Two billion small actions a day, one big difference

Discussing Unilever's commitment to sustainability with John Coyne, Unilever Canada's VP of Legal and External Affairs

John Coyne
John Coyne

Two billion times a day, somebody, somewhere, uses a Unilever brand. Under the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan(USLP), Unilever is developing new ways of doing business that will increase the social benefits of its products while at the same time reducing its environmental impact. The ambitious Plan lays out the company's overall objectives, namely to source 100 per cent of agricultural raw materials sustainably, halve the environmental impact of its products, and help more than one billion people improve their health and well-being.

To mark the one year anniversary of the Plan's launch, John Coyne, Vice President of Legal and External Affairs at Unilever Canada, spoke with Josephine Coombe, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Bullfrog, on the Plan, the thinking behind the company's strategy for sustainable growth and Unilever's support for green energy.

As the Canadian lead on sustainability at Unilever, you have a critical role in the company’s future—tell me about your mandate.

UnileverMy mandate is everyone’s mandate. We can’t afford to think about sustainability as the responsibility of a single individual within Unilever Canada—we need everyone in the organization to be alert to, participate in, and engage with the entire Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. There will clearly be some people who champion specific objectives, and thus my responsibility, along with my capability, is to envision and deploy the kinds of programs we have in the past year, such as our exciting partnership with Bullfrog Power. That’s an obligation I take very seriously.


Do you “take it home”? Do you see yourself as an environmentalist at heart?

Well, first off, I’m not a fan of the term environmentalist. I think it has the capacity to separate... to divide us from people working more directly on behalf of environmental issues. All humans need to act as stewards of the environment—and as such, perhaps we need a new name. In terms of my own life, I know there is always more that I could and should be doing, but I am certainly alert to the challenge to do what I can and to encourage, through example and education, others who want to do their part. As a tenant of my home, my organization, and this planet, I recognize the urgent need to exercise stewardship and to take action on climate change and over-consumption of our resources.

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is an ambitious roadmap for a consumer packaged goods company that relies on producing and selling material goods in presumably ever increasing volumes if business is strong. How do you reconcile your business’ profit motive with its sustainability agenda?

It’s a challenge: growing your business and growing it sustainably may seem to be inconsistent goals, but we believe it’s absolutely possible and that’s why we’re focused on ensuring sustainable growth by addressing each lifecycle stage of our products. That means addressing inputs—such as our black tea, which comes from sustainable sources certified by Rainforest Alliance—and it means sustainably manufacturing those inputs, which requires focus on how we produce, move and store goods before they reach the consumer. Our manufacturing facilities have taken significant measures to reduce CO2, water consumption and waste, to ensure we can sustainably make what we have sustainably sourced. We have dramatically reduced water consumption, and three out of four of our facilities are now zero waste to landfill, with the fourth on its way. With Bullfrog, we’ve eliminated CO2 emissions related to electricity consumption. While we’re not finished, we have a clear path forward on sourcing and production.

When products leave the warehouse, and go onto shelves and ultimately into customer homes, the issue becomes much more complex. Consumers are still learning what it means to make a truly sustainable choice in the store aisle. We need to help consumers, in part through packaging and labelling, to make these choices. And we need to genuinely understand how our consumers are using our products. Education and collaboration will be key features of that development. For example, we’re currently working with the Ivey School of Business on consumer behaviour change analysis—to figure out what’s out there in terms of knowledge about consumer choices, and to better understand how we can help to accelerate behaviour change. Thinking even further ahead, we also developed our EcoVoyageurs program—a curriculum-based program for K-9—designed to prepare the next generation to make better, more informed choices through a sustainability lens. We’re giving youth the tools to understand what sustainability means to their lives, and to be active in reducing their own footprint.

What are the major focus areas of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, and how well are you tracking against your objectives?

The Plan is built around three main objectives: improving the health and well-being of a billion people across the globe, which includes ensuring people have access to critical resources; sourcing our raw materials sustainably; and halving the environmental impact of our products. Underneath each of those goals, we have dozens of specific measures relating to virtually every aspect of our operation, from sourcing through to product disposal and recycling.

Lifecycle analysis of a product’s impact requires scrutiny up and down the value chain from raw materials to consumer usage scenarios—how is your business adapting to this wider perspective?

The Plan focuses strongly on measurement from sourcing through to consumption. We have completed lifecycle analyses for more than 1,600 products in 14 countries representing over 70 per cent of our volume of products we produce. From the time we source the raw materials to when they end up either in a blue box or ideally streamed into a new product lifecycle, we are tracking them. As a company, let alone as an industry, I believe we have an opportunity as well as an obligation to innovate so as to help consumers to modify their behaviour in ways that are more sustainable. For example, concentrating our product formulations, or promoting products and product usage so as to conserve water, are important elements of our role.

Assuming the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is successful, what does Unilever look like 25, 50, or even 100 years from now?

We’ve been in business for over 125 years, and I expect we will still be in business in 125 years. I expect us to be more successful but also more thoughtful. Our people, our heritage, breadth and geographic reach all allow us to engage with consumers in a way that many businesses cannot, and that gives us the opportunity to think, plan and build for the long term.

Is a cultural or mindset shift required to push this agenda forward within Unilever?

As with any big initiative that appears to be a significant strategic change for an organization like ours, you cannot change the minds and educate 170,000 people without a lot of work. And what’s needed is not so much a cultural shift, as an educational shift. We need people to not just know the principles of the Plan, but also to be conversant in the inner workings of the it. So, for example, if I’m a brand manager, my brand should reflect its contribution to the Plan and bring the Plan to bear on my specific activities and outputs. Education is a critical component. We need curious, trained employees who can apply the new ideas that will support sustainability and the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. Today at Unilever, every innovation program has a Plan component to it, so it is already embedded into the existing structures and operations. We are looking at both existing and new products in different ways. How do I concentrate home care products as we did with laundry? How do we redevelop existing products, not just create new products to address sustainability—all of this requires education of all our existing business people, not just the innovators on new products.

Who really drives the development of environmental products: the consumer or the manufacturer?

I believe business bears the lion’s share of the responsibility because we have more knowledge and we have access to all of the inputs to our products. Importantly, we are also consumers. We are the innovators and the sellers—and thus need to take responsibility for what we do. Part of that means describing for consumers what intelligent sustainable choices look like through a variety of devices, including our on-pack messaging with Bullfrog Power.

Through its partnership with Bullfrog Power, Unilever is now the largest commercial purchaser of green energy in Canada. Why did Unilever take such a strong stand on renewable energy?

I believe we need bold examples for others to follow if meaningful investment in renewable energy is to be achieved. This agenda must be undertaken with scale, not incrementalism. There is a cost, but if the true cost of energy choices is measured appropriately, rather than merely as dollar outlay, we can clearly see that the effort will be worthwhile. We need to look at the broader picture, to think about how we are managing our energy use and addressing our carbon footprint.

Unilever is now launching many of its newly “bullfrogpowered” products into the market. What message is this co-branding sending to Canadian consumers?

Consumers’ decisions are made in part based on what a brand stands for and how the packaging communications or messaging reflects that. We want our bullfrogpowered brands to help consumers understand that our brand is a sustainable brand, and that this is a distinguishable feature—a specific point of difference—that allows the consumer to be confident that they are making a more sustainable choice. This on-pack messaging is a critical part of how we communicate to consumers.

If you could send one strong message to your industry, what would that be?

I would encourage industry peers to collaborate whenever and wherever appropriate and to inform themselves as much as possible about the impact their business has on the planet, and the changes they can individually and collectively make to reduce that impact.