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September 6, 2016

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Unilever embraces green future and places sustainability at core

UNILEVER recently won the Green Development Excellence Award for the “Invest In Green Future” Corporate Social Responsibility Excellence Summit in Shanghai with its Mushroom Green Sourcing Project, demonstrating its strong presence and continuous efforts in the sustainability field.

Marijn Van Tiggelen, president of Unilever North Asia, told Shanghai Daily in an exclusive interview that sustainability lies at the core of the company’s business.

“We continue to think about how we as a consumer goods company can provide solutions to make people’s livelihood better and make sustainability come alive and the mushroom project is just a small case in point,” he said.

Since 2005, Unilever has been working with its supplier Shundi, located in Shanghai’s Jinshan District, to apply the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code on mushroom growing. With the support from Unilever, Shundi has eliminated the use of pesticides in its mushroom farm, providing traceable mushroom slices for Unilever’s global procurement.

After a decade-long effort, the mushroom project has achieved a combined business, environment and social benefit output.

“The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan was kicked off five years ago and for us sustainability is not for attracting publicity but rather it goes into every part of our business and we hope to make contributions through our work and our products,” Van Tiggelen said. “There’s a strong belief in Unilever that business can only succeed in societies that develop well and prosper.”

He noted that the company doesn’t expect just one or two brands becoming very visible in sustainability but every aspect of the business should be involved.

One of the targets set out by the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is to help 1 billion people improve their health and livelihood, which may seem like a grand object.

“As many as 2 billion people are in touch with Unilever products each day around the world and that’s an opportunity for us to make that big objective come alive,” he said.

Another distinguished feature of Unilever’s sustainability effort is that it integrates a full end-to-end approach by looking at the total footprint of its business operations from suppliers, factory gate right through supply chain, and end users in product categories ranging from food, cleaning to personal grooming.

“We noticed that the biggest environment footprint is with consumer use so this becomes our biggest opportunity as well as a challenge to change the way consumers use our products,” he said.

Ordinary Unilever employees are also asked how they could contribute to the sustainable living plan through everyday work and in a recent survey in China, as high as 90 percent of employees interviewed believe their work has helped to achieve the big goals of the sustainable living plan.

Unilever also pledged to have 100 percent sustainable sourcing of agricultural raw materials by 2020 because it wants the resources to be still available for future generations.

“If we don’t source the raw materials in a sustainable way, they will not be available, and it doesn’t matter how much money you’re willing to pay because the resources have been depleted,” Van Tiggelen explained.

“If we ignore the sustainability risks, we might face threats to business some day when we fail to source raw materials or crops. We also need to maintain consumers’ trust because nowadays people care more and more about food safety and the environment,” he explained. That’s proven to be applicable to many parts of Unilever business especially in the food segment.

Van Tiggelen said it has started with big segments like tea, oil, vegetables and the company works with a number of partners in different countries.

“We have managed to raise the proportion of the amount of agricultural raw material we source sustainably from less than 10 percent to more than 60 percent last year,” he said.

In China, Unilever also leverages its expertise and capability in a wide number of areas to help suppliers upgrade their technology to better suit the sustainability goal.

“When we have such a big objective, we need to find suitable partners which share with us the same motivation and vision and the expertise and we also work with government authorities or state-owned enterprises because we believe in this way we can make a bigger impact,” Van Tiggelen explained.

At Unilever, sustainability starts right from the research and development, or product innovation phase, as it already has standard templates to assess the sustainability contribution of each step, as well as each step in the manufacturing, packaging and logistics process.

From individual consumer’s angle, sustainability is also becoming increasingly important as it also affects their purchasing decisions and they’re prepared to change their behavior to protect the environment.

Unilever also makes efforts to help consumers shift their behavior starting from very little action in their daily life and consumers are happy to adopt these easy solutions such as an aerator equipment in their shower faucet to save water while enjoying a shower.

“Although there’s still limited number of people who are willing to pay more for new green products or technologies, we’re seeing more and more people willing to make a change through small adaptations of our products and technology offerings,” Van Tiggelen said.

The company has been working with Tencent on its “Small Actions, Big Difference” campaign since 2014 to reach out to a vast consumer base.

“Our collaborations successfully combine the capabilities of these powerful digital companies and our own sustainability ideas to allow consumers to move towards environmental protection targets,” he said.

One important approach of Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is to improve people’s health and wellbeing by providing sustainable access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene and it has been actively pursuing that target through a series of business initiatives.

“Globally, we’ve seen that the demand for clean air, water and personal hygiene are universal for consumers and it’s very logical for Unilever to become a player in that space which offers business opportunity with huge growth potential,” he said.

In August, Unilever signed an agreement to acquire Blueair, a leading player in the premium category of air purifiers, as it continues to see great potential in these segments which are important to people’s livelihood. It also hopes to leverage technology innovation to bring these benefits to more people.

Commenting on the introduction of its anti-germ brand Lifebuoy to China and the acquisition of the water purification business Qinyuan Group, Van Tiggelen believes there’s still great potential in China as Unilever is a small company in a huge country with a population that is becoming more willing to spend on premium products for their health and quality of life.

Van Tiggelen remains confident over the growth prospects of Unilever in China.

“We believe Unilever is perfectly positioned in China as China’s economy enters the new normal to focus more on growing domestic consumption. Unilever, with its rich product offerings and innovation pipeline, is committed to continuously serving Chinese consumers to upgrade their life quality, while contributing to sustainable development in China, through our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan,” Van Tiggelen concluded.


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