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Wednesday, 9th January 2019

Why Unilever's employees are key for a new era of sustainability leadership

EXCLUSIVE: With environmental goals approaching a 2020 deadline and chief executive and the embodiment of sustainability leadership Paul Polman announcing his departure, Unilever’s decision to ask its 172,000 staff what sustainable business meant to them may well keep the firm in the vanguard of corporate responsibility.

Karen Hamilton has served as Unilever's global VP for sustainable business for more than a decade

Karen Hamilton has served as Unilever's global VP for sustainable business for more than a decade

For the past decade, consumer good giant Unilever has widely been regarded as a leader of the corporate sustainability movement, with departing chief executive Paul Polman having championed transparencysocial sustainability and purpose beyond the firm’s products.

This level of leadership has meant that the company’s desire to “make purpose pay” has been embedded as a key part of board-level discussions for many years.

But Unilever went one step further in winter 2017, when it invited all its employees to have their say on the future of the company’s sustainability strategy for the first time.

More than 40,000 members of staff – representing the majority of the firm’s markets and departments – took part. They were asked to detail the lessons they had learned from previous green projects, and to explain what they believed the future of business leadership would look like.

The survey served as a “massive co-creation exercise” for Unilever, according to the firm’s global vice president for sustainability, Karen Hamilton, who argued that it had helped to “distribute” the responsibility for sustainability action throughout the company.

Speaking exclusively to edie ahead of her appearance at the Sustainability Leaders Forum next month (scroll down for details), Hamilton explained that conducting the survey had served to drive even more progress towards making CSR part of every employee’s remit.

“We really want everybody in the company to live our purpose, which is to make sustainable living commonplace,” Hamilton said.

“While we do have people with areas of expertise in fields such as sustainable agricultural practices, supply chains or energy efficiency – and we also have experts in R&D who are more informed about sustainable formula or packaging choices – these people are catalysts to drive bigger change across the business.

“As we start to look beyond our existing sustainability targets – many of which will be completed in 2020 – it is important for all staff to be able to have their say on the company’s future positioning in this area.”

Benefits beyond profit

Prior to the survey, Unilever had disbanded its CSR department in a bid to avoid positioning resource efficiency, energy efficiency, climate action and carbon reduction away from its main operations.

After the survey results were collated, they were shared with every Unilever employee via email and handed to the company’s key stakeholders at a meeting last Spring.

Since then, the firm has become the most sought-after consumer goods firm on LinkedIn, with Hamilton arguing that the board’s transparency and willingness to listen to worker voices had “driven engagement and attracted strong talent”.

“People are motivated to work for a company that is on a journey to becoming more sustainable – this really shows in their commitment to their role,” she said.

Hamilton’s assertions come off the back of several pieces of research revealing that millennials – who will account for 75% of the UK’s working population by 2030 – want to work for companies that have a purpose beyond their products and profits.

Deloitte claimed in 2016, for example, that 49% of millennials will refuse to work for companies that go against their personal ethics. Similarly, communications agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF) recently found that 75% of millennial workers would take a pay cut to work at a purposeful organisation.

But for Unilever, brand purpose and economic growth are starting to become interlinked. The Dutch-Anglo firm has consistently proved the business case for purpose-led sustainability, with the firm's 'Sustainable Living' brands accounting for a record 70% of turnover growth last year and growing 46% faster than the rest of the business.

According to Hamilton, this growth was driven – and continues to be spurred – by the fact that operating sustainably has led to lower operating costs, less exposure to climate risks and greater trust among consumers.

Levels of consumer trust and loyalty have proven particularly high in brands that also act as advocates for positive change. A prime example is Dove, which fronts a project aimed at boosting body confidence among young women, Hamilton told edie.