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Defining our material issues

We live in an uncertain and constantly changing world. Materiality helps us identify and prioritise the sustainability issues that matter most to our business and stakeholders.

Scientist examining sample

An issue is material to Unilever if it meets two conditions. Firstly, it impacts our business in terms of growth, cost, risk or trust. And secondly, it is important to our stakeholders – such as consumers, customers, employees, governments, investors, NGOs and suppliers. In determining if an issue is material, we also consider whether it is aligned with our Vision and Purpose, brand portfolio and geographical footprint; its potential impact on our value chain (PDF | 635KB); and the degree to which we can affect change.

We use our materiality assessment to identify priority sustainability issues across our value chain. Materiality helps to inform the development of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) and ensures we report on the issues of most interest. We update our assessment every two years to make sure it reflects changes in our business and the external environment.

Find out more in our interactive materiality matrix, which shows the results from our 2017 assessment.

View topics by:

Select one of the Focus Areas below to view the topics and issues within it.

  • Health & Well-being

    • N&DNutrition & diets

      Issues
      • Access and affordability
      • Calories
      • Cancer
      • Diabetes
      • Diets and lifestyle
      • Fortification
      • Heart health
      • Nutritional labelling
      • Nutritional profile
      • Obesity
      • Product reformulation
      • Salt content and reduction
      • Saturated fat
      • Sugarcontentandreduction
      • Trans fat
    • S&HSanitation & hygiene

      Issues
      • Safe drinking water
      • Sanitation
      • Oral health
      • Handwashing
      • Hygiene
  • Reducing Environmental Impact

    • ASAgricultural sourcing

      Issues
      • Biodiversity
      • Food loss
      • Land use
      • Cocoa and sugar
      • Certification
      • Dairy
      • Environmental degradation
      • Food commodity prices
      • Food security
      • Fruit and vegetables
      • Organic products
      • Paper and board
      • Raw materials
      • Responsible procurement of agriculture
      • Soy and oils
      • Tea
      • Traceability
    • CAClimate action

      Issues
      • Access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy
      • Air pollution
      • Alternative Energy Sources
      • Climate change products
      • Direct energy consumption
      • GHG emissions from consumer use
      • GHG emissions from our operations
      • Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
      • Land use changes
      • Operational eco-efficiency
      • Renewable energy
      • Transportation
      • Climate partnerships & advocacy
    • DDeforestation

      Issues
      • Palm oil
      • Cattle
      • Soy
      • Pulp and paper
      • Sustainable and traceable commodity supply
    • P&WPackaging & waste

      Issues
      • Biodegradable/bio-based packaging
      • Consumer views on packaging
      • Effluents from waste
      • Food waste
      • Manufacturing and office waste
      • Recycling of packaging
      • Reuse of packaging
      • Sachet waste
      • Synthetic plastics and chemical components
      • Marine life and plastics
    • WaWater

      Issues
      • Access to water and water services
      • Consumer water use
      • Water abstracted for production
      • Water discharge/quality/pollution
      • Water use in agriculture
      • Water-related risks and management
      • Safe drinking water
    • NASNon-agricultural sourcing

      Issues
      • Conflict minerals
      • Non-food commodity prices
      • Raw material sourcing of non-agricultural materials
      • Responsible procurement of non-agricultural goods and services
  • Enhancing Livelihoods

    • HRHuman rights

      Issues
      • Child labour
      • Equality of opportunity and treatment
      • Forced labour
      • Freedom of association and collective bargaining
      • Gender diversity/discrimination/inclusion
      • Informal labour in value chain
      • Labour management relations
      • Land grabbing
      • Maternity protection
      • Migrant workers and trafficking
      • Modern slavery
      • Other forms of diversity/discrimination/inclusion
      • Racial diversity/discrimination/inclusion
      • Rights of indigenous peoples
      • Sexual orientation diversity/discrimination/inclusion
      • Working hours
    • WROWomen’s rights and opportunities

      Issues
      • Access to land and resources
      • Equal remuneration
      • Gender diversity at Board level
      • Gender equality
      • Gender pricing
      • Maternal health
      • Opportunities for women
      • Safety of women
      • Self-esteem
      • Training and skills for women
    • EIEconomic inclusion

      Issues
      • Economic inequality in and among countries
      • Emerging markets strategy
      • Fair trade
      • Knowledge transfer to emerging markets
      • New ventures/acquisitions
      • Opportunities for young people
      • Product pricing and adaptation
      • Rural development
      • Smallholder farmers
      • Small-scale retailers
      • Socially inclusive business models
    • EWBEmployee well-being

      Issues
      • Health and well-being
      • Mental health
      • Occupational health and safety
      • Pensions and social security
    • FCFair compensation

      Issues
      • Executive pay
      • Living wage
      • Pay differential among employees
  • Responsible Business Practices

    • EV&IEthics, values & culture

      Issues
      • Values
      • Employment culture
      • Employee engagement in sustainability
      • Anti-counterfeiting
      • Anti-trust/anti-competitive behaviour
      • Bribery and corruption
      • Compliance
      • Ethical business practices
      • Grey market
      • Intellectual property
      • Public policy and lobbying
    • DS&PData security & privacy

