Many organizations have engaged with the idea of sustainability. They recognize that it can reduce risk, make them an attractive employer and help enhance their brand image. Some like Unilever, certification company DNV GL and the Sri Lankan brand, Dilmah Teas have gone further and integrated the idea of sustainability into everything they do. We define these as brands with a conscience – brands that go beyond treating sustainability as an added extra and see it as their reason for being. These brands recognize that they cannot exist independently of the world, but rather have a responsibility to miminise the impacts of what they do, to enhance the livelihoods of all their stakeholders and to contribute to our collective futures. Sound idealistic? Maybe, but one can also point out that these brands are realizing their ideals and being successful.
Unilever’s strategy is built around its sustainable living plan, which CEO, Paul Polman announced in 2010, when he set a target of doubling sales while halving environmental impact by 2020. He also set out goals for improving the health of 1 billion people around the world and the livelihoods of 800,000 farmers who provide the raw ingredients for Unilever products. Underpinning the strategy is a long-term perspective and a focus on society as a whole. As Polman notes, ‘If a business wants to be around for a long time, the best guarantee is to serve society.
These notions have been lost in recent years, but we want to bring them back – for the greater good.’ Not everyone agrees with this approach – some investors have questioned the environmental orientation – but Unilever is not for turning. Polman’s response to the non-believers: ‘don’t put your money in our company’. Similarly DNV GL has made sustainability the centrepiece of its strategy, by integrating the idea into its corporate vision: ‘global impact for a safe and sustainable future’. It is working now to engage its 15,000 employees with sustainability and to integrate it into all its processes.
When the news features regular items on corporate wrongdoing from emissions cheating to widespread tax avoidance to health safety failings to interest rate rigging, it might seem that Unilever and DNV GL are exceptions; that there are more brands without a conscience than with. Yet, we should be cautiously optimistic. For these companies and others do enjoy enormous influence over others. Through ‘Project Everyone’ Unilever aims to influence the way their 200,000 suppliers work, the way consumers use their products and how their competitors behave. DNV GL works to influence its 80,000 customers to see the value of sustainable practices and to incorporate them into their practices. Chief Sustainability Officer, Bjørn Haugland says: ‘We use every opening meeting and every certification we have with customers to engage in a dialogue about what sustainability means. We ask them, how do you see sustainability and how does it impact on your business?’
Being a brand with a conscience is good for business, but it is also more important than that. It can help to re-establish the legitimacy of organizations, contribute to the well-being of people and save the world. Business is certainly part of the problem of living sustainably, but it also has a tremendous opportunity to be part of the solution.