Unilever: A Force for Good?

12/05/2014 17:52 BST | Updated 12/07/2014 10:59 BST

As world governments collectively shrug their shoulders at the latest stark findings of the IPCC it is possible that the leaders in fighting global climate change are now a small group of multi-national companies including Unilever. As these companies increasingly understand the scale of the challenge they are starting to develop solutions which are taking them outside the remit of a traditional company. Is this a good thing?

Unilever has just reported on the progress it has made over the last three years on its much vaunted Sustainable Living Plan. Jonathon Porritt described this as a 'coming of age' moment when a company the size of Unilever begins to understand what it means to embed sustainability into its core.

Launching the up-date CEO, Paul Polman, was crystal clear on the business benefits. He highlighted that their 'brands with purpose' had delivered double digit growth and pointed to numerous other benefits including increased innovation, greater employee engagement, reduced risks, cost savings and greater flexibility in ever-changing market conditions. This was what you would expect from a leader highlighting the benefits their strategy is delivering across the business. But it was only half the story.

Outlining ambitions for the year ahead, Paul Polman highlighted intentions taking the company into different territory. Unilever aims to address some of the biggest global problems the world faces including deforestation, food security and health/hygiene. Their analysis paints a picture of frustration with the snail like pace of world governments to deliver solutions at the scale required and so they have has decided to fill the void.

Paul Polman outlined his belief in the rule of 30 - if you can get the right 30 people in a room together you can solve many problems. He also highlighted 'tipping points' where he believes that the company can use its influence and credibility to deliver significant and meaningful change.

It is not just the area of public policy that the company is seeking to influence. Their analysis has shown that although they have delivered significant environmental savings in areas they directly control - such as factories. If they take into account the environmental impact of how consumers use their products greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 5% and water use by 15% (although this was largely due to some new business acquisitions).

This level of sophistication is far beyond anything that national governments are doing. If the UK Government was to measure the impact of emissions generated overseas by UK consumption it would show a rise rather than a reduction in our carbon footprint. For this and for the transparency of their findings Unilever has to be applauded. Based on the results they have decided that they have a responsibility to encourage their consumers to change their lifestyles to reduce environmental impacts.

This expansion of influence into policy and consumer lifestyles is not universally welcomed. In a recent article in The Guardian, George Monbiot described it as 'corporations colonising our public lives' saying that politicians have delegated power to global giants engineering a world of conformity and consumerism.

He obviously has a point and in an ideal world there would be no need for companies to step into the policy void left by international governments. Unfortunately we do not live in such a world and personally I would rather have companies such as Unilever stepping up to the plate to address global challenges rather than nothing happening.

Indeed it could be argued that Unilever is actually heading back to its founding principles. In the 1890s William Hesketh Lever wrote down his ideas for Sunlight Soap a revolutionary new product designed amongst other things 'to make cleanliness commonplace; to lesson work for women and to foster health'. Perhaps the company is now seeking to do something similar on the global stage and for that should be congratulated.