UN Sustainable Development Goals
Our scale and reach mean we’re well placed to both contribute to and benefit from the SDGs.
Business must serve society. But today, our current form of capitalism is leaving too many people behind. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is rising, the planet is under severe strain, and trust in business is at an all-time low.
Many are arguing that a more inclusive form of capitalism is sorely needed.
We agree. We believe that it is not possible to achieve long-term business success in a world which contains poverty, hunger and climate change. But can business really help drive a reboot of the current system? At Unilever, we think the answer is 'yes'.
An action plan for the world
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched by the United Nations in 2015, are an excellent vehicle for driving this change. They represent an action plan for the planet and society to thrive by 2030 – addressing poverty, hunger and climate change, among other issues central to human progress and sustainable development, such as gender equality, clean water and sanitation, and responsible consumption and production.
There from the start, committed to the end
We contributed to the development of the SDGs, recognising their strategic importance both to our business and the world – and we're committed to helping achieve them.
- 2012: Our CEO, Paul Polman, served on the UN’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, seeking to ensure that the voice of business was included.
- 2014: Unilever co-ordinated the development of a Post-2015 Business Manifesto (PDF | 3MB), endorsed by more than 20 leading international companies, laying out a vision for strengthening the ability of business to substantially help achieve the SDGs.
- 2015: The UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- 2016: CEO Paul Polman began serving on the UN Secretary-General’s Advocacy Group for the Global Goals.
- 2017: Unilever co-founded the Business & Sustainable Development Commission in 2016, culminating in the launch of a seminal report in 2017, Better Business, Better World (PDF | 6MB), on the business case for action on the SDGs.
A new way of doing business
We have long recognised that the only acceptable business model for Unilever is one in which the planet and society thrive. That’s why in 2010, well before the SDGs came into being, we launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) – our blueprint for sustainable growth which responds to the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly resource-constrained and unequal world.
Our vision for a new way of doing business – one that delivers growth by serving society and the planet – is strongly aligned with the SDGs. By inspiring every brand, in every country, to make a positive social impact and reduce our environmental footprint, the USLP harnesses our scale and influence to help bring about a better world.
The size of the prize
This isn’t capitalism with compromise. Unilever is a company, not a charity. By using our resources as a business to address issues such as nutrition, sanitation, hygiene, and climate change, we are delivering short-term and long-term benefits for shareholders as well as society.
We're convinced that achieving the SDGs will be good for the global economy, and for business in general. The opportunities that this transformation creates will be enormous – market opportunities of up to US$12 trillion a year, and up to 380 million new jobs by 2030, according to the Business & Sustainable Development Commission (PDF | 6MB).
An unstoppable force
Companies have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embrace the SDGs as a driver of business growth. If they fail to get behind systems change and the kind of inclusive capitalism laid out by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the costs and uncertainty of doing business will swell. On the other hand, if a critical mass of companies joins the movement for system change, it will create an unstoppable force.
We don’t pretend it will be easy. Change never is. Nor do we claim to have arrived there yet. But we are on the journey and hope that many other companies will also seize the opportunities that the SDGs present.
Business cannot thrive in the long term unless the world makes progress towards the SDGs. For us, that means applying an SDG lens to every aspect of strategy: appointing the right leaders, innovating to create sustainable solutions, marketing products and services that inspire consumers to make sustainable choices, and using the goals to guide leadership development and women’s empowerment at every level.Paul Polman, Unilever CEO
The pathway to 2030
To achieve the goals, and benefit from them, we know the transformation has to begin with ourselves. The USLP is driving change within our business. Many of the goals of the USLP are closely related to the SDGs – and so action on the USLP contributes to the SDGs. In our latest Sustainable Living Report we have shown where the strongest connections are, and where we are making the biggest contribution. It’s a start – and we aim to move to more in-depth reporting on SDGs in the future.
At the same time, we know that the actions of a single business acting alone will not create the systemic change that's needed to achieve the vision set out by the SDGs. So, alongside our USLP, we're working on global and local partnerships that aim to transform current business models to address poverty, inequality and environmental challenges.
Why partnership will unlock progress towards the SDGs
Rebecca Marmot, Global Vice President, Advocacy and Partnerships, explains how SDG17 is the key that will unlock progress for all other SDGs.
