For some years now Unilever has been at the forefront of the brand purpose revolution, arguing a strong financial case for taking a more purposeful approach to business. What's less clear (which isn't to say it hasn't been there) is whether this has been an organisation-wide ethos driven less by a desire to sell more and more by a desire to do right regardless of the business impact, or something marketing-led for brands that would have sold just as well anyway. Because as Bill Bernbach once said, it's not a principle until it costs you money.
Which is why Unilever's announcement yesterday of their new environmental plans is to be applauded: this is not just marketing spin but seems to be a genuine commitment running thru the whole company, done because it's the right thing even though it comes with costs attached.
As CEO Alan Jope says...
“The planet is in crisis, and we must take decisive action to stop the damage”
And their plans are far reaching as a consequence, with many different aspects, but two big headlines...
1. Net zero emissions on all products by 2039
Net zero by 2039 is 11 years earlier than the Paris Agreement, and covers the whole supply chain from raw materials to point of sale in the store (it will be interesting to know if this will also include net zero comms!). It doesn't go as far as Microsoft's recent commitment to be carbon negative by 2030 - to actually remove carbon from the environment - but it's definitely a big step in the right direction.
2. A deforestation-free supply chain by 2023
Given the negative impact of deforestation on climate, biodiversity and local communities this is an important development. And one Unilever recognise they have to take to be true to their commitment, given they are the world’s largest single buyer of palm oil, alongside other raw materials that contribute to deforestation. And 2023 is pretty swift, showing what can be achieved when you put your mind to it.
What's sad (if unfortunately necessary) is that this leadership is being shown by our businesses rather than our governments, who you hope would be setting the agenda rather than disguising inaction with smoke and mirrors. But then maybe that's not so surprising, when you realise that the abdication of responsibility and privatisation of risk is a central tenet of the neo-liberal economic system we've been hostage to since the mid-80s: why do what needs doing when you can force others to do it for you.
But even if a response to government inaction that shouldn't deflect from the good work Unilever is doing here, and may we see others soon follow suit.