Unilever is one of the world’s largest multinational consumer goods companies. From food and refreshments, to home care, to beauty & personal care products, if you are not using a Unilever brand, you are using a Unilever competitor who very much has Unilever in mind when it chooses how to source, make, distribute, market, and deliver its products. Unilever is an industry leader and a trendsetter whose business decisions reverberate across economies.

Unilever is also committed to being a Sustainability-focused company.

They have spoken about it a number of times at Executive Platforms events, and they are very happy to tell everyone what they are doing through every channel available, including a comprehensive annual report. Unilever would be delighted if the public came to think of it as a company committed to changing the world for the better and make their purchases and investments accordingly.

One of the great ‘evergreen, always something to write about’ business stories of the last two decades is the rise of the environmentally and socially conscious consumer and investor. Millennials, famously, are the first generation that does not seem to be giving up their idealism as they grow older, and they support their values and their consciousnesses with their wallets, with their stock portfolios, and with where they want to work.

Without being cynical about it, it seems doing good is good for business.

Now this week’s blog is not going to be a Unilever-centric praise piece, although there are worse ideas we could write. Instead, I want to talk about how Environmental, Social, and Governance performance and reporting has become such an important piece of how modern businesses think and act, and what goes into making an organization actually live and breathe Sustainability not just in a corporate mission statement, but at every level from boardroom to shopfloor and at every step of the value chain from procurement to fulfillment.

How does a company like Unilever —and there are many companies like Unilever and many more that are trying to become like Unilever— get everyone working towards making Sustainability a fundamental part of who they are and what they do?

Putting the ‘Why Do It’ in a Business Context

Let’s begin with motivations and recognize that no ‘one thing’ motivates a company and the people in that company to do anything. Some are going to be motivated by ethical considerations, and that should be admired and celebrated. We cannot ignore that many are also going to be motivated by the dollars and cents, though. We would be living in a very different world if corporate strategy and workforce culture were exclusively driven by positively oriented moral philosophies. So why does Sustainability make excellent business sense in the 21st Century?

  • Consumers want it. With very few exceptions, no business is losing competitive advantage in its marketplace by being less environmentally conscious than its rivals. There are also many industries where ESG performance, Corporate Social Responsibility, and a commitment to responsible development is the only way to earn and maintain a license to operate.
  • Investors want it. More and more brokerages and mutual funds offer ESG-based portfolios that speak to their clients’ values, and a company’s performance in those metrics can have a dramatic impact on shareholder value and investor appeal in a way that would have been difficult to imagine decades ago.
  • Top Talent wants it. We talk about the War for Talent a lot. While there is no silver bullet in attracting and retaining the right people to drive your business forward, people like to work somewhere where they feel they make a difference and are not just doing well but doing good. Without being cynical and self-serving when talking about doing the right thing, being a company known to be on the side of the angels is one more way of building a brand in the eyes of Top Talent. Of all the qualities that go into being the employer of choice, being a company that cares about the world and works hard towards being better is a very attractive reputation to earn and maintain. There are also powerful retention opportunities in giving your people the power and tools to work on programs that improve their environments and communities while also aligning their passions with business objectives.
  • It should also be said Sustainability saves money and improves performance. You are doing more with less. You are reducing, reusing, and recycling. You are rethinking the old ways of doing business to eliminate waste and perhaps leverage technologies that did not exist in the past to do better in a better way. Some of the best Sustainability content built into Executive Platforms’ agendas over the years have actually come from Supply Chain and Manufacturing case studies.
  • Speaking of improving performance and saving money, it is interesting to note that going green can pay for itself. Far from demanding a lot of capital and resources up front, many companies find the savings generated by small pilot projects and low-hanging fruit will cover the costs of the big projects, which then again can be reinvested into a self-sustaining program of continuous improvement. Here’s a great example of that we have talked about in the past to illustrate the idea.

We could go on, of course, but I think we have now established some of the most powerful arguments that doing good isn’t just for do-gooders. There are strong business fundamentals attached to improving ESG performance. Let’s get into the culture side of this.

Shaping Culture from the Top Down and Bottom Up

Culture does not happen accidentally, or it might be more accurate to say the cultures that happen accidentally are usually not the cultures companies want and need. For a company that wants to point itself towards a lofty goal and then steadily work towards it, you need both leadership from the top and buy-in and contributions from the rank and file. How do you get there with a thing like Sustainability?

Well, leadership at the top means everyone at the top. This can’t be just the COO’s hobby horse or something a CHRO thinks will help them deliver on some of their other projects. From the Board of Directors to the C-Suite on down, the people who decide what the company cares about have to agree to make Sustainability not just a nice-to-have, but a must-have. For almost every Fortune 500 company these days, that includes the creation of some kind of Chief Sustainability Officer position with the authority and mandate to make the company’s mission statement on environmental, social, and governance performance a reality.

Executive Platforms’ North American Sustainability & Responsibility Summit is attended by a good cross-section of these kinds of senior executives. They are passionate and accomplished individuals, many of whom have been working within their organizations their entire careers on Sustainability programs and green initiatives before these ideas moved from ‘nice-to-have’ to ‘must-have’ business policies. They are in many cases the first generation of environmentally conscious leaders who now have the power to take their passion and disseminate it throughout a large organization.

