Since launching its ambitious Sustainable Living Plan in 2010, Unilever is buying more sustainable palm oil and cage-free eggs, putting less salt and fat in its tomato sauces and spreads, selling water purifiers to poor people in the global south and rolling out climate-friendly freezers for its ice cream.
No big company is doing more to limit its environmental footprint, while improving health and well being and growing its business. Unilever’s commitments are wide and deep. It’s no wonder that the firm and its CEO, Paul Polman, have become darlings not just of corporate-friendly NGOs like WWF, but also a favorite of hard-charging activists from Greenpeace and the Humane Society of the US.
But even as Unilever today [Tuesday, April 26] reported making good progress towards its sustainability goals, questions remain about its strategy: Will consumers–and investors–notice and reward Unilever for its efforts?
It’s obviously too soon to say whether sustainability will drive growth at Unilever, but the early evidence appears mixed. Eco-efficiency efforts in factories have reduced waste and saved money. Unilever revenues have grown nicely, to $46.5 billion in 2011, up $44.2 B in 2010 and $39.8 B in 2009. But the company’s share price is up by less than 2% in the last year in the US market, slightly trailing the S&P500. (It’s doing better in European markets where currency factors don’t come into play.) Meantime, Unilever’s corporate identity is all but hidden behind consumers brands like Lipton, Skippy, Ragu, Bertolli, Hellmann’s, Suave, Dove, Ben & Jerry’s and Breyers, at least here in the US. That makes it hard to win over those consumers who care about companies that do good.
Today, I attended a Washington event with company execs, partners and NGOs where Unilever’s president for North America, Kees Kruythoff, released a progress report on the company’s sustainability efforts. [click to continue…]