You may not have heard of Unilever, but there is a fairly high chance you’ve used or purchased one of their products. Unilever is a British / Dutch multinational company which, according to Wikipedia, owns over 400 brands, employs 160,000 staff and had a revenue of around 44 billion dollars in 2010. In NZ we’re familiar with seeing Rexona, Dove, Lynx, Lipton tea and Streets ice cream, it would be a rare supermarket isle that doesn’t have a Unilever owned brand in it. Consequently, when they started talking about radically improving their sustainability record a couple of years ago, many people held their breath in hope…many are still holding their breath, but can at least let a little air out!
When we were in the midst of doing our Rubbish Free Year in 2008, Waveney and I were approached by Unilever in London and asked if we could create a challenge for 12 of their executives. These folk were spread around different countries and Unilever was keen for them to get an understanding of the challenges facing consumers wanting to reduce the amount of packaging and waste coming into their homes, as well as the issue of disposal. So, we created a 8 minute video introducing ‘Unilever’s Biggest Loser!’. You can watch it here! The idea was that they went home and for the next week kept all of their rubbish, which they weighed. The following week they attempted to reduce the amount of rubbish created from their homes and the person with the biggest percentage drop became ’Unilever’s Biggest Loser’. The whole exercise seemed to go very well, and seemed to be helpful in promoting the eco-consumer cause.
We felt fortunate to be able to engage with Unilever in this way, and it was thanks to my oldest brother Christopher letting some colleagues know about what we were doing. Until last month, (told in proud brother voice), Christopher has been heading up Unilever Canada, but is now heading back home to work with Air NZ. Just prior to leaving Unilever he gave a speech to 2000 business leaders at the Toronto Convention Centre outlining how Unilever has been doing a couple of years into it’s Sustainable Living Plan. In it he clarifies that Unilever wants to make money and believes the way to do this is by decoupling growth from negative environmental impacts and contributing towards sustainability. So, by 2020 they plan to have halved the environmental footprints of their products, source 100% of their agricultural raw materials sustainably and help one billion people take action to improve their health and wellbeing.
To try and reduce the showering time of the average North American they’ve created a ‘dry shampoo’ which allows consumers to ‘refresh’ their hair between shampoos thereby reducing the number of showers taken solely for the purpose of washing hair. Deodorant barrel sizes are being increased in order to reduce the amount of packaging to product ratio, which, if all the deodorant producers were to move to this larger barrel size over 755 tonnes of plastic would be eliminated from the waste stream in Canada.
Over the years, Unilever has come under fire from a number of quarters challenging it’s practices with regard to various environmental and social issues. But after banging on for the last few years about the need for manufacturers to change their ways, I felt it was time I acknowledged the not insignificant improvements that are being made and offer some encouragement to eco-consumers that your voices are being heard, so please keep shouting!