#MUNIonThis: Why is a multinational corporation like Unilever – involved in fast-moving consumer goods, with products using synthetic ingredients or chemicals and large amounts of plastic and foil sachet packaging – one of the proponents of an award-giving initiative dubbed as Unilever Sustainable Living’s Young Entrepreneurs Awards?
When Terri Jayme-Mora, country manager of Ashoka Philippines, the Philippine chapter of the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, got in touch with me about their partnership with Unilever for it, I thought perhaps it was a sinful industry’s way of doing penance for their wrongdoings on the planet; a CSR initiative to feel less guilty about their environmental impact.
However, if there’s something I’ve also learned from Pat Gallardo-Dwyer, former NGO worker and now Global Director for Sustainability of Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts, it’s that large scale change happens by working with these large corporations – who do have a considerably bigger impact on the environment than the smaller players. It’s about being open to working with them to create systemic change.
Unilever Sustainable Living Plan
So I did a little further digging on Unilever and their Sustainable Living Plan, which was launched in 2010 as their blueprint for sustainable growth. This is something they came up with upon realizing that to grow as a company, it is necessary to reduce their environmental footprint while increasing their positive social impact.
Here are some goals I found particularly interesting:
- Halve the greenhouse gas impact of our products across the lifecycle by 2020.*
- Halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products by 2020.*
- Source 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020.
* Environmental targets are expressed on a ‘per consumer use’ basis or a single use portion or serving of a product.
All these are some admirable (and rather ambitious) goals set by Unilever.
However, I’m not about to go out there and start buying Unilever products myself just because of this, but I do know that a large percentage of the population buys their products on a regular basis, and I won’t be able to change the buying behavior of millions overnight.
And though many of their products today still have a large environmental footprint, I am glad that they are taking great steps to making their business more sustainable in the long run, and encouraging other businesses to do the same.
As conscious consumers, we can encourage this behavior from companies by also checking in to see that their living up to their promises / claims.
Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards
After finding out about Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, it made a lot more sense to me that they are among the proponents of the Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards, together with Ashoka Changemakers, and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).
Being indeed an industry that causes a lot of environmental consequences, it is only right that they help in supporting those that provide solutions.
For the second year running, the awards ask today’s young movers and shakers:
“What are you doing to help build a sustainable future?”
Recognition will be given to applicants who have already been working on scalable and sustainable products, services or applications that reduce environmental impacts, improve health and well-being or enhance livelihoods through changes in practices or behaviours.
The seven chosen entrepreneurs will take part in an online development programme and then participate in a two-day accelerator workshop at Cambridge University in January 2015, and access to leading sustainability experts and investors.
Given the Filipino heart and creativity, and the ever-increasing aspiration of the country’s young to set up meaningful, socially and environmentally relevant enterprises, I have no doubt that a Filipino deserves a place in the final 7 as well.
Does this negate the negative effects of the industry?
Unilever is an old company (since 1890), and though one might argue that it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that all these damaging practices came about (excessive use of chemicals and non-biodegradable packaging), that’s still decades worth of consumer habit-formation to be undone.
Sure, it’s great that Unilever is spearheading this initiative too, but it should not cease consumers from asking questions and even demanding that the company rethink their supply chain, their processes, their chemical run-off and their waste management.
Ultimately, these large corporations have a lot to learn from smaller manufacturers that have learned to create wholesome products to begin with. And more importantly, we have more choices available to us as well, so I believe consumers have the power to influence how companies create products too, when we create a demand for more environmentally mindful products.
JEN HORN (@nomadmanager) is a wanderer, writer, and designer out to create a culture of caring for one’s self, one’s community, and the planet as MUNI’s Chief Collaborator. She is also a lover of handwoven textiles, and aims to keep weaving traditions alive through the use of Philippine textiles in modern fashion with her side project Tala Luna.