Why marketers should learn lessons from Unilever's dedication to sustainability

Why marketers should learn lessons from Unilever's dedication to sustainability

We need to ensure that the industry does not simply hop from one burning issue to the next without ever resolving any of them.

Resplendent in his trademark green jacket, Unilever’s marketing boss, Keith Weed, laid out his thoughts for the assembled press at the FMCG company’s Cannes Lions cabana. He touched on everything from programmatic advertising and Publicis’ Cannes pullout through to digital training and the "lost generation" of marketers (digital dumbos, such as yours truly, in their late thirties and early forties who are too old to be digital natives and too young to have digital-native kids to demystify Snapchat for them).

He also turned to one of his pet subjects, sustainability. Weed, who is in overall charge of Unilever’s efforts in this area, explained how, under its Sustainable Living Plan, Unilever wants to source 100% of its raw material sustainably by 2020 and will be working with its supply chain to achieve this. "It’s good for business – you can’t have a good business and an unhealthy society," he said.

A hack pondered whether Unilever’s activity was driven solely by "societal pressure". But Weed hit back: "Funnily enough, in some ways, as business people there is an awful lot of pressure not to do it. Often people say to me: ‘What’s the business case for sustainability?’ I’d love to see the business case for the alternative. What is the business case for destroying the very planet we live in?"

One wonders how often Weed has had to have that conversation down the years and whether he’s had it more since the aborted Kraft takeover that made Unilever shareholders question whether the business was carrying a bit of fat.

Over the past 20 years, sustainability has morphed from being viewed as a fringe obsession for tree-huggers to the hottest bandwagon in town, before suffering the double blow of the greenwash backlash and the financial crash, when value became king.

Talk of sustainability has been largely replaced by brand purpose – arguably an easier path for brands to follow than ensuring sustainable practices are embedded into how they do business. Which is why Unilever’s efforts and brands such as Marks & Spencer, with its Plan A initiative, are to be applauded.

I’ve recently conducted an audit of the content produced by Campaign and it’s fascinating to see how quickly some issues rise to the top of the agenda then shift out of the limelight. A couple of years ago, the big panic was around the "ad-blockalypse". Fast forward to now and how things have changed. While the rate of ad-blocking has slowed, it’s still a threat – and yet attention has shifted elsewhere.

Some worry that diversity, today’s topic du jour, will go the same way once everyone tires of the thought-leadership articles and decides, as someone probably wishes they hadn’t said, "the diversity debate is over". One senior ad exec said to me recently: "You will continue to keep a focus on this, won’t you? I worry that everyone will just move on to something else."

While the latest thing will always seem more exciting, the industry does itself no favours when it blindly follows fashion at the expense of big issues that won’t be solved overnight.

Gemma Charles is deputy editor of Campaign.

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