A wonderful thing about Sustainability? It finds a receptive audience wherever it goes. There are very few people who do not want to hear their employer wants to reduce its environmental impact and commit to doing better on an ongoing basis each and every day indefinitely. You can trust the vast majority of workers to already be predisposed to adding Sustainability goals to their other performance objectives.

So what in workers’ daily lives changes? Well, that’s where the ‘from the bottom up’ part of this conversation comes in. The senior executives might have all sorts of great ideas about business processes and policies, strategies and tactics. With that said, probably the most powerful thing a Chief Sustainability Officer can do is give workers the freedom to make their own suggestions. Very few people will change the way they work without permission. They were hired and trained to do a job, and they spend a lot of time thinking how they would like to do it better, but without the authority to do so, progress is going to be slow. If you really want grassroots support for ESG initiatives, the best way to get there is not putting mandates and quotas down from on high, but asking every employee, every team, every team leader what they would want to do, and then giving them the freedom to try it and see what happens. Keep track of what makes a difference. Share those discoveries and innovations between different groups, but always connect it back to who got the ball rolling. Giving employees a sense of authorship will snowball over time to a culture where a good idea can come from anywhere and go anywhere.

We touched on this before, but one of the most powerful ways to keep someone engaged and committed to a company is to give them the ability to make their community and the cause they believe in better as part of their working life. You want to talk about talent attraction and retention? Who doesn’t want to work for an employer that lets them do what they care about as part of their job, because their company cares about it too? You want to talk about talent development and identifying future leaders? Watch who is volunteering to go the extra step, and how they work to achieve those goals, and what they learn from stepping outside their normal jobs to do more and do better.

Taking Good Ideas and Making Them the Company’s Living Brand

Now one of the things we have to keep in mind is we are not just talking about eliminating waste or using less energy or supporting the local community. All of those initiatives are important, and when a number of them generated throughout all levels of an organization as coordinated and encouraged and supported from leadership at the top can add up to incredible things, but that doesn’t speak to building Sustainability into Corporate Culture. Not yet.

A Sustainability-focused company has made Sustainability part of its brand and then encourages its people and partners to live that brand.

Wherever a company is on its journey to improving its ESG performance, at some point it needs to stop asking for volunteers and brainstorming ideas and move into a place where every business decision includes, “And how does this fit into our Sustainability goals?”

Making Sustainability that fundamental is the difference between a company with Green initiatives and a Green company.

Sustainability can’t be the nice-to-have extra. It needs to be part of every important conversation if your organization truly wants to live that brand and walk that path and be known for those actions. It cannot be an afterthought. It needs to be fundamental.

How Do You Get There?

Again, leadership from the top sets the tone, and then all levels of the organization need to embrace it, and a lot of it is about celebrating and sharing what works and advocating for more and better. When new people join the company, Sustainability should be something mentioned on the first day of onboarding. Employees should know what their business is doing to improve ESG performance in the same way they know whether or not they hit their productivity targets. New ideas should not come up at the monthly meeting. There should be a culture of Continuous Improvement where permission for little improvements is assumed, and people are confident they can try things on their own and then bring their innovations to the attention of superiors once they have some data to back up what they want to share. Big ideas and capital-intensive projects might come down from senior management, but they will do so to an eager and expectant group below who should feel empowered now to take these resources and run with them.

Again, we come back to the role of the Chief Sustainability Officer —whose title may vary, but whose responsibility remains the same— to feel the pulse of the company, understand the mindset of employees throughout the organization, offer support and encouragement where needed, champion their work to shareholders and stakeholders inside and outside the business, and always apply the soft skills of change management and leadership to make transformation something exciting and powerful instead of disruptive and intimidating.

How Long Does It Take?

This does not happen overnight. Rome was not built in a day. Even companies that are founded on environmentally conscious principles have to live those principles for a while before their people feel comfortable in the brand they built for themselves, so how much longer does it take a long-established multinational company like, say, Unilever, to commit to being a positive force in the world, bend all its products and policies in that direction, empower leadership to drive change and encourage all its employees to make their contributions of all shapes and sizes towards that common goal? It takes years. Honestly, it takes decades. Even when you achieve it, the journey never stops.

You need to walk that path and live that brand forevermore.

Agreeing to that is maybe the most important part of the entire journey, and the best companies, the best leaders, the best workforces accept that from the first steps. Building Sustainability into Corporate Culture is not a performative act. You don’t do to be seen to be doing it from an outside observer who may or may not buy your product or invest in your stock or choose to work for you. You are committing to a journey with no final destination or stopping point that will see the travelers change beyond recognition the further they go from their starting point.

It can be a daunting task, but it also hopefully seems like a light burden to ask any one person to carry, because it is being motivated by a good cause. Most people given the chance want to do the right thing. Putting Sustainability at the beating heart of how a company of hundreds or thousands of individuals work day-to-day and year-over-year is a pretty amazing thought, and amazing things will come when that thought becomes a reality.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.