Unilever: Boldly going forward…

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…]

Hunter Lovins at Brainstorm Green

CEOs like Alan Mulally of Ford and Lew Hay of Next Era made headlines at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green last week, but some of the most interesting ideas came from the NGOs, academics, writers and sustainability consultants at the conference.

One of my favorites is L. Hunter Lovins, a Colorado cowgirl (with medals to prove it) who’s been a leader of the sustainability movement for decades. Hunter is the co-author (with Paul Hawken and her ex-husband Amory Lovins) of Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, a groundbreaking and influential book, maybe the most important ever written about “green” business. More recently, she wrote (with Boyd Cohen) an excellent book called Climate Capitalism that has been given a new title, which sounds more like Hunter, for the upcoming paperback: The Way Out: Kickstarting Capitalism to Save Our Economic Ass.

Nick Aster of Triple Pundit interviewed Hunter at Brainstorm Green, and she talked about how the sustainability movement is doing (not bad, but it’s mostly been about incremental movement) and why more radical change is needed companies (to save ecosystems that are required for life, to stop from overheating the planet). “All of the good work that’s being talked about at this conference isn’t enough,” she says. Companies need to rediscover their purpose to thrive, she argues. It’s worth taking 10 minutes to hear what she has to say about Unilever, Puma, the importance of bees and a new group of business advocates and advisers called The Blue Earth Network:

Why I’m (still) an optimist

Happy New Year! And good riddance to 2011, a year during which we made little or no progress on some of the issues that I care most about: climate change, the long-term federal debt, social mobility (aka the American dream), and our dysfunctional Congress. Yet I remain an optimist.

Texas drought 2011

I could write many words about our woes. Instead, I’ll try to be succinct. On the climate issue, global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, we learned recently, and 2011 surely brought further increases.  Concentrations of CO2 are 39% above where they were at the start of the industrial era and approaching the point when some scientists say it will be nearly impossible to contain global warming, the Guardian reports. Neither the US nor the UN moved closer to regulating CO2. In a discouraging development, Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich backed away from their once-sensible support of greenhouse gas regulation, in what can only be seen as shameless pandering to the know-nothing wing of the Republican Party. Discouraging, too, was the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which will slow down the growth of carbon-free nuclear power. So will the failure of Solyndra. Meanwhile, the U.S. suffered massive flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, a terrible drought in Texas, record wildfires and at least 2,941 monthly weather records that were broken by extreme events, according to the NRDC.. Coincidence? Uh, no.

Like the atmospheric concentrations of CO2, the federal budget deficit has been growing.That’s no coincidence either. We’re living beyond our means, whether by burning fossil fuels or taxpayer dollars, and sticking future generations with the cleanup bill. Just last week, the White House asked for a $1.2 trillion increase in the federal debt limit, raising it to about $16.4 trillion. According to Marketplace Radio, that amounts to about $52,000 for every American. For a typical  family of four, that’s bigger than the mortgage. [click to continue…]

Big brands take climate action but…

Led by Unilever, Astra Zeneca and Nike, consumer brands are taking climate change more seriously than ever, says a new report from Climate Counts, a nonprofit that rates some of the world’s largest companies on their climate impact.

Big companies are reporting emissions, committing to targets and becoming more vocal in the policy arena, according to the report.

“There’s evidence to suggest we have reached a remarkable tipping point,” says Mike Bellamente, project director of Climate Counts. “Global corporations are increasingly acknowledging climate change as reality and are adopting measures to reduce their emissions and environmental impact.”

This is the fifth report from Climate Counts, which is the brainchild of Stonyfield Farms CE-Yo Gary Hirshberg. The ratings are intended to make consumers more aware of leaders and laggards on climate — the term of art for this is “rank ’em and spank ’em — as well as to spur companies to do better. or whatever reason, companies are improving: Bellamente told me over the phone the other day that the average score for the 136 companies rated this year is up by an impressive 54% from the initial set of ratings. [click to continue…]

Unilever CEO: “Don’t stay on the sidelines”

As a global consumer products giant, with $44 billion euros [nearly $60 billion] in 2010 revenues, Unilever has a big impact on how and what people buy. Two billion consumers use a Unilever product on any given day. If you use Lipton Tea, eat Hellman’s mayonnaise or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or use Dove or Lifebuoy soaps or  Suave hair products, you’re among them.

Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO, embraces the idea that his company can make the world more just and sustainable. Unilever buys about 4-5% of the world’s palm oil, so it has promised to purchase all its palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015. It buys about 7% of the world’s tea, making it the world’s largest buyer, so Unilever aims to have all the tea in all Lipton tea bags sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ estates by 2015, and 100% of its tea sustainably sourced by 2020.

“We have to take that responsibility,” Polman said today (Nov. 22) during a webcast called Sustainable Living: Mainstream or pipe dream?  The webcast, organized by the Guardian Sustainable Business, was held a year after Unilever released its sweeping Sustainable Living Plan, in which it promised to cut the environmental footprint of its products in half, help more than 1 billion people take action to improve their health and well-being, and source 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably. [See my 2010 blogpost, Unilever’s big, broad, bold sustainability plan.]

