Spotlight on Unilever: Practicing purposeful business through the Sustainable Living Plan

Posted on June 11, 2018.

Unilever’s long and strong heritage and culture of helping to make the world a better place stems from the company’s earliest beginnings in 1800s Victorian England.1 Today Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan guides the purposeful way the company operates globally through three overarching goals: (1) improve the health and well-being of a billion people, (2) enhance livelihoods for millions of people, and (3) reduce the environmental impact of its business.2 Beyond the positive social and environmental effects of the goals themselves, the Sustainable Living Plan also serves the company by spurring growth, helping to reduce costs and risks, and improving trust in the company.

Leena Nair, Unilever’s Chief HR Officer, notes that the key to the Sustainable Living Plan achieving these goals has been to ensure that every person in the company understands why the Plan is in place and takes ownership of bringing it to life. The company has not only set 50 transparent goals related to the Plan that it publicly tracks progress against each year, but also embeds Plan-related goals and targets in employees’ individual annual goals and targets.

Further, says Nair, the company invests in helping its employees become purpose-driven themselves, believing that people with purpose thrive. Employees attend a purpose workshop where they uncover their own purpose—what gives them meaning, gets them out of bed, and gets them excited. That purpose then becomes useful to help plan their careers and the jobs they want to do, so they can live their purpose at work and use it to have a meaningful impact on the company and, more broadly, on society at large.

These practices appear to be having quite a positive impact. Nair notes that when its people survey asks the question, “How are you ensuring that you have interwoven sustainability goals into the work that you do?” almost 75 percent of the people in the business report that they have, indeed, interwoven those goals and know that it makes a difference in what they do. For Unilever, not only is the sense of employee pride, connection, and engagement a huge positive factor, but it’s also something that makes a significant difference in company performance.

Meaningful results
In many ways, Unilever exemplifies the positive results of good corporate citizenship called out in the 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trend: “Citizenship and social impact: Society holds the mirror.” For example, the Trend report points to a recent Nielsen finding that 67 percent of employees prefer to work for socially responsible companies, and 55 percent of consumers will pay extra for products sold by companies committed to positive social impact.3 Nair says Unilever is the No. 1 employer of choice in 44 out of the 52 markets it recruits in and its attrition rates are below the industry average in the top 20 markets it recruits in. Employee pride in Unilever stands at 92 percent. Moreover, Nair notes that Unilever’s “brands with purpose” are growing 50 percent greater than other brands in the company’s portfolio.

A rich opportunity
Despite the potential for significant positive results, the results of this year’s Global Human Capital Trends survey indicate that many organizations do not seem to be embracing citizenship as part of their strategy. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of respondents cited the issue as important, but only 18 percent said it was a top priority reflected in corporate strategy. Nearly a quarter (22 percent) reported having no citizenship programs at all.4

If your organization is one of those lagging, the “Citizenship and social impact” trend offers suggestions for various C-suite leaders and individuals to begin to pursue citizenship and social responsibility more purposefully. For more inspiration, hear Leena Nair share more of Unilever’s story in the video below.


1 The Unilever company information in this post was gathered in an interview with Leena Nair, Chief HR Officer, Unilever, as part of the research for the 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends.
2 Ibid.
3 Nielsen, Doing well by doing good: Increasingly, consumers care about corporate social responsibility, but does concern convert to consumption?, June 2014, p. 2.
4 Dimple Agarwal, Josh Bersin, Gaurav Lahiri, Jeff Schwartz, Erica Volini, “Citizenship and social impact: Society holds the mirror,” The rise of the social enterprise: 2018 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends.

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