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Making sustainable living commonplace for 8 billion people


Ten years ago we set out on a journey to become the world’s most sustainable business. As we celebrate a decade of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, we're reflecting on what we've learnt and what comes next.

A group of children raise their hands whilst taking part of Lifebuoy’s handwashing programme

A new beginning...

Our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) was a game-changer for us, and for others.

At a time when most businesses saw sustainability as an add-on to business, we saw that they were inextricably linked. Business success simply could not come at the expense of people and the planet.

So in 2010 we set out to grow our business while increasing our positive social impact and reducing our impact on the environment.

And we committed to driving that progress through far-reaching goals that aimed to change the lives of billions of people. We set more than 50 ambitious, time-bound targets – chosen because we saw them as critical to our business and the world, not because we knew if, or even how, we could achieve them.

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We didn’t think that we had to have all the answers. If we knew all the answers, why hadn’t we already done it? It was very much a journey of ambition. Dr Henry King, Unilever Director of Sustainability Science and Technology

... built on pioneering foundations

That pioneering spirit wasn’t new to us.

Our commitment to changing the world for the better has driven Unilever since William Lever created Sunlight Soap to make health and hygiene affordable to workers more than a century ago.

But the USLP took us further and faster than ever before.

Some goals we have met. Some we have missed. But even where we’ve fallen short, we are a better business for trying.

And having the targets in place was in itself an exercise in managing for sustainability. “You might not know how to get there, but knowing the targets really focuses your mind,” says Ilaria Ida, Unilever Senior Manager, Sustainable Sourcing. “I welcomed those targets and that pressure and that transparency, because it kept us accountable – we knew what our North Star should be.”

Watch the story of our ten-year journey.

Transforming lives. Transforming our business

The USLP wasn't ‘just’ a sustainability plan. It was a plan for a successful, sustainable business – one that was ready to transform itself. “For me, the USLP is a statement that business has to, and can, change its role in society,” says Thomas Lingard, Unilever’s Global Sustainability Director, Climate and Environment.

In creating the USLP, we looked at every aspect of our value chain, and we set out three big goals spanning our social, environmental and economic performance.

Changing business – and changing ourselves

Creating the plan was one thing. Putting it into action was another.

It meant building on successful programmes where they existed. It meant creating new ones entirely where they did not. And above all it meant adapting, year after year, programme by programme, function by function – and person by person.

Because while we had always been a business with purpose at our heart, the USLP was so pioneering that it took time for all of us to understand that we weren’t just changing our business, we were changing the way business was done.

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Over the last ten years one of the most amazing things has been to watch how the people within the company have found their way into ownership of the USLP. Opening people’s eyes to the existence of sustainability, internally and externally, seems to me really important Jonathon Porritt, environmentalist and member of the USLP Advisory Council

Achievements to be proud of

Each year, we’ve reported our progress in our Sustainable Living Report, making sure we account for the targets we’re missing, as well as those we’ve met.

After ten years of the USLP, we can be proud of the positive impacts we’ve made to the lives of billions of people. Here are just a few:

  • We’ve reached 1.3 billion people through our health and hygiene programmes.
  • We’ve reduced the total waste footprint per consumer use of our products by 32% and achieved zero waste to landfill across all our factories.
  • We’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions in our own manufacturing by 50% and reached 100% renewable grid electricity.
  • We’ve reduced sugar across all our sweetened tea-based beverages by 23%, and 56% of our foods portfolio now meets recognised High Nutrition Standards.
  • And as well as enabling 2.34 million women to access initiatives aiming to promote their safety, develop their skills or expand their opportunities, we’ve moved towards a gender-balanced workplace in which 51% of management roles are held by women.
Two boys sit in a field washing clothes over a basin with soap and water

Creating lasting benefits for our business

The USLP has improved our business in lasting ways.

It has helped us grow our brands and drive innovation. It has helped us to avoid over €1 billion in costs, by improving water and energy efficiency in our factories, and by using less material and producing less waste. Sustainable sourcing has helped secure our supplies, reducing risk and volatility in our raw material supply chain. And our approach has helped us attract, and retain, the best talent.

One of the USLP’s biggest achievements has been the way our multi-stakeholder model has changed the world around us.

Many of our targets could not be delivered by us acting alone. So we’ve worked with others, developing global partnerships that are driving transformational change in empowering women, protecting forests, improving health, sustainable farming and more.

“It was a really different way of doing business,” says Rebecca Marmot, Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer. “It meant not just thinking about consumers and shareholders, it also meant thinking about civil society, NGOs, the UN. We realised that if you orientate business in a different way you can play a massive part in bridging development gaps around the world – and that creates opportunities for business.”

Read more about the wider benefits to our business

Learning from what worked – and what didn’t

We failed to reach some of our targets – and when we analyse where we’ve fallen short, we can see key themes that we will build into our work in the future.

For example, we set out to source 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably – but we’ve found it difficult to deliver on targets when we don’t have full visibility of the supply chain.

We’ve also learnt that measuring the actual impact of our programmes is extremely difficult.

We need to be flexible. For example, we set out a waste target in 2010, but revised it in 2017 and again in 2019 to ensure we set ourselves even more ambitious targets, which will radically reshape our plastic use.

We need to be humble. When it came to reducing the greenhouse gas and water impacts of our products, we underestimated how challenging it is to help consumers to change their behaviours, and we misjudged how long it takes to do so.

And we need to advocate for more systems change. We’ve been part of helping to advocate for renewable energy since the start of the USLP, and we’ve come to realise that we have to play a role in advocating for change in other industries as well.

Following our Compass to a sustainable business

So, where do we go next?

Our answer is the new Unilever Compass.

The Compass sets out our vision to be the leader in sustainable business globally – and we mean sustainable in the broadest sense of the word: socially, environmentally and economically.

It is our new, fully integrated corporate strategy which builds on the successes and the lessons learnt over the last ten years of the USLP. It will have nine imperatives and 15 multi-year priorities that cover the full spectrum of our business and our wider ecosystem, with a range of ambitious targets that are more holistic, inclusive and far-reaching than ever before.

While the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is drawing to a close, the journey towards achieving our purpose of making sustainable living commonplace for the world’s 8 billion people continues. We know we can lead the charge, but we need to be better, bolder and faster.

Alan Jope, Unilever CEO
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