Unilever chief calls for more climate action from governments

Unilever’s latest sustainability report offers an insight into a multinational performing well financially but struggling to convince its customers to adopt sustainable lifestyles.

The food and cleaning products giant has a target to halve its environmental impact at all levels of the supply chain by the end of the decade.

Unilever Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman says ‘good progress’ was made towards achieving that aim in a year when the company increased turnover by 10.5%, taking it past €50 billion.

(Pic: Unilever Sustainable Living Plan 2012 report)

Last year its greenhouse gas emissions were 31.5% lower than in 2008, while renewable energy accounted for 26.3% of total energy use.

The 2012 Sustainable Living Plan (SLP) update also reports ‘considerable’ progress in the sustainable sourcing of meat and vanilla. Overall it says 36% of agricultural raw materials are sourced ‘sustainably’.

But Polman admits that altering consumer behaviour at home has proved difficult, despite the company’s vast reach and marketing power.

“We are finding that helping people to use less hot water and energy when washing, showering and doing the laundry is challenging,” he writes.

“We continue to experiment with ways to tackle this, such as detergents which perform well in shorter wash cycles, and dry shampoo which might encourage people to wash their hair with hot water less often.”

Progress towards 100% certified sustainable palm oil, a key ingredient in many cleaning products, remains on course, and Polman says Unilever are planning a push on empowering women in developing countries.

But he says that the company cannot meet its targets or change consumer behaviour without more support from governments and NGOs.

“In areas where big breakthroughs are needed, we must step up joint working with others,” he says.

“Making more progress on healthy eating, for example, will require action across the industry whilst governments will need to take a bigger lead on action to combat climate change and decarbonise energy supplies.”

“Overall it is clear that we will need creative as well as science-based solutions if we are to achieve our full ambition by the end of the decade.”

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