      Issues
      • Cyber security
      • Data privacy
    • G&AGovernance & accountability

      Issues
      • Accountability to stakeholders
      • Audit conflict of interest
      • Board effectiveness
      • Internal governance and accountability
      • Long-term capitalism
      • Succession planning
      • Transparency and reporting
    • RM&AResponsible marketing & advertising

      Issues
      • Marketing to children
      • Marketing to other vulnerable groups
      • Responsible marketing practices
      • Gender and other stereotyping
    • T&ECTax & economic contribution

      Issues
      • Environmental taxes
      • Extended producer responsibility
      • Food tax
      • Tax transparency
      • Jobs
      • Economic value added
      • Tax contributions
    • I&TResponsible use of innovation & technology

      Issues
      • Nanotechnology
      • New technologies
      • Religious, vegetarian or vegan suitability
      • Stem cells research
      • Artificial intelligence
      • Big data
  • Wider Sustainability Topics

    • TP&ITrusted products & ingredients

      Issues
      • Allergens
      • Chemical compounds in packaging, foods and cosmetics
      • Chemical safety
      • Controversial products
      • Food colourants and flavourings
      • Food safety
      • GMOs in food
      • Pesticides in consumer foods and beverages
      • Product and ingredient transparency
      • Responsible labelling
      • Sugar substitutes
    • AT&WAnimal testing & welfare

      Issues
      • Animal testing
      • Cage-free eggs
      • Farm animal welfare
    • C&SConsumers & sustainability

      Issues
      • Consumer behaviour change
      • Consumer education
      • Consumer preferences
      • Brands with purpose
    • TTalent

      Issues
      • Access to talent
      • Talent attraction and retention
      • Training and education
    • CDCommunicable diseases

      Issues
      • HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

Our Materiality Matrix

View topics by:

Select one of the Focus Areas below to view the topics and issues within it.

The forces that shape our world

Every business is impacted by macro forces. These are the trends and events that are shaping our world. We monitor these trends to make sure our strategy and plans are fit for the future and to assess their impact on our material issues. Our latest macro forces analysis shows four distinct, but overlapping, shifts that will affect business and society over the next decade:

Multi-polar world

Slow growth and volatility are creating a world where international growth and political leadership fragment. Income and political polarisation within countries is set to increase, threatening the progress of globalisation and free trade.

Environment under stress

The impact of water scarcity and climate change will be increasingly visible. Momentum for action will gather pace, building on the Paris Agreement.

Digital and technology revolution

The rapid development of new technologies – such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, voice technology and virtual reality – will open further opportunities for connection, automation and value creation, and pose new risks around security and privacy. Data and the Internet of Things will continue to disrupt traditional business models, using technologies such as blockchain and increasingly sophisticated smart devices.

Living differently

Societies are becoming more diverse with fragmented identities, changing lifestyles and new everyday behaviours. Millennials and Generation Z are having a powerful influence on cultural norms, such as diversity and gender. Older generations have a strong economic influence, and this will increase as the population ages. Migration is having a profound effect on national identity.

This year, we have not presented specific macro forces – such as demographics, emerging markets and the global economy – in our materiality matrix, as they cut across multiple issues. We believe this gives greater focus to the issues that Unilever can directly influence. Many of the macro trends that were in our 2015 materiality matrix are captured as Principal Risks in our 2017 Annual Report and Accounts.

How we use our materiality assessment

Every two years, we conduct a materiality assessment to help ensure our strategy is focused in the right areas, to assess the changing sustainability landscape and to understand and prioritise the issues that matter to our business and our stakeholders. We use our materiality assessment to help us to evolve our strategy and tailor our reporting so that it aligns with the interests and needs of our stakeholders, as well as those of the company.

We have used our materiality process to inform the development of the USLP from its inception:

  • 2009–2010: when we first developed the USLP, our materiality assessment helped determine which issues to include, set targets for and report on.
  • 2013: our in-depth materiality review (PDF | 327KB) resulted in significant changes in the USLP, expanding our commitments on labour rights, women, inclusive business and smallholder farmers. Forum for the Future – the non-profit organisation – updated our external trends analysis, which we reviewed against our current and future business growth strategies. The results of this exercise identified 15 material issues.
  • 2015: our materiality review (PDF | 137KB) validated that we had the most important issues reflected in the USLP. It revealed an increasing number of material issues due to rising stakeholder expectations and a growing business case.

The performance targets and indicators that we include in our online Sustainable Living Report reflect the outcomes of our materiality process. We don’t have targets or external performance indicators for every material issue. Some are addressed outside of the USLP, such as Ethics, Values & Culture which we manage through our Code of Business Principles and Code Policies (PDF | 5MB), and Animal Testing & Welfare which is managed through our Safety & Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC).

We also report on some material issues that are not contained in our USLP but are of interest to stakeholders, such as Trusted Products & Ingredients which is managed at a category level and through our Trust in Ingredients initiative. As we have various audiences and communications channels, we address many of these issues outside of our annual reporting cycle.

