The world doesn’t stand still. In 2010, when we first launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), things looked very different.

Change: a watchful welcome

As a global business, we are accustomed to change. Indeed, we welcome it. Change is one of the great engines of commerce. With it come new ideas, new markets, new opportunities.

The USLP recognises this reality – and the imperative to be flexible in the face of it.

Ten years ago, we took a long hard look at the ‘mega-trends’ on the horizon – climate change, global inequality, resource depletion, among many – and realised that sitting still wasn’t an option. We had to act.

Our targets were based on our best assessment of existing information and trends at the time. Even so, some issues have accelerated faster than anyone could have imagined, while others have come to the fore in ways no one anticipated.

As Rebecca Marmot, Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer, says, “over the past ten years, the pace of change has continued to accelerate, and we need to be flexible to stay ahead of the curve”.

Plastic waste: up the agenda

The example of plastic waste illustrates this speed of change and the consequent requirement for business flexibility.

Back in 2010, we knew that it was critical to minimise our own waste and encourage consumers to do the same. However, we could see that recycling capacity was limited.

For these reasons, right at the outset of our USLP journey, we included a commitment to reduce the weight of our packaging by a third and to halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products.

Working in partnership with industry, governments and NGOs, we aimed to increase recycling and recovery rates on average by 5% by 2015 and by 15% by 2020 in our top 14 countries.

A decade ago, these felt like genuine stretch targets. Today, this appears less true. Not only has the use of plastic packaging expanded, but our understanding of the size and impact of plastic pollution has also altered dramatically.

Matt Demorais, Corporate Affairs Director and one of our plastic experts, points to a seminal report published in 2016 by the World Economic Forum, with input from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In the ‘New Plastics Economy’ the systemic problems with plastic were laid out in full for the first time.

“The challenges of recycling infrastructure in emerging markets; the implications that different materials have on packaging recycling; the need for new-look business models to kickstart a reuse economy – all these issues were presented holistically in a way not really seen before,” he notes.

Not only had it become clear by this date that the issue of plastic waste was ever more pressing, but it was also evident that our initial goal was no longer good enough: it needed to be more specific about what we were aiming for.

So, back in 2017, we announced a bold new commitment to ensure all our plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. We followed this up last year with and even greater ambition in the form of two additional 2025 pledges: first, to halve our use of virgin plastic (including an absolute reduction of more than 100,000 tonnes); and secondly, to help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell.

We could have “kicked the can down the road”, says Matt. “But, as our knowledge base grew and we developed more holistic solutions, the only responsible choice was to adapt our direction of travel and level of ambition.”

A young girl picks up a piece of plastic from some beside the sea

Photo by Unilever employee Cinthia Gheradhi

Listen, learn, lead

Our experience of dealing with this fast-moving issue has taught us a number of valuable lessons. One of the most important is the value of listening to those outside our bubble. Our involvement in cross-sector organisations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation keeps us alert to emerging risks and issues.

A second lesson is the importance of flexibility. We adjusted our targets, although our new commitments on packaging still sat under a broader goal on waste that stayed the same. Our approach is not to give up on our goals but to revisit our targets and ensure that they continue to suit our ambition. In terms of delivery strategies, ours is a story of refining and refreshing where we need to.

Finally, our experience suggested that we shouldn’t be fearful to break with the status quo. If it’s the right call, others will follow your lead. We’ve seen this with our commitment to reduce virgin plastic – one of the first to do so in our sector at the time, but now fast becoming an industry norm.

At Unilever, we are improving our risk management and scenario planning all the time, but we must be ready to move fast when events surprise us or unforeseen trends unfold. Going forward, we need to be nimble at reviewing our goals and open to setting new targets. This will guarantee our ongoing flexibility – and ensure our place ahead of the curve.

Lessons for the future

  1. Listen to those outside our circles to spot the early signs of rapid change.
  2. Respond quickly and decisively in the face of fast-moving trends.
  3. Ask ourselves the hard ‘what if’ questions more often and more rigorously.

Main photo taken by Unilever employee Hajrah Karim, Indonesia

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