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Q&A with Alan Jope, Unilever CEO

“The key in this environment is to remain relevant to the consumers you serve. First, by earning trust by operating a responsible, multi-stakeholder business model. And second, by harnessing advances in science and technology – and especially digital – in ways that allow us to reach and delight consumers in new and ever more inventive ways.”

Alan Jope, Unilever CEO

How do you see the current state of the world and the impact on Unilever’s markets?

There’s no doubt that conditions are challenging right now. Sluggish economies and a high degree of geopolitical uncertainty are inevitably impacting consumer confidence and spending, which in turn is intensifying competition in the retail sector. However, Unilever has now been around for 90 years and so we are very accustomed to operating through downturns and periods of uncertainty like this, and indeed emerging stronger. Moreover, all our competitors – big and small – face the same challenges.

The key in this environment is to remain relevant to the consumers you serve. For us, that comes down to two things. First, earning trust by operating a responsible, multi-stakeholder business model. And second, harnessing advances in science and technology – and especially digital – in ways that allow us to reach and delight consumers in new and ever more inventive ways. We are firmly focused on both.

The recent outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) is clearly concerning and we are monitoring developments very closely. The safety and wellbeing of our people has been the overriding priority. We are also doing all we can to ensure business continuity and our teams are working tirelessly to help mitigate the risks. Inevitably, however, there will be an adverse impact on the business although the extent is not yet clear.

As you look back, how do you reflect on Unilever’s business performance in 2019?

underlying operating margin in 2019

It was a mixed performance. Our profitability was good with a healthy improvement in underlying operating margin, strong free cash flow delivery of more than €6.1 billion and cash flow from operating activities of €10.6 billion. This is important because our model is predicated on being able to re-invest in the long-term health of the business, while also paying out a competitive annual dividend.

On the flip side, growth is also a key driver of value creation and our underlying sales growth performance fell slightly short of expectations, at 2.9%, which was naturally disappointing. Turnover increased 2.0% to €52.0 billion. While growth was hindered by a marked slowdown in some of Unilever’s high growth markets like South Asia and West Africa, these markets all remain very attractive long-term prospects for us. We are confident therefore of restoring underlying sales growth to Unilever’s 3-5% multi-year range.

What were the highlights for you of 2019?

of our management are now women

A strong performance in the emerging markets – growing at over 5% – was an undoubted highlight. We also grew across each of our three global Divisions, which was encouraging and reflects the inherent strengths of our brands and our portfolio. Our Home Care Division had a particularly strong year, growing by more than 6%, driven by some great innovations and an intensifying focus around ‘green cleaning’. The performance of our recently acquired prestige beauty brands – which grew double-digit – was also a highlight, further establishing Unilever as an important player in this highly attractive and fast-growing segment of the market.

We have set out some very ambitious goals for Unilever. We want, for example, to be a global leader in sustainability; to be the world’s best marketing company; and to be an organisation that stands as a beacon for diversity and inclusion. Seeing Unilever recognised in 2019, therefore, as a leader in multiple external benchmarks, including the GlobeScan Sustainability Leaders Survey (for the ninth consecutive year); the World’s Most Effective Marketing Company; and as recipient of the prestigious Catalyst Award (for the company which has done most to accelerate the progress of women through workplace inclusion), were all special moments – as well as a spur to increase our efforts still further in these important areas.

Where do you feel the company could have done better?

underlying sales growth in 2019

In markets as dynamic and fast-moving as ours, speed is essential, both in seizing opportunities to meet changing consumer preferences but also in responding when our business is under competitive challenge. While we do this well on many occasions and in many parts of the world, we haven’t yet developed the consistency of response that I am looking for everywhere, and this was apparent in 2019. We made some important organisational changes during the year – including flattening our market structure under a newly created Chief Operating Officer position – which I am confident will help to make Unilever a faster and even more operationally effective business.

As far as our global Divisions are concerned, while it was an excellent year as mentioned for Home Care, our Beauty & Personal Care and Foods & Refreshment Divisions both fell short of expectation – with underlying sales growth at 2.6% and 1.5% respectively – and so this is where we will be looking to accelerate growth most specifically in 2020.

In the area of diversity, we reached an important milestone in 2019 on our journey to become a gender-balanced organisation. Our management population is now made up of just over 50% women. Pleasing as this is, the overall figure masks the fact we haven’t yet made the progress we want at the most senior levels of the company, where women are still underrepresented. This is very much a job half-done therefore and something I intend to make a personal priority in 2020.

What steps are you taking to accelerate growth?

1.3 billion
people reached through our health and hygiene programmes since 2010

We’re doing a lot. I’ve already mentioned speed. There are two other areas I would highlight. First, we are putting a heightened level of focus around some proven growth fundamentals, which we are confident will accelerate our topline performance. These include making our innovations even more impactful; building our presence in faster-growing retail channels, like e-commerce; ensuring that more and more of our brands have a clearly articulated purpose that resonate with consumers; and driving our savings programmes further to help fuel the many growth opportunities we have.

