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Unilever and sustainability: an HR strategy deployed in corporate comms

On Wednesday I was in Unilever’s Lancaster Place office listening to the CABE 2012 Hugh Kay lecture given by Doug Baillie Unilever’s head of HR. Called Doing well by doing good. Unilever want to double their turnover by 2020 but want to halve their environmental impact over the same period. Mathematicians among you will have worked out that leaves their environmental impact where it is now. Which could also be likened to having your cake and eating it because you’ve managed to eat twice as much for half the calories. Well if they achieve that they will have done very well. The issue is if they don’t achieve the target – will they have stuck to their sustainability target and hacked their environmental impact down to the possible detriment of their growth goals. Or will they reach their target with a breathless apology for creating more environmental carnage than they had anticipated but reducing it by 60% is better than not reducing it by anything at all. Having 2 related but different targets could look like sleight of hand unless there is a clear determination to prioritise one of those goals if a trade-off has to be made.

There were some very interesting questions and responses afterwards. Dr Richard Higginson of Ridley Hall gave a critique afterwards. One of his points was that doing good has to relate to all stakeholders (for which read suppliers) not just customers and the planet. Oh and shareholders.

It was the identity of our speaker which gave the game away. Paul Poulson the chief executive had been due to give the lecture but had been spirited away to the US. So it was for HR to cover for him.  This doing well by doing good approach is classic HR talk. Employees love it – it makes it easier to recruit good people with good intentions.  And it gives the organisation a sense of purpose. They’re not doing bad things to people to make a profit. Doing well by doing good looks as if there are only upsides and no downsides.  I mean how could any reasonable person possibly object to growing the business and educating and civilising all at the same time? There was an interesting point when Doug Baillie mentioned  the mission a century ago for white people to teach the rest of the world good hygiene standards.  Colonial and politically incorrect. But brands have just gone multicultural it is still the same agenda – the brand knows best and the multicultural team dispense wisdom, education, health and a glowing future.  The brand trades not on functional benefits but on deeper  meaning – it has entered religious territory. All faiths would want to endorse this. Actually not all. The Taliban for one and certain fundamentalist Christian groups.   The world is a deeply divided place and not for want of communication.  But because of differences in power and in values.  Governments have ways of dealing with this. Using diplomacy, propaganda and force. As do NGOs. By harnessing public opinion of those who are most powerful.  Corporates will struggle because they have to square the circle – give those who have more of the same and give more to those who have not. With no losers. You can try playing the consensus card but it but you won’t get everyone to agree with you. Not if there isn’t enough to go round and there has to be a rebalancing of power structures.

I applaud Unilever for taking a lead on this one.  But I don’t think its going to work because this is an internal culture exercise turned inside out and pointed at the masses. It sounds great until you have to make a tradeoff. Inside the company you can close divisions and fire people. Outside the company you can propagandise and say please. But you can’t coerce.  I have put this post on the brand safari blog because it seems to me that we have to offer customers something different from what we offer employees. There is a limit to the meanings we can give to products that have to be paid for. 65% of the sustainability impacts are attributable to the way customer use the products. And you can’t fire your customers.  You can only cajole them.

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