Some eye-opening stats: 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, two-thirds of the planet living in water-stressed conditions by 2025, and a 40 percent rise in food prices by 2020. Unilever, the company behind brands like Dove soap and Hellman’s mayonnaise, published its response to this changing world—a “Sustainable Living Plan”—in their 2012 Progress Report. The results cross production boundaries and demonstrate how designers and manufacturers alike can approach our drastically shifting future.
The plan lists 3 major goals to achieve by 2020:
1. Help more than 1 billion people improve their health and well-being;
2. Halve the environmental footprint of their products;
3. Source 100 percent of their agricultural raw materials sustainably.
In short, Uliever wants to grow the business while improving customers’ lives, not unlike the goals of many a designer.
While Unilever estimates it reached 224 million people by the end of 2012, it wants to reach 1 billion by 2020—and add a positive punch to that reach. In developing areas, for example, the company's hand soaps can help prevent disease, and by continually improving the nutritional value of its foods, consumers can achieve a healthier diet (right now Unilever estimates 18 percent of its food portfolio met the criteria for highest nutritional standards in 2012). The company also wants to halve the greenhouse gas (GHG) impact of its products by 2020 (it has already reduced GHG impact by 6 percent since 2010 via manufacturing and product reformulation, and use of renewable energy).
Unilever has many brands that require water usage, from detergents to toothpaste, and another big goal is to halve the water associated with product usage by 2020. Water use is a big issue for the company as it estimates the category has remained unchanged since 2010. How can it hit this goal? Reformulations such as “easy rinse” products, using less water in manufacturing, and also reducing water use in agriculture.
The company has a head start on halving the waste associated with disposing of Unilever products, as they’ve already reduced waste impact 7 percent by the end of 2010. Recycling is a big driver here, of course, both in encouraging consumers to recycle packaging, but also using more recycled materials in the packaging itself.
Sustainable sourcing is another major goal. Right now, 36 percent of Unilever’s agricultural raw materials come from sustainable sources. The company wants to get to 100 percent by 2020. The challenge ahead includes these and other raw materials: tea, fruit, vegetables, cocoa, sugar, various oils, and dairy. All of this includes training of farmers and distributors, positively affecting thousands of livelihoods.
And that’s the over-arching goal of the entire program: Using sustainable methods to grow the business, improving the health and lives of consumers, and as a result improving both the world and the profitability of Unilever. That’s a win-win approach to business and it will be interesting to see how the plan progresses.