Our 2017 materiality assessment

Our most recent materiality assessment was designed to inform the development of the USLP beyond 2020. It highlighted new and emerging issues, and provided a fresh check on whether we are focusing on the right areas.

To ensure a best practice approach and objectivity, the assessment was supported by Corporate Citizenship – a global business consultancy specialising in sustainability. It included an in-depth analysis of business impacts, and used data and insights to gauge the relative importance of each issue to our stakeholders. Our six-stage process is detailed below:

Phase 1: Issue identification

We refreshed and consolidated the list of sustainability issues and topics deemed to be directly relevant to Unilever across our value chain. We identified a long list of 177 sustainability topics, which were categorised into 24 distinct issues as shown on our matrix. We define an ‘issue’ as a risk or opportunity to Unilever from the internal or external operating environment.

Where appropriate, we updated the labelling of certain issues and topics to provide clarity and to reflect commonly accepted language. You can find more detail on the issues and topics in the following PDFs:

Our long list included new issues and topics, reflecting changes to the sustainability landscape over the past two years. These were identified by researching emerging sustainability trends, macro forces, competitor practices and global standards.

We subsequently categorised the issues according to our USLP Big Goals: Improving Health & Well-being, Reducing Environmental Impact and Enhancing Livelihoods. Issues that did not align with our Big Goals were either categorised as Responsible Business Practices or Wider Sustainability Topics.

Issue identification aligns with our yearly review of Principal Risks which we include in our Annual Report and Accounts. All issues that are captured on our materiality matrix relate to one or more of our Principal Risks:

Principal RisksRelevant material issues

Sustainability

Packaging & waste, women’s rights & opportunities, water, sanitation & hygiene, human rights, nutrition & diets, deforestation, economic inclusion, communicable diseases, animal welfare & testing

Climate change

Climate action, water, deforestation

Ethical

Ethics, values & culture, governance & accountability, responsible marketing & advertising, responsible use of innovation & technology

Talent

Talent, human rights, fair compensation, employee wellbeing

Supply chain

Agricultural sourcing, non-agricultural sourcing, human rights

Brand preference

Consumers & sustainability, trusted products & ingredients

Safe and high-quality products

Trusted products & ingredients

Legal and regulatory

Tax & economic contribution

Systems and information

Data security & privacy

Phase 2: Issue prioritisation

We assessed each topic’s impact on the business and importance to our stakeholders.

  • Impact on the business (X-axis) was determined using Unilever’s Sustainable Business Value Framework. Each topic was assessed according to its potential to positively or negatively impact on growth, cost, risk and trust – with a corresponding score awarded depending on whether this was deemed to be high, medium or low. We also looked at the relevance of an issue to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (PDF | 501KB) (SDGs), particularly those where we can make the greatest contribution.
  • Stakeholder importance (Y-axis) was determined using research and analytics on consumers, customers, NGOs, investors, suppliers and employees. Each topic was analysed according to its importance to stakeholders, with a corresponding score awarded depending on whether this was deemed to be high, medium or low.

The prioritisation exercise resulted in two scores for each issue – one for impact on the business and one for stakeholder importance. These were plotted on a draft materiality matrix which formed the basis for the engagement during Phase 3.

Phase 3: Stakeholder engagement

The draft materiality matrix was reviewed and refined through a series of interviews with a cross-section of external and internal stakeholders.

  • External interviews were conducted with a small group of Unilever stakeholders including WWF, WBCSD, The Climate Action Group, Natural Capital Coalition, UNPRI and SYSTEMIQ.
  • Internal interviews were conducted with Unilever employees across a range of global functions (Sustainable Business, Risk Management, Supply Chain, R&D, Finance, Investor Relations, Customer Development) and our Divisions (Beauty & Personal Care, Home Care, Foods and Refreshment).

Phase 4: Internal validation

The matrix was reviewed by the Sustainable Business Team and presented to our USLP Steering Team for validation and approval. The Steering Team includes nine members of the Unilever Leadership Executive.

Phase 5: Strategic alignment

Our 2017 materiality assessment confirmed that there is strong alignment between our most material issues and those which are addressed through the USLP. All but two of our nine most material issues – Ethics, Values & Culture and Trusted Products & Ingredients – are directly addressed by commitments in the USLP. While targets on these issues are not explicit in the USLP, both are managed as part of company and category strategies.

The insights gathered from the materiality assessment – including rising public concern on issues such as climate change, packaging & waste and nutrition & diets – were used as an input to a number of internal conversations on the future of the USLP beyond 2020.

We commissioned further desk-based research into our nine most material issues to understand how our current USLP might develop in the future in line with science-based limits and social norms. We are using the insights from this work to inform the future development of the USLP.

This year, for the first time, we mapped our material issues to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This shows where we are taking action on the SDGs through the USLP. The relevance of our material issues to the SDGS can be seen in this graphic (PDF | 501KB).

Phase 6: Reporting on outcomes

We communicate the outcomes of the assessment on our 2017 materiality matrix, highlighting our most material issues and their relative significance to the business and our stakeholders.

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