The Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group Unilever, owner of international brands such as Domestos household cleaner and Dove soap, is pursuing an ambitious strategy. It plans to double its worldwide sales from the current 40 billion euros by 2020, and simultaneously to halve its carbon dioxide emissions by improving efficiency in packaging and production. Moreover, Unilever is assuming greater social responsibility. By 2020, for instance, it aims to have integrated half a million small farmers and traders in developing countries into its supply chain. “We intend to be a sustainable company in every sense of the word,” says Unilever CEO Paul Polman.
Unilever’s primary motivation is not the conservation of nature, however, but economic success. For many consumers, sustainability has become an important purchasing criterion. Buyers who formerly seldom inquired about origin, type of production and packaging now put a high priority on ecologically and morally ‘clean’ goods. US market analyst Pike Research estimates that global sales with sustainable packaging will almost double between 2009 and 2014, from 88 to 170 billion dollars. “The environmental awareness of consumers has significantly increased as a consequence of the climate debate,” explains Pike Research President Clint Wheelock.
Alongside climate protection, social aspects play an increasing role. Modern consumers want to lead a more healthy life, and therefore value natural food products that are absolutely safely packaged and have an unadulterated taste. For this client group, it is a matter of growing importance that product manufacturers demonstrate social engagement and offer ‘fair trade’ goods. “We are seeing a trend towards ethical consumerism,” declares analyst Jens Lönneker of the Cologne market research company Rheingold. He has observed that fair trade is firmly established among LOHAS (consumers who aspire to a Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability). Now it is spreading to ‘18-plussers’, who prefer fair trade beer or lemonade in chic bottles to conventional soft drinks or lager.
For the industry, the sustainability trend is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand it has to develop new products and campaigns, incurring high costs. On the other hand, the increasing demand for sustainable products promises economic growth. This is why the financially strongest big companies such as Coca Cola, Kraft Foods and Unilever pursue comprehensive sustainability strategies. They support environmental, nature and aid organisations or provide development aid themselves. They also invest in more efficient production lines and packaging. “We will cut our materials consumption by a third by 2020,” promises Unilever CEO Polman.