Unilever's Keith Weed on sustainability

Unilever chief marketer Keith Weed plans to drive sustainability through the value chain. Gemma Charles reports.

Unilever chief marketer Keith Weed
Unilever chief marketer Keith Weed

Last week, Unilever launched its 'Sustainable Living Plan'. The document details the FMCG giant's commitment to double sales while reducing its impact on the planet. The initiative has been heralded a 'game-changer' by leading environmentalists, including Jonathon Porritt, who has said it is the best sustainability plan of all the major global companies.

Marketing spoke exclusively to Keith Weed, its chief marketing and communication officer, about its impact on Unilever's future marketing plans and its wider implications.

- How does Unilever define sustainability?

We take the broader meaning of sustainability. Improving health and wellbeing, reducing environmental impact and enhancing livelihoods is the way we look at it. What we've been doing for some time as a backdrop to all this is working on these agendas, but we believe we need to make a public statement on the commitments we are going to hold ourselves responsible to.

- How does sustainability fit into marketing at Unilever?

I have responsibility for marketing, communication and corporate social responsibility and sustainability. The senior vice-president for sustainability reports to me and, as I'm on the board, this shows Unilever's commitment. I think this is a role that marketers will need to lead more and more. Doubling the business while reducing our impact on the environment needs to be a holistic thought. That's the way you take sustainability out of the small groups of experts in the corner to making it mainstream. You can't have one group of people focused on doubling and another focused on reducing.

- What makes this report pivotal?

You will not see a more comprehensive plan in our industry right now for a number of reasons. If you consider its breadth, for example, we've looked at our total footprint, so not just focusing on the bit that we do, but the complete value chain, from sourcing to disposal. Second is the depth: we've given ourselves 50 commitments. Third is the rigour: we have measured our impact across multiple countries and from that baseline we will chart our progress. The fourth point is scale: we are in 178 countries, 2bn people use our products every day, we are in seven out of 10 homes on the planet - so if we can start moving this agenda, it's something that will make an impact.

- Can you give an example of an area where you have done this?

We purchase 3% of the world's palm oil, but now, through working with others, we have some traction and commitment on this to purchase all our oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015. If you're a supplier and you are not planning to be sustainable by then, you will have a problem working with us.

- Your report says that 68% of your products' carbon footprint comes from consumer use. How do you plan to tackle this?

Looking at what we have done provides an indication of where we are going on this. We launched (packaging-light) Persil Small & Mighty, which is a more concentrated product. Conceptually this sounds easy, but we have to make sure this cleans as well as a normal product.

In the developing world, we have a handwash product called Comfort One Rinse. This enables people to rinse in one bucket, which has a huge environ-mental impact and helps if you are having to walk a long distance to get water. The way to engage consumers is to find out what the benefit for them is.

- So you believe that change will come through product innovation rather than marketing communications?

Ultimately it will be a bit of both. The biggest impact will come from us innovating products that enable consumers to reduce their own impact. However, there is a behavioural element that needs to go with that. We do a test on washing machines, where, with the consumers' agreement, we put a computer chip in the machine so we can monitor what they are doing.

Consumers tell you they always wash at 30 degs or 40 degs, or they say they will, but people either forget or are slightly economical with the truth. We are keen to unpack what things really affect behaviour. Just telling people to wash at a lower temperature sounds good - and people can conceptually buy into it - but actually getting people to do this is another challenge. We've been doing a lot of behavioural work in understanding what really happens - not what people claim happens.

- Are consumers willing to switch brands on the back of sustain-ability claims?

I would have to say that the answer is no. But when we get there - and we will get there - I want consumers to say 'I know that those guys from Unilever are responsible in this area, this now concerns me and I want to make the call in their direction.'