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Profit through purpose: eight years of pioneering and learning


To mark the publication of our 2018 Sustainable Living Report, here we look at just a few ways we’re innovating for impact.

Unilever Sustainable living banner

We are eight years into our Sustainable Living Plan and have made significant progress across many of our targets.

Watch our film below or visit our highlights page to find out more.

We have also learnt a lot during that time. Not least that new technologies, new business models and new ways of thinking are all vital to creating the change the world needs – quickly and at scale.

While we still face many challenges and we don’t have all the answers, it’s clear that doing things differently will continue to be a key driver of our growth.

“'Making Sustainable Living Commonplace' will remain our purpose as a company”, says our CEO Alan Jope, “and we will use this to keep Unilever at the forefront of ensuring business is a force for good. More and more of our brands will become explicit about the positive social and environmental impact they have. This is entirely aligned to the instincts of our people and to the expectations of our consumers. It is not about putting purpose ahead of profits, it is purpose that drives profits.”

Here are just a few ways we’re innovating for impact.

Breakthrough steps towards a circular economy for plastics

As a packaged goods company we are acutely aware of the impact of plastic packaging on the environment. We’re pioneering new technologies and business models to further our strategy of using less plastic, better plastic and even no plastic at all. And where we do use plastic, we’re committed to transitioning to a circular economy.

In Indonesia, we’re piloting a breakthrough technology on multi-layer plastics used in sachets. This aims to turn used sachets into new polymers on a commercial basis. If successful, it could herald a way to make sachet recycling more circular for us, and for industry as a whole.

We’re innovating business models, too. In January, we announced a partnership with Loop, a waste-free shopping pilot, where products are shipped directly to consumers, then returned and refilled. Some of our brands have developed new formats for the platform, such as refillable deodorant sticks and toothpaste tablets.

Loop delivery

Meeting the water challenge through innovation

Our biggest water impact happens when consumers use our products to shower, bathe or clean their clothes. And that’s a challenge, because while we’ve had some success with behaviour change programmes designed to reduce use, progress hasn’t been fast enough. So we’re developing new products and formulations that work with less water, poor quality water or even no water at all.

For example, we came up with the innovative Domestos Flush Less toilet spray, which disinfects and eliminates malodours without the need to flush. Since each flush uses about 9 litres of water, this novel yet simple solution has the potential to make a big impact in water-scarce regions.

We also launched our Love Beauty and Planet range, whose conditioners use innovative technology which helps them break down into smaller molecules and rinse out faster. This gives consumers the opportunity to go easy on the tap and cut down their shower time to save water.

Love beauty and Planet products

Boosting incomes and livelihoods, especially for women

We have the potential to positively impact the lives of millions through our value chain. One important group is small-scale retailers in emerging markets, who are often women. It’s here that innovations in digital and e-commerce can really unlock barriers to improving incomes and growth, building on our Shakti model.

Our Jaza Duka initiative in Kenya – a partnership with Mastercard – digitises the processes of buying supplies and selling goods, allowing retailers to build the credentials to access bank loans. This gives them better control of their inventory, so they can stock up to meet consumer demand.

Kasha – an initiative within our TRANSFORM partnership – is another example. This e-commerce and content platform in Rwanda confidentially sells and delivers women’s health and personal care products through a novel distribution system that empowers women and enables growth.

Sustainable Living Highlights 2019

Harnessing the power of plants for healthier diets

We’ve made good progress on reformulating our products to reduce salt, sugar and fat – 48% of our portfolio by volume now meets our Highest Nutritional Standards, based on globally recognised dietary guidelines.

Today, more and more people want to increase the proportion of their diet that contains plant-based foods made with natural ingredients. Meeting this consumer demand fits perfectly with our vision of sustainable business growth, and our portfolio kept growing in 2018.

For example, we are increasing our offering of vegan/non-dairy products. Ben & Jerry’s, Cornetto, Magnum and Breyers all have non-dairy variants. And in 2018, we acquired The Vegetarian Butcher, which aims to be the largest butcher in the world through its plant-based portfolio.

Good progress but much more to do

We are making good progress overall against our targets, but we recognise that some will be difficult to achieve by the end of 2020. That doesn’t mean we’ll give up.

Waste is a prime example. Our waste footprint per consumer use has reduced by 31% since 2010. We have made good progress in areas where we have direct control, such as reducing waste in our own operations and through alternative packaging design. In areas beyond our direct control, progress has been slower, despite active lobbying to drive up collection and recycling infrastructure. We will accelerate our efforts on packaging and driving up demand for recycled content.

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