“Transformational change requires transformational partnerships. That means new ways of doing business – not just for us, but for everyone who wants to see the vision of the SDGs become a reality.
The SDGs are not 17 individual goals. They are a universal agenda with 17 inter-connected goals. Progress in one goal can both depend on and unlock progress in another – and interconnected goals require an interconnected approach.
Business, governments and civil society all have a role to play, through innovative partnerships, with new types of funding – multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, blending public and private. There's a good reason why partnerships for the goals are themselves an SDG – Goal 17.
We're already working with a wide range of partners, including NGOs, governments and other businesses, and exploring innovative approaches that drive progress towards the SDGs. For example, TRANSFORM, our partnership with the UK government's DFID, brings private sector creativity and a public–private finance model to bear on persistent developmental challenges. By aiming to enable 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia to gain access to products and services that have been shown to improve health, livelihoods, the environment or wellbeing, it addresses a wide range of SDGs.
These interconnections can be found throughout our work. For instance, empowering women in our value chain by challenging gender norms and unlocking women's personal and economic potential is a key strategic priority for us. Our efforts directly address gender equality (SDG5), as well as other SDGs such as alleviating poverty (SDG1) and hunger (SDG2), good health and wellbeing (SDG3), and decent work and economic growth (SDG8).
We use the power of our brands to communicate about the issues the SDGs are tackling, such as Domestos on ending open defecation, Pureit on access to clean drinking water and Lifebuoy on the importance of handwashing to combat disease and diarrhoea. These brands collectively address water, sanitation and hygiene (SDG6).
Of course, creating system-level change can be challenging – but we're seeing real progress, and our business is growing as a result. Building new connections that enable us to contribute to transformation through advocacy and implementation will continue to be key to success – for our business and for the SDGs.”
Making a real impact, where it matters
The SDGs represent an ambitious vision. And ensuring that vision is translated to the streets, businesses and fields where people spend their daily lives, means there is a huge implementation job to be done. Of course, while the SDGs are a multi-stakeholder agenda, the targets were designed with nation states and supra-national bodies in mind. Much of that work must be led by governments and agencies such as the UN.
But business has a critical role to play too. As countries around the world seek to align their policies with the SDGs, business needs to be part of the conversation and part of the solution.
In it together: how we aim to increase our positive impact in Bangladesh
Tanzeen Ferdous, Head of Home Care and Foods and Refreshment, Unilever Bangladesh, describes the opportunity for greater impact when private, public and non-governmental agencies all align to achieve the SDGs.
“When it comes to making progress against the SDGs, there are few countries in the world that can match Bangladesh. Of course, Bangladeshis still face many, many challenges. But this is the birthplace of some of the world's best-known NGOs, who have been key to combating poverty and unlocking potential. At the same time, the government's five-year economic plan is specifically aligned with, and tracked against, the SDGs.
Then there is the private sector – including Unilever. We have a long history of achieving positive social impact in Bangladesh, which gives us a real platform to make a difference.
Programmes led by brands such as Rin, Vaseline, Knorr, Pepsodent, and Lifebuoy have already helped to improve the health and wellbeing of Bangladeshis for many years.
What is clear is that there are huge opportunities to achieve even greater impact – by aligning these activities directly with the SDGs, and with other stakeholders. For example, in February 2018, we agreed a partnership with UNDP specifically aimed at collaborations that will help achieve the SDGs – in particular, helping to ensure safe drinking water for Bangladeshis, in support of clean water and sanitation (SDG6), through our Pureit brand.
Do we want to do more, and align more closely with the public and third sector efforts? Yes – and there’s undoubtedly more work to do to bring them together. But as the UNDP partnership shows, businesses such as ours have a real role to play in bringing together the kind of multi-stakeholder approaches that are needed to achieve the SDGs.”
The difference we're making
Unilever is one of the world’s leading consumer goods companies, making and selling around 400 brands. Every day, 2.5 billion people use our products in more than 190 countries. Given our scale and reach, we are making progress across many of the SDGs through our USLP.
In 2017, we mapped the SDGs to the nine pillars of the USLP – with 14 having a strong and direct link. Further information on how we are taking action on these SDGs can be found throughout our Sustainable Living Report. For completeness, we have outlined our contribution to all SDGs below.