The Role of Science in Shaping Sustainable Business: Unilever Case Study

Sarah Sim, Henry King, and Edward Price

Abstract Unilever is a leading example of a multinational company in the FastMoving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector. Unilever has long been an advocate of sustainable business, using scientific assessment as the basis for its strategy and initiatives. Given its business, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is established within the company and there is a current focus on improving the methodology and scope of LCA. Recent developments include new approaches to fill data gaps for agricultural ingredients and new impact assessment methods for assessing land use change. We have also adapted LCA approaches to inform corporate strategy and to engage a broad range of stakeholders both within the company and outside. The most recent and significant example of this has been the use of product footprinting as an integral element of Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan (USLP); currently over 2000 products are footprinted annually across 14 countries.

LCA approaches will continue to play an important role in Unilever's strategy. However, there is an urgent need to develop more predictive, regional/global level approaches that take into account the limited availability of many earth resources, the non-linearity of certain impacts and the absolute limits of sustainability. Several conceptual systems-level frameworks and theories already exist, but the Planetary Boundary (PB) approach has been selected as the most promising for developments in data, modelling and contextualization of environmental assessment. We have identified the need for developments in informatics to exploit new data gathering approaches as well as new modelling initiatives utilizing Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping and 'big data' approaches. In particular, we see real value in developing a distinct and novel, 'PB-enabled' normative LCA approach to support product/service/sectorial decision-making.

Keywords Unilever sustainable living plan • Fast-moving consumer goods sector • FMCG • Life cycle assessment • Environmental footprinting • Earth systems science • Resilience science • Planetary boundaries • Ecosystem services


Unilever is a Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company with over 400 brands, operations in nearly 100 countries and sales in nearly every country in the world. Our products (foods, beverages, ice cream, home and personal care) are used 2 billion times a day in over half the households on the planet. Our strategy for sustainable growth sets out a vision for leveraging this global reach to improve health and well-being, reduce environmental impacts and enhance livelihoods. Unilever has long been a pioneer of sustainability, and throughout this journey, science has been the foundation for the company's sustainability strategy and initiatives. As such, the focus of this chapter is not the business case for sustainability in Unilever (which can be found in Bell (2013a, b); Lingard (2012)), but an illustration of how science has helped inform and shape the company's thinking on sustainability so far and also how we will continue to use science to help us think about future challenges.

To date, Unilever has relied on scientific methods based around Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to guide and inform our sustainability decision-making and such approaches will continue to have an important role to play. However, LCA does not address all relevant environmental impacts; nor does it deal with each impact category in an equally robust way. Therefore, there is an urgent need to develop more predictive approaches that take into account the limited availability of many resources, the non-linearity of certain impacts and the absolute nature of sustainability as articulated in the planetary boundary concept.

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