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Unilever pushes for green growth

Consumer goods group Unilever unveiled an ambitious new sustainability plan that aims to double sales and halve the environmental impact of its products over the next 10 years.

The initiative will cover not just Unilever’s greenhouse-gas emissions, waste and water use, but also the impact caused by its suppliers and consumers, from agricultural growers to the packaging and waste water produced by consumers of Unilever brands, which include Dove, Persil, Bertolli, Flora and PG Tips.

“More than two-thirds of greenhouse emissions and half the water in Unilever products’ lifecycle come from consumer use, so this is a commitment on an unprecedented scale,” the company said.

The Anglo-Dutch group also intends to improve the nutritional quality of its food products — with cuts in salt, saturated fats, sugar and calories — and link more than 500 000 smallholder farmers and small-scale distributors in developing countries to its supply chain.

The group’s new sustainable living plan is the result of 12 months’ planning. Chief executive Paul Polman said the plan was essential because “continuing to increase our environmental impacts as we grow our business is not viable”.

He said it was essential that companies took responsibility for the damage they were doing to the planet as concerned consumers were starting to “vote with their wallets on responsible products”.

“Consumers want more,” he said. “They see food shortages, malnutrition and climate change, and governments are not addressing those problems. Companies that do this will get a competitive advantage.”

The new sustainability plan aims to slash the carbon, water and waste impact of its products in half, “primarily through innovation in the way we source, make and package them”.

Among its targets are:

  • Sourcing 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2015, including 100% sustainable palm oil.
  • Changing the hygiene habits of one billion people in Asia, Africa and Latin America to help reduce diarrhoea, the world’s second-biggest cause of infant mortality, by pushing sales of its soap brands and teach consumers when to wash their hands.
  • Making drinking water safer in developing countries by extending sales of its home water purifiers.
  • Improving standards of living by working with agencies such as Oxfam and the Rainforest Alliance.

Polman denied that some of the aims in the plan were designed primarily to boost sales of Unilever products and that sustainability inevitably means consuming less.

“There are billions of people in the world who deserve the better quality of life that products like soap, shampoo and clean drinking water can provide — We shouldn’t be ashamed of growth. But growth at any price is not viable. We have to develop new ways of doing business that will ensure that our growth does not come at the expense of the world’s diminishing natural resources.”

The Unilever plan comes in the wake of an array of new sustainability pledges from larger rival Procter & Gamble. The United States group, whose brands include Pampers, Ariel and Gillette, recently set a number of environment-based targets, including powering its plants with 100% renewable electricity and sending zero waste to landfills. — Guardian News & Media 2010

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Julia Finch
Julia Finch works from London. Julia Finch is the Guardian's business editor Julia Finch has over 4901 followers on Twitter.

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