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Unilever CEO Learns Both Sides of Sustainability Balance

As CEOs cast around for more ways to meet sustainability goals, they need to be mindful that consumers and investors aren’t the only ones watching how their companies perform.

Suppliers, B2B customers, unions and other keenly interested constituencies also each have their own reasons to be watching a company’s sustainability strategies: They may provide challenges or opportunities for those parties too.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman is learning that these days. He recently criticized “mindless consumption” even though his company makes only perishable CPGs. He said Unilever takes “responsibility from sustainable sourcing to sustainable living” and works with partners to foster “sustainable growth in its broadest sense: equality.”

Problem is, with global economies remaining sluggish and even cooling, the job-stunting aspects of corporate sustainability goals are falling into the crosshairs of unions. So Unilever was just blistered by a European labor group which claims that the company has “destroyed 70,000 jobs in Europe over the past 10 years” in large part because its corporate-sustainability strategy “has not brought the about-turn that was hoped for.”

So while Polman has been rhetorically focusing Unilever’s sustainability concerns on “over a billion people going to bed hungry,” its unions would rather the CEO first be concerned about thousands of its European employees going to bed jobless.

Unilever’s sustainability challenge is in keeping with the results of a new survey by the United Nations which showed that “while CEOs see a role for business in promoting sustainable development, their responsibilities to the more traditional fundamentals of business success, and to the expectations of markets and stakeholders, are preventing greater scale, speed and impact” from sustainability efforts.

In fact, the survey found, only 45 percent of CEOs surveyed worldwide believed that sustainability will be “very important” to the future success of their business, compared with 54 percent in the last survey carried out in 2010.






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