development. This report sets out a universal agenda to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, and deliver on the promise of sustainable development. The report also calls upon the world to rally around a new Global Partnership that offers hope and a role to every person in the world.

Well that wraps it up!

What started as an hour-long conversation on Twitter has evolved into an ongoing dialogue, thanks to your valuable questions and feedback. We believe in the power of engagement and I hope my posts gave you insights into how we are driving sustainability at the heart of our business.

I have no doubt that with resolve and inspiration we can together create solutions at scale that will enable sustainable living so that nine billion people will be able to live a quality life within the natural planetary boundaries. 

Keep an eye on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development Action 2020 process, this will also give you some ideas on the must-haves for 2020 and the initiatives that business can take to contribute to our bold ambition of ‘making sustainable living commonplace’.

Please continue to share your ideas on Twitter at #SustLiving.


Part II: Accounting for Impact: A Closer Look At Unilever's Value Chain

Part 1: Embedding & Measuring Sustainability: Unilever's Sustainability Chief Addresses Its Stakeholders

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