The second relates to our portfolio. We have made significant changes over recent years, acquiring businesses in new parts of the market and disposing of businesses such as Spreads. The overall effect has been to improve Unilever’s exposure to faster growing markets, those that offer better long-term prospects for value creation. We will continue that process, evaluating our portfolio rigorously against a range of exacting criteria. It is in that context that we have announced a strategic review of our global tea business, which has a large footprint in the slower growing black tea segment and a history of being dilutive to Unilever’s overall growth and margin. We will explore all options, with an open mind and with the intention of sharing the conclusions of the review by the middle of 2020.

How are you planning to take forward Unilever’s commitment to social and environmental sustainability?

grid electricity from renewables on 5 continents

Under the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) we have developed an enviable reputation for leadership on these issues. We now mean to build on that, not least because many of the challenges the world faces – like the climate crisis or growing inequality – are becoming ever more pressing.

We will do this by embedding sustainability in a new purpose-led, future-fit Unilever Compass strategy, and in two principal ways. First, we will continue to use our size and scale to help drive change through our extended value chain. A great example last year was the ambitious commitment we made to address the issue of plastic packaging by halving our use of virgin plastic and by helping to collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell, both by 2025.

Second, we will make our product brands even more prominent vehicles for driving social and environmental change. Many of our brands already do this, to great effect, but we now intend to make it an integral feature of every brand. We know that it works and that it also helps to drive growth. Last year, our most purposeful brands grew faster than the rest of the portfolio. Unilever’s brands touch the lives of two and a half billion people every day so the opportunity for us to influence behaviour and drive positive change is enormous.

I am very proud of all the women and men of Unilever – and the millions more we partner with throughout the value chain – who work so hard every day to bring these commitments to life and who are determined to show that Unilever can remain a force for good in the world.

Financial performance

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Turnover growth

Turnover growth averaged 1.6% over five years

2.0% 2019
(5.1%) 2018
1.9% 2017

Underlying sales growth*

Underlying sales growth averaged 3.3% over five years

2.9% 2019
3.2% 2018
2.8% 2017

Underlying volume growth*

Underlying volume growth averaged 1.4% over five years

1.2% 2019
1.9% 2018
0.8% 2017

Operating margin

16.8% 2019
24.8% 2018
16.7% 2017

Underlying operating margin*

19.1% 2019
18.6% 2018
17.7% 2017

Free Cash Flow*

€6.1bn 2019
€5.4bn 2018
€5.8bn 2017

Cash flow from operating activities

€10.6bn 2019
€9.6bn 2018
€10.0bn 2017

Cash flow (used in)/from investing activities

(€2.2)bn 2019
€4.6bn 2018
(€5.9)bn 2017

Cash flow (used in)/from financing activities

(€4.7)bn 2019
(€12.1)bn 2018
(€2.0)bn 2017


€21.9bn 2019
€20.6bn 2018
€20.7bn 2017

Turnover growth

6.0% 2019
(0.3%) 2018
2.6% 2017

Underlying sales growth

2.6% 2019
3.4% 2018
2.9% 2017

Operating margin

20.7% 2019
20.2% 2018
20.0% 2017

Underlying operating margin

22.7% 2019
22.0% 2018
21.3% 2017


€19.3bn 2019
€20.2bn 2018
€22.4bn 2017

Turnover growth

(4.6%) 2019
(9.9%) 2018
(0.4%) 2017

Underlying sales growth

1.5% 2019
2.2% 2018
2.1% 2017

Operating margin

14.6% 2019
36.0% 2018
16.3% 2017

Underlying operating margin

17.5% 2019
17.7% 2018
16.8% 2017


€10.8bn 2019
€10.1bn 2018
€10.6bn 2017

Turnover growth

6.9% 2019
(4.2%) 2018
5.6% 2017

Underlying sales growth

6.1% 2019
4.7% 2018
4.4% 2017

Operating margin

12.7% 2019
11.7% 2018
11.0% 2017

Underlying operating margin

14.8% 2019
13.3% 2018
12.4% 2017

2018 and 2017 figures restated following adoption of IFRS 16, see note 1 and note 24 in the Unilever 2019 Annual Report and Accounts for further details, and the change in treatment of hyperinflationary economies in underlying sales growth, see page 29 in the Unilever 2019 Annual Report and Accounts for further details.

* Key Financial Indicators.Link back to Financial performance table

Underlying sales growth, underlying volume growth, underlying operating margin and free cash flow are non-GAAP measures. For further information about these measures, and the reasons why we believe they are important for an understanding of the performance of the business, please refer to our commentary on non-GAAP measures on pages 27 to 32 in the Unilever 2019 Annual Report and Accounts.

Unilever Sustainable Living Plan

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Improving Health & Well-being

big goal: By 2020 we will help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being.

Learn more about Improving Health & Well-being

Health & hygiene

Target: By 2020 we will help more than a billion people to improve their health and hygiene. This will help reduce the incidence of life-threatening diseases like diarrhoea.

