Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO

Unilever wants to decouple its business growth from environmental impact. “We have ambitious plans to grow the company. But growth at any price is not viable. We have to develop new ways of doing business which will ensure that our growth does not come at the expense of the world’s diminishing natural resources,” says Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO.

Unilever’s “Sustainable Living Plan” sets out over 50 social, economic and environmental targets with three major axes: halve the environmental footprint of the company’s products, help 1 billion people improve their health and wellbeing, and sustainably source 100% of the agricultural raw materials used by the company (including, by 2015, palm oil).

People tell us they want to reduce their environmental impact but find it hard to change their behaviour and don’t know how they can make a difference,” explains Polman. “By halving the total carbon, water and waste impact of our products, primarily through innovation in the way we source, make and package them, we can help people make a small difference every time they use them. As our products are used 2 billion times a day in nearly every country in the world, our consumers’ small actions add up to make a big difference.

Paul Polman sees no conflict between Unilever achieving its sustainability goals and growing its business. He considers that tackling sustainability challenges provides new opportunities for growth: “it creates preference for our brands, builds business with our retail customers, drives our innovation, grows our markets and, in many cases, generates cost savings.

However, Polman emphasises that Unilever does not have all the answers and that the company would need to work in partnership with customers, suppliers, governments and NGOs if it was to achieve its goals.

Last month, another giant consumer goods producer, Procter & Gamble, also unveiled its long-term environmental sustainability vision.