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Inside Unilever's sustainability myth

Inside Unilever's sustainability myth
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    Post #1 - March 26th, 2019, 3:19 pm
    Post #1 - March 26th, 2019, 3:19 pm Post #1 - March 26th, 2019, 3:19 pm
    A co-worker turned me onto this ~2-year-old piece at New Internationalist's website (mildly left-leaning) which is encouraging, infuriating and confirming all at once. In any case, it's an interesting, albeit long, read . . .

    The encouraging . . .
    at, Daphné Dupont-Nivet wrote:‘When is the last time you heard a CEO at this level have these types of conversations?’, the excited host of the Social Good Summit asks the audience. Paul Polman, Unilever’s chief executive, steps away from the microphone amid rapturous applause. He has just told the predominantly young crowd at New York’s trendy art centre 92nd Street Y that companies should put the common good before annual profit.

    In his speech, Polman slates corporate short-term thinking and makes a case for a new economic system. That evening, on 25 September 2015, the Unilever boss is awarded the title of ‘Champion of the Earth’, the UN’s highest environmental accolade. His initial ambition was to become a priest, Polman tells interviewers with some regularity. In a 2009 interview with management consulting firm McKinsey, the Dutchman lists the world leaders who inspire him: ‘Gandhi, Mandela and Mother Theresa. They always put other people’s interests before their own.’

    Ever since Polman took the reins at Unilever, sustainability has been at the core of the Dutch-British transnational company’s corporate strategy. Not only is sustainability perfectly compatible with commercial success; Polman claims the company can halve its environmental impact while ‘growing the business’ at the same time. In 2010 he presented his roadmap for sustainable growth to the world. The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan shows a company acutely aware of the great ecological and social challenges of our time, such as global warming, imminent food shortages and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Charity does not come into it: the plan is simply a matter of common sense. Unilever will profit too if it can still grow tea in Kenya and sell soap to Bangladesh 30 years from now.

    The infuriating . . .
    at, Daphné Dupont-Nivet wrote:The recent £115 billion ($142 billion) hostile takeover bid from ketchup producer Kraft-Heinz couldn’t have come as a greater shock. Suddenly the beacon of social responsibility was in danger of being swallowed up by an amoral competitor. With the disastrous Cadbury sell-off still fresh in his mind, British shadow industry minister Iain Wright talked of a ‘fire sale’ caused by Brexit. The plan was shelved after just two days but the commotion rumbled on. ‘Barbarians at the Plate’, The Economist headlined.

    The takeover plan was hatched by American billionaire Warren Buffet and Brazilian investment fund 3G Capital, ruthless venture capital investors interested in asset stripping and making a quick profit, not at all the sort of people Polman wants to do business with. In 2015 he told Forbes: ‘I don’t have any space for many of these people that really, in the short term, try to basically speculate and make a lot of money.’ But Kraft-Heinz’s brash move seemed to have unsettled him. Shortly after becoming CEO, Polman announced he would no longer publish quarterly profit. Now he let it be known that he would explore ‘options to accelerate the delivery of value for the benefit of our shareholders’.


    The locals had high hopes when the palm oil companies came to the area ten years ago. ‘We thought that we would collaborate as equal partners,’ Kusasi, 54, a member of the indigenous Dayak tribe, tells us. Sitting on the floor, his legs folded beneath him, he points at the two folders bulging with papers in front of him. It’s the documentation on the conflict between the villagers and Wilmar. The hoped-for partnership never materialised. ‘We lost nearly everything,’ Kusasi says.

    Some months ago, the villagers reported the company to the RSPO. Luthfi Bakhtiar, of the environmental organisation WALHI, the Indonesian branch of Friends of the Earth, assists them, even though he has little faith in the round table: ‘This is no solution to this problem,’ Bakhtiar says. ‘There are hundreds of land disputes like this in Kalimantan alone but last year only 11 cases in the whole of Indonesia made it to the complaint tribunal. In every single one of those cases the villagers were left empty-handed. Aided and abetted by a swarm of lawyers the companies overwhelm the villagers with legal texts and bureaucratic tricks. The RSPO should take on the role of neutral mediator. But it’s the palm oil producers that have the upper hand.’

    Passing mile after mile of oil palms, we make our way to the next village. Suddenly an information board appears. ‘Protected animals,’ it says. Behind the sign, we see a straggly bit of primeval forest. Some high trees sharing a single desolate looking liana between them is all it is. It is, however, home to orangutans, three types of deer, black kites, hen harriers, scaly ant-eaters, macaques and proboscis monkeys, or so the board claims. This tiny bit of forest, the remains of what once was an impenetrable jungle, is touted as a ‘high conservation value’, or HCV.

    The protection of HCV is a requirement for RSPO certified palm oil companies. But it is about as much use as a sponge in a flood. In its 2013 report Certifying Destruction Greenpeace claimed that, under the supervision of the RSPO, palm oil companies can continue to clear land with impunity, as long as the symbolic pieces of HCV remain untouched.

    But not even the high conservation value forests on ‘sustainable’ plantations are safe. ‘When the inspectors come, the company moves the HCV boards to a piece of jungle that belongs to the villagers,’ says Rudiyansah. The left breast pocket of his faded polo shirt sports the name of his former employer Wilmar. As a weed control worker, he used to carry heavy pesticide tanks on his back in the searing heat day in and day out. ‘Sometimes I split the 50 kilo loads in two but that made it difficult to meet my spraying target.’ Failure to meet the company target meant his already sub-minimum wage was halved from four euros a day to two.

    The confirming . . .
    at, Daphné Dupont-Nivet wrote:We found that Unilever does put more effort into saving the planet than many other companies. But we also discovered that the company scores well because it alone determines what constitutes ‘sustainability’. Its close cooperation with NGOs, the authorities and the media has given it an almost unassailable status. Companies wanting to opt for sustainability are confronted with dilemmas that Unilever refuses to acknowledge.

    And there's a lot more interesting and non-editorial information in the piece. It's definitely worth a read if you get a chance.

    Inside Unilever's sustainability myth

    Gardening is a bloodsport --Meghan Kleeman

    Why don't you take these profiteroles and put them up your shi'-ta-holes? --Jemaine & Bret

    There's a horse loose in a hospital --JM

    That don't impress me much --Shania Twain