1 billion Target
615 million 2019 on ground reach
570 million 2018 on ground reach
523 million 2017 on ground reach
710 million* 2019 TV reach
670 million* 2018 TV reach
78 million* 2017 TV reach


Target: By 2020 we will double (i.e. up to 60%) the proportion of our portfolio that meets the highest nutritional standards, based on globally recognised dietary guidelines. This will help hundreds of millions of people to achieve a healthier diet.

60% Target
56% 2019
48% 2018
39% 2017

Baseline 2010 unless otherwise stated.
** Key Non-Financial Indicators.Link back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table
† PricewaterhouseCoopers assured in 2019. For details and 2019 basis of preparation see back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table
Δ PricewaterhouseCoopers assured in 2018. For details and 2018 basis of preparation see the reports and publications archiveLink back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table
◊ PricewaterhouseCoopers assured in 2017. For details and 2017 basis of preparation see the reports and publications archiveLink back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table
* The number of people reached through TV advertisements and programmes aimed at encouraging health and hygiene behaviour change (‘TV reach’) was only measured for our Oral Care brands in 2017. Lifebuoy and Dove started measuring TV reach in 2018 and 2019 respectively.Link back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table
‡ During 2017 and 2018 we amended how we assessed compliance with the Responsible Sourcing Policy, hence year-on-year data is not comparable.Link back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table
± Around 568,000 women have accessed initiatives under both the Inclusive Business and the Opportunities for Women pillars in 2019.Link back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table
( ) Brackets around environmental targets indicate that our aim is to reduce our greenhouse gas, waste and water footprints. Brackets around the corresponding actuals indicate that we have reduced our footprints by the numbers quoted.Link back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table
+ Target approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative.Link back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table
^ Restated from 0.20 kg/tonne of production due to a classification error during the data reporting process.Link back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table
¤ 2019 Total Recordable Frequency Rate (TRFR) includes for the first time all acquisitions which operate as decentralised business units, as we now have processes in place to collect the data. Had we included these acquisitions in 2017 and 2018, our reported TRFR would have been approximately 6% higher in each year.Link back to Unilever Sustainable Living Plan table


Legal notice relating to material on this page

The material on this Unilever Annual Report and Accounts Overview webpage (the "Material") relates to the year ended 31 December 2019 and is provided for general information only. The Material does not (i) form part of the Unilever Annual Report and Accounts 2019 or Annual Report on Form 20-F 2019; or (ii) contain sufficient information to allow as full an understanding of the results and the state of affairs of Unilever as the Unilever Annual Report and Accounts 2019 or Annual Report on Form 20-F 2019. As such this Material should not be relied upon or used as the basis for making voting or investment decisions without consulting the full Unilever Annual Report and Accounts 2019 or Annual Report on Form 20-F 2019 and other more complete or up-to-date sources of information. Information relating to Unilever's results for current and prior periods do not necessarily reflect future trends, nor do they provide indicators of results for like periods. This Material is not intended to be and shall not be deemed to be an invitation or inducement to invest in or otherwise deal in any securities of the Unilever Group or in any other investment, nor to provide or constitute any advice or recommendation in connection with any investment decision, nor to constitute an offer to provide services in any jurisdiction in which the Unilever Group is not permitted to do so under any applicable law or regulation.

Cautionary statement

The material on this website may contain forward-looking statements, including 'forward-looking statements' within the meaning of the United States Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Words such as 'will', 'aim', 'expects', 'anticipates', 'intends', 'looks', 'believes', 'vision', or the negative of these terms and other similar expressions of future performance or results, and their negatives, are intended to identify such forward-looking statements. These forward-looking statements are based upon current expectations and assumptions regarding anticipated developments and other factors affecting the Unilever Group (the 'Group'). They are not historical facts, nor are they guarantees of future performance.

Because these forward-looking statements involve risks and uncertainties, there are important factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed or implied by these forward-looking statements. Among other risks and uncertainties, the material or principal factors which could cause actual results to differ materially are: Unilever's global brands not meeting consumer preferences; Unilever's ability to innovate and remain competitive; Unilever's investment choices in its portfolio management; inability to find sustainable solutions to support long-term growth including to plastic packaging; the effect of climate change on Unilever's business; significant changes or deterioration in customer relationships; the recruitment and retention of talented employees; disruptions in our supply chain and distribution; increases or volatility in the cost of raw materials and commodities; the production of safe and high quality products; secure and reliable IT infrastructure; execution of acquisitions, divestitures and business transformation projects; economic, social and political risks and natural disasters; financial risks; failure to meet high and ethical standards; and managing regulatory, tax and legal matters.

These forward-looking statements speak only as of the date of this document. Except as required by any applicable law or regulation, the Group expressly disclaims any obligation or undertaking to release publicly any updates or revisions to any forward-looking statements contained herein to reflect any change in the Group's expectations with regard thereto or any change in events, conditions or circumstances on which any such statement is based.

Further details of potential risks and uncertainties affecting the Group are described in the Group's filings with the London Stock Exchange, Euronext Amsterdam and the US Securities and Exchange Commission, including in the Annual Report on Form 20-F 2019 and the Unilever Annual Report and Accounts 2019.

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