Unilever CSO calls on COP govts to enforce net zero policies

Acknowledging the challenge in reducing emissions, Unilever CSO Rebecca Marmot says governments need to step up on policies for a faster route to net zero

Unilever has long been considered a standard-bearer in corporate sustainability.

The company was among the first to introduce strategies that recognise the potential materiality of environmental issues to business performance – adopting in 2010 its Sustainable Living Plan.

In a recent shift in strategy, however, CEO Hein Schumacher said during an investor call that the company’s “aspirational” climate commitments had failed to deliver shareholder value – and that an overhaul of the firm’s sustainability strategy was needed.

“We have too many long-term commitments that failed to make sufficient short-term impact, and the latter is what the world really needs right now,” he said.

The new vision will instead focus on shorter-term, more tangible goals.

Under the new plan, which will see sustainability become part of a composite score by which Unilever will evaluate performance, Unilever will focus its sustainability initiatives on four pillars – climate, nature, plastics and livelihoods – and rather than setting company-wide goals, will empower division heads and brand managers to set metrics for assessing progress.

To ensure sustainability has “material impact” for Unilever and for the environment and societies it serves, the company will no longer set lots of aspirational goals, said Schumacher – but will instead be “short-terming our work” by making real, steady, meaningful progress on the big issues quarter-on-quarter, year-on-year.

“Time-bound, costed roadmaps will ensure we stay on track – and we will hold ourselves accountable to targets that are explicit, stretching, transparent and measurable,” Schumacher said.

Hein Schumacher took the helm of Unilever in July

This shift to time-bound, costed roadmaps comes amid greater demands by stakeholders for corporations to set realistic targets and timetables.

Armed with a target to be net zero across Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, Unilever is out in force at COP28 with regional and global leaders – calling on governments to take proactive measures and on other progressive business voices to speak out.

The maker of Dove soap and Hellman’s mayo acknowledges that – like many other businesses – it is facing challenges in its efforts to reduce emissions, challenges that could be overcome with changes to national policies.

“We’ve been working hard to understand the key levers for reducing our carbon footprint – and are now engaging suppliers and brands to accelerate emissions reduction,” Rebecca Marmot, Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer said in a statement ahead of COP28. 

“But we also need governments to create the enabling environment for change through policies that support a sustainable future. This will help us move further, faster towards achieving net zero by 2039.”

So, what measures is Unilever asking governments to take to help companies like them reach their net zero goals:

1 To triple renewable electricity capacity 2030

Already sourcing 93% renewable electricity across its global operations, in order to meet its target of 100% renewable energy by 2030, Unilever needs policy change. This will give suppliers access to renewable energy so they can decarbonise their own operations too.

2 Protect and regenerate land, forests and oceans

Unilever is committed to helping protect and regenerate 1.5 million hectares of land, forests and oceans by 2030. This includes managing a deforestation-free supply chain for its key commodities, such as palm oil, paper and board, tea, soy and cocoa. To achieve its ambition, Unilever is asking governments to provide additional funding for nature, to eliminate subsidies that support activities that harm biodiversity – and to create policies that align with the Global Biodiversity Framework.

3 Incentivise investment in regenerative agriculture

Food transformation is a critical topic of discussion at COP28 and of course a major area of focus for Unilever. The company recently published a report showing the positive impacts of its first regenerative agricultural projects, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions. But this kind of agriculture requires that farmers be incentivised and financially supported to enable a transition at scale – which is where government action comes in.

4 Support low-carbon feedstocks as alternatives to fossil-fuel-based chemicals

Unilever is engaging chemicals suppliers on climate action to help accelerate emissions reductions in its Home Care supply chain. Recent research makes a strong case for national strategies which will help companies move away from fossil-fuel-based chemicals to bio-based alternatives.

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