This morning Unilever unveiled its big targets for making its supply chain sustainable. Never has it been more clear that it is big business that will now be leading the way in the sustainability revolution.

Unilever: A huge business behind innumerable well-known brand names including Flora, Colman's, Wall's, Cif, Dove...

In brief, Unilever, whose household brands range from Persil to PG Tips, intends to cut the environmental impact of its products by half, in terms of carbon, water and waste in ten years, while doubling sales, i.e. keeping its total environmental impacts steady while still pushing growth. While this seems like a mixed blessing, worldwide environmental impacts in all areas have gradually risen over at least the last 50 years, and levelling off is itself highly impressive. It will also pave the way for further improvements.

Technological fixes developed to meet these targets will have application in other markets. Cutting supply chains is an increasingly high-tech process, as the “food technology” section of IBM’s website demonstrates, and systems and software will be copied elsewhere. Any niches in which they find big carbon-emission cuts will set precedents for the rest of industry. If Unilever turns its own vehicles and those of its supply chain electric, then the surge of demand could have a real impact on some electric car manufacturers, or on setting up the infrastructure needed on regular supply routes for mass electric car adoption.

If, moreover, they recruit a large and well-qualified sustainability department, then it will presumably remain in place and pursue new and more ambitious targets in ten years time. If it is scaled back at some point then at least some of the sustainability-minded staff are like to be reabsorbed into the rest of its organisation, also no bad thing.

John Elkington: Now believes business, not consumers, will be at the heart of sustainability

There will be those who will criticise this initiative as greenwash (there always are) but so far it seems like this is an attempt to push through deep-rooted changes to their supply system, not simply produce eye-catching initiatives to seek headlines. If they had wanted that, surely they would have stopped short of the kinds of promises they are now making. It is revealing that John Elkington, who I know from my academic studies as someone driving a push for sustainability since at least with mid-1990s, has reflected in the Guardian “Now it seems as if the process is going into reverse with companies, rather than consumers, in the green driving seat.”

There will be those who will complain that they are motivated by the wrong things. To those people I say: who cares? If you give someone a gift then your motive does matter, because the meaning of that gift in that relationship is determined by your motive. If you are dealing with an abstract supply-chain change, then this is simply not the case. If Unilever “green” their supply chain, then the motives of those involved will have little or no impact. Moreover Jonathon Porritt has written in his piece on the announcement: “The data-gathering has been rigorous (as is always the case in Unilever)”, a throwaway line that rings very true: when companies as hard-nosed as Unilever decide to do something, they don’t mess around.

As time goes on there will be failures and questions over whether the target can be achieved, or whether the accounting system is effective. This kind of scrutiny is essential to avoid good intentions and grand designs falling by the wayside. Overall, however, we should praise Unilever for its efforts, or risk damaging the incentive for other companies to follow suit.

As an addendum, I will admit to being I am faintly jealous of my boss at the NGO at which I’m now working, who saw the launch with figures including John Elkington. Elkington is a semi-mythical figure for me, the inventor of the much revered “triple-bottom-line” of social business and CSR, referring to combining business, environmental and social goals. Reading about the application of this by Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen bank was a seminal moment for me. As a boy I wanted (for reasons still unclear to me) to be the archetypal big capitalist man, but as I travelled and then became a humanities student, I became very much aware of the other side of life, what might be called a “people and planet” ethos. This was the framework that made me realise I could reconcile the two, and that this was where my future lay.

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