But there are limits to what even a big company can do, so Unilever has begun thinking seriously about how to change consumer behavior around sustainability. Today, it released a new report called Inspiring Sustainable Living [available for download] which identifies five levers for change: Make it understood, make it easy, make it desirable, make it rewarding, make it a habit. [click to continue…]

Helen Clarkson: Beyond incrementalism, five steps to sustainability

Helen Clarkson

Today’s guest post comes from Helen Clarkson, US head of Forum for the Future, a London-based nonprofit that works with business and government leaders to “create a green, fair and prosperous world.” Helen’s got an interesting background: She trained as an accountant because she wanted to work in the international aid industry. “It’s quite boring, but you learn so much about business,” she told me. She spent six years at Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), doing stints in Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria and the Congo, where she saw first-hand the intersection of economics, health and environment. She joining Forum for the Future in 2007, and opened its office in New York at the beginning of this year.

As you read the green business news over your morning (Fair Trade?) (organic?)  coffee, there’s  lots to get excited about in the world of sustainability.

2011 is shaping up to be the year of the electric car. Clean tech appears to be thriving. Innovative thinking brings us everything from greener cleaning products to new business models such as Zipcar.

But while these announcements promise more sustainable ways of doing things, turning to the science pages can quickly undo your positive mood. Put simply, water, forests, soil – all the essentials of life – are becoming depleted and degraded at a dangerous rate, and our climate is changing at a speed and on a scale far beyond anything modern humanity has ever experienced.

This is an unprecedented challenge. And when you put the scale of the challenge next to the scale of solutions being undertaken you realize that all is not that rosy in the world of sustainability. [click to continue…]

Will Rosenzweig: Venturing in sustainability

Most venture capital investors don’t have a focus. Kleiner Perkins says it is “in search of the next big idea.” Draper Fisher Jurvetson “backs extraordinary entrepreneurs everywhere who set out to change the world.” Mohr Davidow values “entrepreneurs who identify impressive market opportunities and are not afraid to go after them.”

Physic Ventures is different. Its mission is “investing in keeping people healthy.” Specifically, the San Francisco-based venture firm, which has backing from corporate giants Unilever, PepsiCo and Humana, invests in “technology-enabled, consumer-facing companies that help people and the environment stay healthy,” according to Will Rosenzweig, its managing director.

Physic is betting that it can discover and invest in startups that can make “personal and planetary health” a big business, just as richer and better-established Silicon Valley VCs made fortunes by backing information technology startups like Apple, Google and Amazon.

Will Rosenzweig

I had lunch recently with Will Rosenzweig in Washington to talk about Physic and some of its portfolio companies. Will is an engaging and interesting guy, best known for starting a company called The Republic of Tea in the early 1990s. (He and his co-founders, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, who also co-founded Banana Republic, wrote an acclaimed book about the experience that’s also called The Republic of Tea.) Will, who is 51, was also an early organizer of the TED conferences, the head of marketing for Odwalla and a teacher at the Haas business school at Berkeley.

Will and Dion Madsen, who had run a venture fund inside Unilever, the $57 billion consumer products giant, co-founded Physic Ventures about five years ago. It’s an independent fund whose corporate backers who offer strategic advice and research insights. Its financial investors include CalPERS and CalSTRS, the California state and teachers’ pension funds.

Will has written about the fund-raising efforts and strategy in an article called 7 Reasons Why Great LPs Invested in Our First-Time Venture Fund . [PDF, download] He and his partners raised about $159 million by 2008–an impressive amount for a fund in a new sector, with no track record of successful exits.

It’s much too early to judge the success of the fund or its investment thesis, but there’s no doubt that Physic has invested in some intriguing startups. [click to continue…]

Unilever’s big, broad, bold sustainability plan

Unilever unveiled its 2020 sustainability plan today, and no one can accuse the company of playing small ball.

The global consumer products giant ($57 billion in revenues in 2009) intends to improve the health of 1 billion people, to buy 100% of its agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources, and to reduce the environmental impact of everything it sells by one-half, while doubling its revenues.

Those are big hairy audacious goals (to borrow a phrase from Jim Collins), befitting a company that touches 2 billion consumers a day. Unilever’s brands include Lipton, Dove, All, Hellman’s and Ben & Jerry’s.

The biggest idea here–and the one that will probably prove hardest to achieve–is that a company can grow its sales without growing its environmental footprint. As Dave Lewis, president of Unilever Americas, put it:  “We cannot choose between growth and sustainability. We have to do both.

This is what U.S. consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble implicitly said it could not do when it announced its sustainability goals back in September. (See P&G: A bold green vision but…) Unilever is also hedging its bets some–it is promising a 50% reduction “per consumer use”–and it acknowledges that it can only grow sustainably by changing consumer behavior. That’s no small matter and one that is largely beyond its control.

Still, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, as it’s called, breaks new ground for a number of reasons.

It is comprehensive, setting more than 50 social, economic and environmental targets.

It is rigorous; the company says its has measured the carbon, water and waste footprints of 1,600 products, representing 70% of its volume.

