Engage to Change: Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan Seeks to Shift Consumer Behavior

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April was a busy month for one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies. A year into its Sustainable Living Plan, the company released its 2011 progress report, and hosted global in-person meetings and a 24-hour live online Sustainable Living Lab, facilitated by GlobeScan. All this activity managed to generate a lot of buzz and rightfully so. Corporate Social Responsibility – or CSR – has been a delicate dance for many companies balancing the growing need for transparency with traditional communication tools that tend advertise only the positive. Unilever’s commitments to reduce its environmental and social impacts are laudable and place the company among a small group of leaders in corporate sustainability. However, what is truly impressive is the way with which this global giant opened the conversation to anyone who wanted to join the dialogue. Especially interesting was the discussion on changing consumer behavior. Unilever wants consumers to use less – a novel idea in an increasingly capitalist-consuming world.

The Lab

Hosting a 24-hour online forum seems like a big task, but not without its rewards. For the company, engaging with stakeholders enables the company to learn from customers, suppliers and others that joined the forum. The Lab was designed around four streams: Sustainable Sourcing, Sustainable Production and Distribution, Consumer Behavior Change and Recycling and Waste. It is a smart, authentic way to try and explore difficult questions.

Ethical Consumer Behavior

According to GlobeScan research, ethical consumers “reward” or “punish” companies by choosing to actively purchase (reward) or refuse to buy (punish) goods and services. [1] Voting with your money is a powerful tool for companies and over the years the increase of “green” products speaks to satisfying growing consumer demands. This pattern creates a rewarding environment for companies such as Unilever who listen to the shifting needs of their customers.

The next step for Unilever is to engage to change – behavior, that is. In an interview with The Guardian Sustainable Business, Unilever CEO Paul Polman acknowledges the uneasy task of working toward targets that require consumer behavior change. [2] In one of the Sustainable Living Lab sessions, a Unilever panelist inquired about the ways consumers can be engaged to reduce hot water use. Linking hot water to greater energy use and therefore carbon is a good way to educate consumers about this nexus. As a consumer, I find myself wondering why a company that makes products to keep me in the shower longer questions my behavior. After all, reducing the temperature of water is good, but not if my shower time remains at thirty minutes at a time.

Unilever is also encouraging consumers to choose foods with less salt. [3] Once again, I am perplexed. Is the role of a company that produces foods with high-salt content asking that I purchase less of its products? This is quite a conundrum.

Meeting Goals and Opening the Dialogue

In his message on the Sustainable Living website, Polman raises the need for a new model of doing business. “In Unilever we believe that business must be part of the solution…It will have to see itself as part of society, not separate from it. And it will have to recognize that the needs of citizens and communities carry the same weight as the demands of shareholders.” [4]

As a skeptical consumer Unilever challenges me to question its consumer behaviour targets. Companies invest significant time and money in shifting customers “wants” to “needs” to help the bottom line. That being said, the company has my attention-and in a positive way. The dialogue has started, and the Sustainable Living Lab was an impressive way to engage. I look forward to the possibility of a repeat next year.

Article by Meirav Even Har of Justmeans, appearing courtesy 3BL Media.

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[1] GlobeScan: Ethical consumers preferring the carrot over the stick, http://bit.ly/IAOcvQ

[2] Joe Confino: Unilever’s Paul Polman: challenging the corporate status quo, The Guardian Sustainable Business Leadership Hub http://bit.ly/IhZ8k2

[3] Joe Confino: Unilever’s Paul Polman: challenging the corporate status quo, The Guardian Sustainable Business Leadership Hub http://bit.ly/IhZ8k2

[4] Unilever: Message from our CEO, Sustainable Living http://bit.ly/IwrW8f

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

2 Comments

  1. “As a consumer, I find myself wondering why a company that makes products to keep me in the shower longer questions my behavior. After all, reducing the temperature of water is good, but not if my shower time remains at thirty minutes at a time.”

    Fascinating. We hope that Practically Green helps with this conundrum: we have created discrete actions to address potentially confusing contradictions like this one.

    E.g., we have ‘Turn down your hot water heater’ (http://www.practicallygreen.com/actions/turn-down-hot-water-heater-to-120-degrees), which is worth 20 Energy points; and we have ‘Reduce Showers to 5 minutes or less,’ also worth 20 points, in Water. (http://www.practicallygreen.com/actions/reduce-showers-to-5-minutes-or-less)

    • Hi Sarah,

      I really like Practically Green in offering ideas and products that can help consumers reduce their environmental footprint and encourage behavioural shift. Technology has a major role to play but so does our behaviour. A more efficient appliance can sometimes make us – the consumer – less careful about how we use it because it is more efficient.

      While I wrote about Unilever’s goals to change consumer behaviour as unexpected, and a bit confusing.. it is nevertheless an important step. If we are to rethink consumerism in the face of global resource depletion, companies such as Unilever are integral, technology has its part, governments must be more active and consumers take responsibility for their purchasing patterns and behaviour.

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