Unilever Finds That Shrinking Its Footprint Is a Giant Task
Hellmann’s mayonnaise is known for many things — making egg salad delicious, being loaded with fat, that old “bring out the best” jingle. To date, however, it hasn’t been associated with sustainability. Mayo is a processed food made by huge conglomerates, not a symbol of environmentalism.
Paul Polman would like that to change. As chief executive of Unilever, Mr. Polman has made sustainable production — of Hellmann’s, Lipton tea, Dove soap, Axe body spray and all the other products Unilever makes — the company’s top priority. Detergents are being reformulated to use less water. Packaging is becoming more efficient. And Unilever is taking preliminary steps to make soybean oil, a main ingredient in mayonnaise, more eco-friendly.
Mr. Polman, 59, is hardly the only chief executive claiming his corporation will become a better steward of the planet and an outstanding global citizen. The chief of Walmart is buying clean energy, PepsiCo’s leader is promoting healthier snacks, and Apple’s boss is into recycling. But Mr. Polman’s plan is unique in its audacious ambition. Not only does the Unilever sustainable living plan pledge to cut the company’s environmental impact in half by 2020, it also vows to improve the health of one billion people and enhance livelihoods for millions, all while doubling Unilever’s sales.
None of this is easy to achieve. In broad terms, sustainability means meeting the needs of today while preserving resources for tomorrow. But selling more products means consuming more energy and more natural resources — not exactly the way to shrink an environmental footprint.