It’s far-reaching, taking into account the full lifecyle impact of its product–from “seed to disposal,” as one executive put it.

It builds on an impressive past history when it comes to sustainability.

And it goes well beyond green, including efforts to improve nutrition–

By 2020 we will double the proportion of our portfolio that meets the highest nutritional standards, based on globally recognized dietary guidelines.

and global health–

By 2020, we will help more than a billion people to improve their hygiene habits and we will bring safe drinking water to 500 million people.

and poverty–

Our goal is to link 500.000 smallholder farmers into our supply network. We will help to improve their agricultural practices and thus enable them to supply into global markets at competitive prices. By doing so we will improve the quality of their livelihoods. [click to continue…]

Gee whiz, algae!

Big institutions can make mistakes, as we’ve learned, painfully, lately. (See BP, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, etc.) But when big corporations like Unilever, Chevron and Bunge  invest in a algae company that is also in business with the U.S. Navy, well, that’s a good reason to take notice.

The algae company is called Solazyme and, if nothing else, it’s notable for the range of products that its algae are able to produce: They include jet fuel, diesel fuel, super-healthy vegetable oils and other algal oils that become ingredients in soap, lotions, ice cream, cookies and mayonnaise.

Jonathan Wolfson, with algaeIn March, I met Jonathan Wolfson, Solazyme’s CEO, and came away impressed with his passion and smarts. (See Solazyme’s Amazing Algae.) So I called him again last week to talk a bit about the company’s latest round of investment and its backers. Besides Unilever, Bunge and Chevron, Sir Richard Branson and a big Japanese food-ingredient company called San-Ei Gen also invested.

“What you’re seeing with these investors is a very diversified set of partners,” Jonathan told me. “You start to see blue-chip investors who are validating the breadth of our technology platform.”

Solazyme raised about $60 million in its latest round of investment, Series D. It has raised about $150 million in equity, which is substantial but not as much as some competitors. Last year, for example, ExxonMobil said it was investing about $300 million in Synthetic Genomics, a startup led by scientist Craig Venter. Bill Gates has invested in Sapphire Energy, another algae startup.

But no algae company has put together as impressive a list of backers as Solazyme.  The Wall Street Journal reported that Unilever spent months testing Solazyme’s algal oil as a possible substitute for palm oil, which is controversial, in such products as Lux soap. It concluded that Solazyme can product algal oil at sufficient scale to become a viable supplier, the Journal said:

“This isn’t just a niche application,” says Phil Giesler, director of innovation for a Unilever unit that invests in new technologies. “This is something which we believe has tremendous capability.”

Bunge, meanwhile, is a huge agricultural firm,  a major producer of sugar cane and a distributor of vegetable oils. Solazyme’s algae can turn sugar cane into vegetable oils. “We’ve already produced oils using bagasse,” Wolfson said. (Bagasse is residue that remains after sugar is extracted from sugarcane stalks.)

For its part, Chevron invested in Solazyme last year, and put it more money this summer, presumably because it likes what it sees. Chevron wants to understand if algae can be an efficient way to produce transporation fuels, such as diesel and jet fuel.

Based in South San Francisco, Solazyme was founded in 2003 by Wolfson and Hamilton Dillon, a college friend. Its technology differs from most algae startups. Instead of growing algae in ponds using sunlight as an input, the company feeds cheap sources of biomass such as sugar cane or switchgrass to its algae and grows them in big tanks, most of them in a rented facility in rural Pennsylvania.

The company is getting substantial government as well as private-sector backing. The U.S. Department of Energy has given Solazyme a $22 million grant to expand production, and the Navy awarded the company an $8.5 million contract buy marine fuel.

Solazyme may have more news this week, Jonathan told me. If so, I’ll update this post or add a new one. This company is worth watching.

Revolution in the laundry room

I’ve joined the laundry-detergent revolution. Well, revolution may be stretching it  — but changes unfolding (sorry!) in laundry rooms across America show how innovation can move us closer to a sustainable economy.

The revolution metaphor is useful because it’s a reminder that real innovation is more likely to be driven by upstarts, insurgents and rebels–like Method, one of my favorite companies–than by powerful incumbents who want to preserve the status quo.

Take a look:

Over the last several years, big, wasteful jugs of  laundry detergent like this one from Procter & Gamble’s Tide  have all but disappeared from grocery store shelves. These jugs were good for marketing people who plastered messages on the package but they weren’t good for anyone else.Tide

Today, the new normal is concentrated 2x (meaning half the liquid in every load) detergents like Unilever’s Small and Mighty All, which use less packaging and water, saving money on shipping costs and waste. Tide sells lots of 2x as well.. The 2x packages are convenient, easy to store and pour. all+small+mighty

But the greenest, smartest and most innovative detergent is an 8x concentrate from Method, which uses less water in a smaller package and should save consumers money. This is good for everyone except news P&G or Unilever, which have profited from the  overdosing of laundry, as we’ll explain. new-method-laundry-detergent1-538x1024

Method is a privately-held company that was started in 2000 by Adam Lowry, a former climate scientist, and his friend Eric Ryan in their San Francisco bachelor pad. [click to continue…]