Unilever calls on South Africa to prioritise sustainability

Nearly 200 leaders across business, national and local government, NGOs, academia, media and top local influencers, including former 1st lady Graca Machel, gathered today for the Unilever Collective Action Business Breakfast to discuss how implementation of meaningful sustainability measures can positively benefit business and society.

Paul Polman and Dr Graca  Machel Pannel Discussion
Paul Polman and Dr Graca  Machel Pannel Discussion

Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, an ardent environmental supporter and forum keynote speaker, told the audience, “It will take much more than one company, government and community to solve that face us. We need collective action for a brighter and more sustainable future for all.”

Polman called for collective action to drive sustainability and urged stakeholders and business leaders to identify partnership opportunities that will deliver positive change and strive to meet targets set out in the National Development Plan (NDP) and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Polman shared some of the results from the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP); the company’s ambitious 10-year blueprint for achieving its vision to grow the business, whilst decoupling its environmental footprint from growth and increasing its positive social impact.

Five years in, the business is on course to achieving many of the USLP targets and has found that the sustainability-first approach is in fact resulting in more growth and lower costs, as well as less risk and more trust - with the company’s Sustainable Living Brands growing 30% faster than the rest of the business.

“Consumers expect more of brands and businesses now – and they reward those that deliver a wider social benefit in addition to the traditional product performance at an affordable price,” Polman said.

Top local influencers, including Dr. Graca Machel, Global Elder and Former First Lady, Dr Herve Ludovic de Lys, UNICEF’s Resident Representative and Professor John Simpson, Director of the UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing joined Polman on stage to debate how collective sustainable action can positively impact the South African economy, environment and, ultimately, improve people’s lives.

“Sustainability is now a strategic element of business that South African organisations should embed in their daily operations. There is more that local companies can do to emulate early adopters such as Unilever who have incorporated sustainability with growth in delivering on people, profit and planet targets,” said Prof. Simpson

The past five years:

Since the launch of the Plan five years ago, Unilever is making great strides towards realising key commitments across the markets they operate in, including South Africa:

Local investments

  • Close to R4 billion invested in new and refurbished manufacturing facilities in South Africa. These factories will enable Unilever to better serve its consumers with innovation and green technology, while simultaneously producing some of the company’s brands with a social mission such as Lifebuoy and Domestos.

Improving Health and Well-Being

  • 483 000 South African school children reached through the Domestos “Cleaner Toilets, Brighter Future” & germ-busters club programs. 
  • 8.8 million South Africans reached through the Lifebuoy ‘School of 5’ program.

Reducing Environmental Impact

  • Unilever’s South African manufacturing operations have reduced CO₂ emissions from energy by 19%, water use by 30% and waste by 17%.

Enhancing Livelihoods

  • 2,200 jobs have been created through the OLA vending programme, which has positively impacted the lives of over 8,800 South Africans. 
  • 2,500 South African jobs have been created through the Unilever and Wildlands Partnership.

Globally, Unilever has helped around 482 million people to improve their health and hygiene, including through handwashing, improving self-esteem and oral hygiene. The majority of its foods and beverage portfolio met, or are better than, benchmarks based on national nutritional recommendations – and 34% met highest nutritional standards. Unilever also enabled around 600,000 smallholder farmers and 1.8 million small-scale retailers to access training and support.

In its own operations, Unilever continues to make good progress – since 2008, the company has reduced CO₂ emissions from energy by 39% per tonne of production; water by 37% per tonne of production; and waste sent to disposal by 97% per tonne of production. The company aims to be carbon positive by 2030.

A look into the future:

The next 5 years of the ambitious Plan will see greater effort towards achieving wider transformational systems change. The Plan will focus on three areas where the business believes their scale, influence and resources can make the biggest difference - eliminating deforestation, sustainable agriculture and smallholder farmers, and water, sanitation and hygiene”.

Polman concluded, “Unilever will continue to design products that are less carbon and water intensive, as well as educate and support suppliers and consumers to operate more sustainably. However, we will not meet our goals, nor will society fulfil its potential, unless we mobilise collective action to achieve wider transformation.”

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