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What role does a consumer-facing sustainability strategy play in an ambitious plan like the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan? That’s where I left off in my interview with Marketing Chief Keith Weed last week in our review of the ambitious Plan two years since launch.

From Desire to Habit: Unilever’s Five Levers for Change

He chose to respond by explaining a framework called the “Five Levers for Change” that his team developed to solve exactly this dilemma. An excerpt:

  1. Make it understood. Sometimes people don’t know about a behavior and why they should do it. This Lever raises awareness and encourages acceptance.
  2. Make it easy. People are likely to take action if it’s easy, but not if it requires extra effort.  This Lever establishes convenience and confidence.
  3. Make it desirable. The new behavior needs to fit with how people like to think of themselves, and how they like others to think of them.  This Lever is about self and society.
  4. Make it rewarding. New behaviors need to articulate the tangible benefits that people care about.  This Lever demonstrates the proof and payoff.
  5. Make it a habit.  Once consumers have changed, it is important to create a strategy to help hold the behavior in place over time. This Lever is about reinforcing and reminding.

“We need to continue to work with others to drive this change. If we achieve the Sustainable Living  Five_Levers_of_Change_unileverPlan, and it doesn’t change business at scale, ultimately that’s a fail. Unilever’s impact is huge but we’re still a drop in the ocean. We need a movement going for businesses to help address this,” he explained.

“We are already working with organizations like the World Toilet Organization, UNICEF and others on sanitation, for example, which is a very important issue for us. Two million children die every year from pneumonia or diarrhoea. In a world where there are more mobile phones than toilets or toothbrushes, our work ahead is sure cut out for us,” he added.

The fact is Unilever cannot do it alone. None of it.

And Weed and team have understood that since launching the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. While scale is a huge factor, organizations require individual and mass power to change consumer behavior and habits. And that is where the Five Levers for Change along with creative partnerships like the kind Weed referred to can help.

Making Sustainability Personal…

“I was in Brazil recently speaking to a lady in Sao Paulo about the environment and the city’s pollution. For her this meant dust from the nearby construction and the tainted flavor of her water supply. These were her immediate challenges – not deforestation or climate change. People view the world through the prism of my world – family, friends, and community. Our world is a step bigger: the city you live in, the supermarket, the local dump, etc. And the final level, ‘the world’ is the rainforest, the ice melting in the Arctic,” Weed continued.

His point: We need to connect “my world” with “the world” for consumers. “Right now we’re at level one. When I asked the lady what she thought would solve the issues, she suggested stopping the
littering because it would stop the drains from getting clogged and therefore avoid local floods. Level One,” he said.

What companies need to do is create a movement and work with people to drive change. A natural question then: Is Unilever working with other companies on its initiatives or primarily with nonprofits?

… and a Business Driver

One example Weed offered was palm oil.

“We purchase a lot of palm oil but it still makes only for three percent of the world’s palm oil. We started our journey by promising to source 100 percent of our palm oil sustainably by 2020. It’s a clear signal to the entire palm oil supply chain that that is the future we are working toward.”

“But this goal would be impossible to reach across the value chain without working with other purchasers of palm oil. So we work with other businesses and NGOs on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to do this collectively.”

In fact, Weed says Unilever managed to reach the 100 percent goal last year because of this collective effort. The next step: To make the supply chain of sustainable palm oil easier and connected by 2020. “Right now procuring sustainable palm oil means weaving through a very complex supply chain,” he added.

Another example: the work of the Consumer Goods Forum, which includes 650 members including manufacturers, competitors, retailers and NGOs, responsible for over $2.5 trillion in sales. And Weed is pretty positive about the goals and work of the Forum: “There are a lot of companies getting behind the need to address the negative impacts of deforestation, and momentum is starting to build,” he said.

While momentum is starting to build – with several companies announcing new initiatives and collaborations – the issue did bring us back full circle to where we started: how do we connect these overarching partnerships with the average consumer?

Subtle Messaging & Cause Marketing

And what role does cause marketing play in Unilever’s 2020 plan? Should we expect more nuanced advertising on the lines of the Dove campaign, for example? Or go full throttle like Patagonia’s Sourcing_unilever“Don’t  Buy This Jacket” campaign?

It’s going to be subtler, says Weed. “For example, for our Tomato soup in Germany or our Ketchup in India, we talk about sourcing tomatoes sustainably. With our Lipton tea, we talk about sourcing all our tea and tea bags sustainably by 2020,” Weed explained.

“Consumers comprehend these messages differently though. When we talk about sourcing our tea sustainably, customers see the Rainforest Alliance logo as a sign of better quality and taste, not necessarily sustainability. With our Hellman’s mayonnaise we discuss cage-free eggs. Consumers perceive that as an indication of better food: animals are better looked after therefore they’re getting better food. However, it’s still early days,” he added.

Work Culture: Participating in Change

Early days also for Unilever’s employees, who are witnessing – and participating – in a significant shift culturally at a company that has left behind decades of “doing things one way” to a more complex ideology. How has the company’s culture evolved since 2010?

According to Weed, the greater purpose espoused by the Sustainable Living Plan has been significant for employees – kind of like Performance with Purpose over at competitor PepsiCo. “The notion that you can work for a business to earn money, build a career and also do it in a better way is significant. We need new ways of doing business in the future – our generation has stolen from our children’s
generation financially and environmentally – so we ‘re going out and saying we want our employees to innovate and encourage new ways of doing business,” Weed said.

In fact, the marketing chief, who also leads internal and external communications for Unilever, says despite the many crises facing our world today engagement levels among employees have gone up consistently every year.

A sentiment that resonated in an email I received this week from Kam Erik Fierstine, a project delivery manager in Unilever Engineering Services at the company’s Henderson, Nev.-based ice cream plant. Here’s what he wrote when I asked him about the culture at his company:

“The Sustainable Living Plan is something that is quite apparent to those of us that live in a desert-like area where we are very conscious of water usage. It has shown our employees that Unilever has the same values that we were raised with. Our employees would not put up with a leaky faucet at home, and now they have the backing of management to proactively fix these simple issues at work.”

“We all agree that we want to leave a healthy planet for future generations and we can help do that by conserving our resources. Our employees see the management team walking the talk and that empowers them to escalate issues and voice new ideas. They will now do small things to make a larger impact like pick up things from the floor or switch off conveyors or equipment when not in use.”

The Henderson, Nev.-based ice cream plant was recently honored by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy for its sustainability practices.

“They see us taking on challenges in a positive way and that’s inspiring,” Weed wraps up.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on May 1, 2013.