Unilever’s Supersized 2020 Sustainability Plan

This is a guest post by Alvina Lopez.

When we think of sustainable business, we often think of small- to mid-sized businesses drawing up modest plans to decrease their carbon footprint. Large, multinational corporations are often considered the “bad guys”, whose efforts at sustainability are more than likely buzzword-filled PR campaigns that promise much but deliver little.

Unilever, a multi-billion dollar corporation that produces thousands of consumer products like Dove soaps, Lipton teas, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, may dispel this common “big bad wolf” image after revealing its enormously ambitious sustainability plan last week. Here’s a rundown of what Unilever hopes to accomplish by 2020.

1. Halve the environmental impact of their products.

Unilever plans to halve their carbon footprint by examining how their products effect their environment at every point in a product’s lifecycle, from production to consumption. Unilever plans on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and product packaging drastically over the next decade. To reduce GHGs, Unilever will reformulate their cleaning products such that they are more compact and concentrated, among other methods. Unilever plans to cut down on water use in crop growing–a big water hog–as well improve technology and engagement to cut water waste in their manufacturing plants, especially in countries that have been identified as “water scarce”.

2. Improve the health and well-being of over a billion people worldwide.

Unilever has acknowledged that sustainability must take into account the well-being of people in addition to our environment. Unilever plans to provide safe drinking water for 500 million people by 2020 as well as improve the nutritional content of all their food products. Unilever is also tackling hygiene by launching campaigns to encourage hand washing and other habits in order to reduce the incidence of life-threatening illnesses like diarrhea in at-risk areas around the world.

3. Encourage and develop small-scale farmers and micro-entrepreneurs.

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One of the biggest attacks launched against large corporations like Unilever is that they serve to stamp out businesses that are smaller in scope. By 2020, Unilever has pledged to introduce 500,000 smallholder farms and distributors worldwide into their supply chain. The company will also further encourage micro-entrepreneurs, particularly women, by further developing their door-to-door sales programs in India. They hope to expand their recruitment from 45,000 currently to 75,000 by 2015.

These are just a few of the changes that Unilever hopes to implement within the next decade. The company has set over 50 target initiatives, which are outlined in greater detail on their sustainable living site. According to a Reuters, Unilever’s plan is “comprehensive”, “rigorous”, and “far-reaching”. Although it remains to be seen if the company will successfully carry out its goals, the fact that it has kept meticulous records and measurements of its environmental and socioeconomic impacts over the years, and that it has a history of successful sustainability initiatives, gives the plan greater credibility. Many large corporations have shied away from sustainability plans because of the associated costs, but Unilever remains confident that they can carry out their plan while doubling their growth. If successful, Unilever will certainly serve as a role model for sustainable business practices everywhere.

Alvina Lopez regularly writes on the topics of accredited online schools. She welcomes your comments at her email Id: alvina.lopez (AT) gmail DOT com.