Transformation: The early years of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan

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What it takes to transform an organisation. The early years of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. 

I had the good fortune to be in at the start of what was to become the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. There were just 4 of us at the ‘start up’, and the brief to us from the Division President was ‘Vitality – make it happen’! What began then is now the driving purpose, strategic & cultural force of one of our World’s most forward thinking global companies. A current teammate recently asked me what it took to create and drive a movement like that. Here is what I said….  

1) Rigorous up front analysis… 

….of market trends / needs, and fit with the company’s (evolvable) capabilities. A very thorough analysis of consumer mega trends with a 20+ year horizon, cross referred with analysis of company core capabilities (brands, technologies, geographical footprint, …). Where is the World going, where is there going to be consumer need, and where can the company stretch to satisfy that need. 

2) Clear higher purpose 

The rigorous upfront analysis creates a fact based foundation; from which passion, creativity & authenticity can deliver the Purpose …. initially called ’Vitality’ & articulated ‘To help people look good, feel good & get more out of life’. In 2003 this was a great start. The company already had a strong heritage in sustainable business, sustainable business was one of the mega trends, and we worked to make this a central force.

At the 2010 Global external launch of the full USLP, we said “We will grow our business in a way which helps improve people’s health and well-being, reduces environmental impact and enhances livelihoods’
In 2018, Unilever Purpose is ‘To make Sustainable Living CommonPlaceâ€, and Vision is “To grow our business whilst decoupling our environmental footprint from our growth and increasing our positive social impact through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.â€

In 2017 Leena Nair, CHRO Unilever said “Companies with purpose last, brands with purpose grow, people with purpose thrive.â€Â Â 

3) Senior leadership commitment / belief 

The Division President ’s brief to our tiny start up team was – ‘Vitality, make it happen!’ Everyone across the business knew he was committed to make it work, so they had at least to be open to our energy & initiatives. But of course we had to actually do it. 

4) Always bring content / insight / opportunity to the ‘people you are moving’ that they would not have come up with themselves 

In essence in the early stages, we had to get the owners of big chunks of business (geographic or category) to take on the opportunity, and work with us to discover and adopt the way to invigorate their business through vitality. A key way to do that is to always have the latest insight & ideas from around the world, relevant to their business. By looking beyond the normal boundaries of their thinking, and inspired by the purpose, you come with content they had never considered before.  

5) Be clear on the purpose and be super flexible on how to get there 

If a business unit would give us a 2 days, 1 day, 2 hours, a big brand, a small brand – whatever they would give us to get going, we would take it. Humble, passionate, positive, constantly learning. We had a core workshop approach. But not everyone would do it. OK. Better to do something, get started, let them see there was power in it, and build. 

And constantly learn and adapt. Few initiatives in business end up looking like the initial plan; but if the purpose is achieved and the people are invigorated and part of the movement, then you have what you need. 

6) Celebrate & share wins along the way 

Authentically call out people and achievements when they happen. Anyone can do it. No structure, no awards / judges / panels, just real life, real time, get people telling each other when something good happens. 

7) Work in partnership with Government, NGOs, Experts and other companies.  

People who will challenge you. The challenge makes you stronger & means you learn faster. People who share the desire to make the World a better place, and recognise that big companies with big brands can, indeed should play a big role. People who will be prepared to be seen as part of the purpose ecosystem, when they stand up and say … “what this company is doing may not be perfect, but they are making progress, they are facing the hard challenges, and they have belief….â€â€¯To deliver sustainable growth which responds to the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly resource-constrained and unequal World, requires that companies work in partnership with each other and with Governments and NGOs. In this way complex, system-level challenges can be addressed.   

8) Set stretching but realistic quantitative targets and measure yourself 

Be prepared not to hit all of your targets, and to change some. It is not a test, it is a movement & it is complex, so we learn as we walk the path. But don’t ‘pretend’ – better to have no quantitative targets than floppy thinking, which will unravel. Do push yourself for quantitative targets across the movement; but if there is an area at some point where you are really not sure what is feasible, then set a direction, record data and set a target when you are ready.

Since 2003, Unilever had been setting and driving a range of targets. In 2010 with the USLP Unilever articulated externally specific targets across 3 pillars of improving health & well-being, reducing environmental impact and enhancing livelihoods, with governance tracking & reporting.  

9) This is commerce not charity 

Doing good must also grow the business. Small and/or shrinking businesses do not get a voice at the big tables with governments, other big businesses, and NGOs.  

10) Believe it in your heart & mind 

This is not business as usual. This is about changing the course of a huge organisation, unlocking the power of people all over the world and driving industry & social agendas. So you need to believe in order to have the determination, stamina and passion to see it through. I firmly believe that big businesses with big brands need to be a force for good in our World. We must have a sustainable business model that contributes positively to people’s lives in order to have a right to operate in the World we will pass on to our children. I played a leading role in this particular movement for 7 years: When I took the role, it was a powerful thought; when I passed it on, it was alive, building belief and business momentum across a global business. Much much more has happened since then, led by many people, unleashing scale & power. Things that we the start up team had not even imagined. A movement has to have a beginning, and these are 10 keys for it to become a success. 

Peter Soer 

Peter Soer
Peter Soer
Peter combines experience as a coach, marketing leader & someone who has faced the fear of being found out. He harnesses this experience with his natural optimism & determination, to help people thrive in their work and enjoy the life they want. To achieve our dreams, we have 2 resources, time and energy – so use them well.

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