Monday 15 November 2010

Why we shouldn't get over-excited by Unilever.

Unilever have announced an ambitious 'Sustainable Living Plan' with plans to cut the environmental footprint of their products in half while doubling their profits. Sounds good hey?!

The first thing I'd like to say is who came up with that awfully uninspiring title? Yawn.

If Unilever had of stood up today and announced that they and all their subsidiaries were going to become a Social Businesses along the lines of Muhammed Yunus' Grameen then I would be on here congratulating them wholeheartedly for making a genuine paradigm shift away from Profit Maximising to Social Benefit Maximisation. They didn't, I hope one day they do.

The first disappointing thing about their plan is the virtual absence of any 'cradle to cradle' thinking. They have added it as one of their 'future challenges', which presumably they will take up after 2020. They say they 'are not in the waste handling business', but they are in waste creating business, so why don't they get into the waste=food business too and close the loop? Again, hopefully one day they will.

One of their stated ambitions is to halve the environmental footprint of all their products. This only really makes their products 'less bad', not 'better'. They have to reconcile this to win over the sceptics. If Unilever moves into new markets, which it has clearly intimated it wants to, then the world could end up consuming twice as much of their 'less bad' product, causing just the same amount of environmental footprint they do now. If waste equalled food, this problem would be less. The message here is don't enter new markets if you haven't worked out how to do it in an environmentally positive way.

There are clever linguistics at play too. To state that they'll halve the footprint of their products, is a dramatically different thing to saying that they'll halve the footprint of Unilever as a whole. They could simply stop selling some of the less useful of their vast array of products and decrease their footprint over night. How much 'Findus Crispy Pancake', 'I can't believe its not butter' and 'Lynx deodorant' do we actually need? And, what about the full life-cycle of these products? They helpfully (for them) point out that it is us the consumer who in fact is to blame for 95% of the CO2 emissions caused by showering. They promise to persuade their customers to take a minute off their shower each day to save 1 million metric tonnes of CO2 a year. They argue that they've been successful persuading their customers to clean their teeth and wash their hands in the past, so changing their showering habits should be a easy. Teeth and hand cleaning have instant personal benefit. 1 minute less in the shower has a totally abstract benefit to the climate some time in the future; it is a completely different thing. Oh yeah and 1 minute less in the shower sounds to me like one less minute to clean myself: 'I'll have to skip cleaning behind my ears today, I've only got 30 seconds left!'

Another 'commitment' they make is to: 'help more than a billion people to improve their health and wellbeing.' Which essentially translates to selling more of their products, to more people, under the guise that it will improve their lives. Selling soap to people so they can wash their hands is undoubtedly a good thing. But what about all those fatty foods and drinks that Unilever sell, will they improve health and wellbeing? They promise to improve the nutritional value of their food and drink, look at that list, they need to make some huge steps (or change the products they sell, out with the processed food in with the 100% sustainably sourced fresh vegetables?)

There are huge question marks on the subject of wellbeing too, especially if we get into emotional wellbeing, which they don't. We've all seen the Lynx adverts, sex sells right? 'Buy Lynx. Get Laid'. Lynx adverts create body image anxieties for men and women, while also advertising sex as THE goal to young teenagers. There are too many examples to list when considering the rest of their advertising. Mostly they appeal to our selfish interests of hedonism, image creation and social status. These values are the complete polar opposite of the sorts of community spirit and 'bigger-than-self' values that need to be encouraged and reinforced if sustainability is ever going to become a reality. It is not just the products that need to adhere to sustainability values, it is the marketing too.

I'll finish by saying this, if you believe that we need businesses to be more localised and connected to the real needs of the communities they are based in; or that supply chains should be shorter and free from fossil fuel use; or that diversity and local variation in products and high streets is a desirable thing, then you might have thought that a 'Sustainable Living Plan' would involve radical fragmentation of multinational companies like Unilever? Instead of acquiring more companies, they could gradually shed them trusting that smaller social businesses would emerge who exist not for financial success, but for success in alleviating a problem. Problems like dirty hands, malnutrition and sanitation.

I'm sorry Jonathon it is not 'the best Plan out there for big global companies'. I'm sorry Solitaire, it is not 'game-changing' it is 'game-perpetuating' and will be until Unilever, and all those who sit cosily beneath them, redefine what it means to be a success. Game changing would imply a change in philosophy, there hasn't been one; this question has not been asked: Do Unilever really need to double their financial revenue by 2020? They certainly could do with doubling their contribution to making the world a better place.

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