A Purpose-driven Company, Unilever

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Unilever brands take an active part in social change and put sustainable development at the heart of all their activities

Children playing in garden

“As a large consumer goods company with a global presence, Unilever has a responsibility for society and the planet” Osan Community Garden, US Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, license CC

For a company, there are many ways of supporting support social causes and participate in the Sustainable Development Goals, for example by collaborating with NGOs or through their corporate social responsibility objectives. We have interviewed Ana Palencia, Director of Communication and CSR of Unilever Spain. Since 2010, the company has developed the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, a cross-cutting project that aims to improve the quality of life of millions of people, and an objective intersects with one of the recent years’ greatest global projects: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda.

Do you think that the social involvement of the business sector is important to change people’s lives?

Every day over two billion people worldwide use some of the 400 Unilever brands. As a large consumer goods company with a global presence, Unilever has a responsibility for society and the planet. We have a duty to set an example and promote new sustainable economic models aimed at helping improve people’s quality of life, health and well-being. We have the capacity to drive change, but we cannot do it alone: ​​we need our entire chain of value and the help of many other companies, large or small. Through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan we are committed to improving the quality of life, health and well-being of millions of people worldwide by 2020; at the same time we also have to try and develop our business. In Spain, we’ve adapted these lines of work to local needs with programmes such as “Unilever Comparte” in Viladecans, the city where the company’s headquarters are located in Spain. We also carry out initiatives such as the “Soy Frigo” program to combat youth unemployment and help groups at risk of exclusion; we also have self-esteem workshops aimed at adolescents. All this requires the involvement of public and third sector organizations as well as educational centres. The sum of efforts is the key to success and everyone is quite satisfied to contribute.

Screen capture of the 'Soy Frigo' web site

The “Soy Frigo” programme was created to combat youth unemployment and help groups at risk of exclusion

We know that consumers value our sustainability strategy positively and in Spain we especially devote our action to have a social impact through various initiatives. Consumers know that brands with a sustainable purpose are good for their food and hygiene, but that they can also help generate changes in the world. Unilever has evidence that shows that purpose-driven brands, which already represent 70% of Unilever’s growth, are growing almost twice as fast as those that are not. That is why we want sustainability to become commonplace in people’s lives, so we put this idea at the centre of everything we do.

What are, in your opinion, the most urgent social needs and in which lines does Unilever’s CSR work at this time?

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is based on three pillars, two of them having a clear social impact. The first one is the improvement of quality of life, and we are dedicating special efforts on promoting equal opportunities for women, fairness in the workplace, as well as support to small farmers and small distributors to help them develop more sustainable practices and have higher incomes. The second pillar is the improvement of millions of people’s health and well-being through access to drinking water, better hygiene, improved nutrition, oral health, self-esteem, etc. These are clearly social objectives, but they also have an environmental component, this is why many of our initiatives are cross-cutting in nature. For example, improving nutrition means, on the one hand, working on sustainable foods that are healthier for people, but also reducing the water consumption or pesticides. Recent data show that consumers, in addition to worrying about health, also care for the environment. Actually, Spain is one of the EU’s most environmentally aware countries in this regard. 75% of Spaniards prefer to buy products with a packaging that respects the environment, a figure only surpassed by Italians (81%).

Unilever Sustainable Living Plan

Purpose-driven brands are growing almost twice as fast as those that are not.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda have been established to achieve fairer and more equal societies and thousands of organizations work to ensure that they are fulfilled. Is Unilever also involved with the SDGs?

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is strongly associated with the Sustainable Development Goals both for its approach and cross-cutting planning. We are aware of which SDG impacts each of our programmes and actions. We also consider that they represent a major advance because they establish a common language for link-minded organizations to work with, with the aim of achieving a sustainable business model. The sum of Unilever’s various initiatives has an impact on all of the 17 SDGs.

We believe that the increase of inequalities and the ever growing pressure on the planet’s resources are bad for business.  The good news is that we have the beginning of an answer to these great global challenges: the Sustainable Development Goals. In order to advance in the implementation of the SDGs, we must move from a linear to a circular economy and this involves changing our consumption habits. The cost of not acting is becoming higher than the cost of action.

What is Unilever’s commitment to gender equality? Are you already seeing the results? What still needs to be done?

Unilever has recently obtained the Equality in Business label in Spain. In addition, last March, UN Women recognized our work in El Salvador for gender equality by joining the #HeForShe campaign. We believe that women’s empowerment is the key factor of human development and economic growth, and that by changing the norms and stereotypes that still hold women back, we’ll be able to transform both our company and society positively.

Young African Leaders Initiative

“Empowered women play an essential role in creating prosperous economies” – Young African Leaders Initiative, July 2014, official White House photo by Pete Souza, license: CC

Empowered women play an essential role in creating prosperous economies where our company can grow; likewise, increasing women’s opportunities is key to increasing ours. Worldwide, women control 64% of consumer spending and are the fastest growing consumer group.

Gender equality in the workplace and the labour market could add $ 28 trillion to global annual GDP by 2025 according to estimates by the McKinsey Global Institute. This is a huge opportunity for any company, and especially for ours since more than 70% of our consumers are women.

Our objective for Unilever is to develop gender equality with a strong focus on management. Since 2009, we have been committed to developing a gender-balanced organization and our objective is clear, half of the organization’s managerial positions should be occupied by women by 2020.

On the other hand, as part of our maternity and paternity support programme, we’ve launched a Global Maternal Well-being Standard, which offers sixteen weeks of maternity leave. Although our previous standards already met the local requirements, this new policy is an important step forward since it exceeds local regulatory requirements in 54% of the countries in which we work.

To achieve our objectives, we created the Equality Commission, which has helped us promote various initiatives, such as the use of a neutral and inclusive language, the use of blind resumes and the implementation of balanced staff turnover plans, among others.

Women make up 70% of your consumer base. How do you think empowering women and women’s talents can benefit Unilever and its CSR initiatives? 

The decision to purchase our products is basically the responsibility of women, it is therefore essential to encourage active listening and applying a gender perspective to our products so as to better connect with the people who use them. Women are also increasingly determined to be in control of their own destiny, including in matters related to the work or training environment. Although the percentage of women in specific trades does not yet reach parity rates, it is growing, especially in areas related to technology and sustainability. Having women’s talents is essential to offer the best products and incorporating a gender perspective in everything we do generates a greater connection with our value chain. If we want to promote sustainability as a component of every day’s life women are great partners in this process.

To give you just an example, in Spain the “Soy Frigo” employment promotion programme will have female participants who have suffered from gender violence, through a partnership with the Ana Bella Foundation. When they are offered an opportunity to improve their quality of life the involvement of women can be spectacular. Another example is the work we do in India where we’ve built a distribution system based on female micro-entrepreneurs. This programme enables them to become financially independent and to change their social reality, while on the other hand they generate excellent business results through their knowledge of the territory. Adapting the initiatives to the social reality of each country is essential.