Hoffmann Institute representative Neha Thakkar recently met with Unilever Sustainable Business Director to discuss their innovative and inclusive business model.
You know a company is serious about its impact on society and environment when this is the first thing you see as you enter its premises. Literally the first thing – even before their reception desk.
This is Unilever Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore. Unilever is one of the world’s leading consumer goods companies with around 400 brands in more than 190 countries and over 2.5 billion consumers. One in three people in the world use their products. Their global reach is unmatched in terms of business and societal impact. With this great reach comes great responsibility – a responsibility that the company has taken on in a conscientious manner.
I was there to meet with Amita Chaudhury, the Sustainable Business Director for South East Asia and Australasia. Previously, she was Unilever’s Global Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Director. She has been with Unilever for almost a decade and knows the company extremely well. I was intrigued by the Unilever business model and had a million questions.
Did they manage to create a union between profit and purpose? This is the conundrum businesses, and the business students at INSEAD, often struggle with. Is this union even possible? If so, how do we achieve it?
Amita was generous with her time, sharing experience and expertise in both areas of her portfolio with the company – sustainability and D&I. As she spoke about the two independent areas of work that she helmed with Unilever, I noticed a trend in approach. Consistently, I saw three main forces that allow businesses to align profit with purpose – whether it is social good, environmental stewardship or both.
An inspirational vision has the potential to act like a lighthouse, guiding an organisation towards a certain goal. Such vision unifies action by staff and stakeholders within an organisation, regardless of position and role. In the case of Unilever, that vision and sense of mission is part of their DNA. Back in the 1890s, the founder of Lever Brothers William Hesketh Lever had an idea for a revolutionary soap with the intent to “to make cleanliness commonplace; to lessen work for women; to foster health and contribute to personal attractiveness, that life may be more enjoyable and rewarding for the people who use our products”. Fast forward to Paul Polman, Unilever CEO from 2009 to 2019. He once said “The world we want will only be achieved when we choose action over indifference, courage over comfort, and solidarity over division.” In line with this belief, he decoupled the company’s growth from environmental impact and created an ambitious and courageous vision for the social impact of the company. His successor Alan Jope more recently said, “We will dispose of brands that we feel are not able to stand for something more important than just making your hair shiny, your skin soft, your clothes whiter or your food tastier". That is commitment, possible only because of the vision and mission.
A grand vision is excellent, but you need a team that believes in the vision and has the motivation and capacity to drive it. This is where people like Amita are integral. In my conversation with her, it was evident that she cares about Unilever being a truly diverse and inclusive company. She was equally passionate about the environmental impact of the company. These aren’t just job descriptions and titles to her. Her work reflects her beliefs and way of life. With this honest motivation, she is able to turn vision into reality through concrete ideas and innovative strategies.
When a company integrates social and environmental good into business development, positive results are inevitable. For instance, Unilever’s ‘Brands with Purpose’ programme led to systemic, structural and cultural change deeply integrating purpose into the business model of some the many brands they own. The company has noted an encouraging trend over the years - in 2018, those specific brands grew 69% faster than the rest of our business. That's up from 46% in 2017. They also delivered 75% of the overall growth.
Similarly, with D&I, the company launched a multi-prong global strategy. This ensured that senior leaders understand the business case for D&I, then contextualising it with local programmes that led to better systems. This makes it easier to recruit, retain and develop a diverse workforce, while increasing communication and transparency internally and building the company’s credentials externally. This holistic approach led to an increase in women’s representation from 38% in 2010 to 49% in 2019.
Unilever’s approach goes beyond a ‘nice to have’ corporate social responsibility programme or public relations gig. Unilever isn’t sprinting to attain a certain image. Instead, the company is in for the long run – a marathon to build a credible corporate response to some of our greatest global challenges.
Unilever market share and profits continue to grow, and so does their positive impact on the world. They’ve become a role model for businesses, proving profit and purpose can strike a complementary relationship, strengthening and supporting each other.