David Grayson on embedding sustainability

David Grayson

“We’re working towards a green, inclusive, responsible economy that will satisfy the needs of 9 billion people by mid-century” – Professor David Grayson, CBE

Last week on the Greenleaf blog Nadya Zhexembayeva explained the merits of embedded as opposed to bolt-on sustainability. Now Professor David Grayson of Cranfield School of Management writes about the initiatives of Unilever, and how they have taken steps towards embedding sustainability through “Brand Imprints” and employee engagement:

If sustainability is to be truly embedded in a company, it cannot just be a series of “initiatives”, a “bolt-on” to operations. It needs to be built in to business purpose and strategy and this then has to be translated into each part of the business.

Unilever is a brand-dominated company. Its former Global Head of HR André van Heemstra argues that: “One of the extraordinary Unilever insights has been to build CR into our brands, as brands lie at the heart of our DNA. In this respect you will not be surprised that our acquisition of Ben and Jerry’s in my view gave a notable positive stimulus to Unilever thinking in this area”.

Sustainability had to be made relevant to brand operations. Long before the conception of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), Senior Vice-President Gavin Neath and his colleagues introduced a process called “Brand Imprint” – a “simple, intuitively obvious tool to encourage, almost coerce the brands to think more broadly” about their environmental and social impacts. Effectively, the tool forced brand managers to look beyond their traditional consumer lens and to add a broader stakeholder lens.

The Brand Imprint process brings together decision-makers from all along the value chain. This includes research and development, marketing, sourcing and production. The process is led by the brand’s global VP, and facilitated by the sustainability team. Its aim is to identify, understand and respond to social, environmental and economic issues that may be material to the future of their brand. Often these different functional leaders have not been in the same room together before, and very few will have thought about their brand in terms of “sustainable consumption”.

Through the Brand Imprint process the group is tasked with systematically investigating the direct and indirect environmental, economic and social impacts of products, as well as the external influences (consumers, market forces, opinion formers) that might impact on the brand’s future growth. This provides a structured process for each of the brand teams to undertake a 360º scan of the social, economic and environmental impact that its brand has on the world.

One of the first brands to go through this Imprint process was Lipton Tea. Lipton was chosen because of perceived civil society interest in how tea was sourced, and as Unilever buys 12% of the world’s annual tea production, the company is a significant player in the industry. The tea Imprint process culminated in a workshop held on a tea plantation in Kenya, facilitated by a manager who had served in Ben and Jerry’s – the iconic Vermont ice cream manufacturer acquired by Unilever in 2000 – who was steeped in the business imperative for sustainability.

In May 2007, Unilever signed an agreement with the NGO Rainforest Alliance and set a target for all Lipton Yellow Label and PG Tips tea sold globally to be fully Rainforest Alliance Certified by 2015. Implicit in the initiative was a conscious aim to move the whole industry.

The Brand Imprint process brings together decision-makers from all along the value chain… Its aim is to identify, understand and respond to social, environmental and economic issues that may be material to the future of their brand.

Positive experience with tea got the Brand Imprint process off to a good start. A further boost came from one of Unilever’s principal customers: Walmart. Following Hurricane Katrina in the USA in 2005, Walmart’s then CEO Lee Scott had something of a Damascene conversion on sustainability and committed to turning Walmart green in a seminal speech broadcast to all of Walmart’s facilities in November 2005. One of the key levers he used to implement the commitment was Walmart’s long-established VPI programme. When the programme was created in 1976, VPI stood for Volume Producing Item, but Scott shifted the emphasis and changed the name to Value Producing Item.

In addition, sustainability emerged as an important attribute for a product to possess if suppliers were going to put forth an item for VPI consideration. Each senior Walmart executive has to champion a VPI and after committing Walmart to sustainability, Scott chose the Unilever detergent brand All as his VPI. In fact, at that point, All was a struggling brand. In desperation, Unilever had converted the product into a concentrate. The timing was fortuitous since Scott used All Small and Mighty as an exemplar of everything he was trying to achieve – less packaging, fewer chemicals etc. Indeed, he was filmed on national television walking down a Wal-Mart store aisle, explaining to an interviewer what Walmart’s sustainability commitment meant, and grabbing a packet of the All concentrate to illustrate his point. By 2008, Walmart was selling liquid detergents only in concentrate form.

All Unilever’s largest brands (those with a turnover of more than $1 billion) have gone through the Brand Imprint process. External adviser Jonathon Porritt argues that the Brand Imprint process laid the foundations for the USLP and demonstrates how long a journey a company has to commit to, in order to ensure sustainability is embedded.

Engaging employees

Embedding involves not just getting the leadership on board but also the mass of employees. The Environmental Impact team, Sustainability Champions’ Network and Sustainable Packaging Steering team are three current examples of how teams of employees come together to work on specific issues. These groups work to assess Unilever’s footprint, formulate strategy, agree policy, work with category and brand teams to set specific goals and support the teams in implementing them. They also seek advice from external experts.

André van Heemstra believes that the commitment to be a responsible business has had a positive impact on levels of employee engagement – showing how often (although not always), companies are going with the grain of employee sentiment in promoting sustainability, and that the sustainability agenda can be highly motivating and energising. The launch of the USLP in 2010 has encouraged more employees to want to become involved with sustainability.
Inside Unilever it is recognised, however, that understanding of what sustainability means for individual employees and individual businesses within the company remains mixed.

Some brands, functions and geographies have grasped the relevance early on. Others have yet fully to understand. Making sustainability everybody’s business is seen as critical to the next phase of embedding.


This article is an adapted extract from Cranfield on Corporate Sustainability, edited by David Grayson and Nadine Exter.

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David Grayson talks about what sustainability issues will mean for business, innovation and management:



Cranfield on Corporate Sustainability
David Grayson is the director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield University. Prior to this he had a thirty-year career as a social entrepreneur and campaigner for responsible business, diversity and small business development. This included founding Project North East; being the founding CEO of the Prince’s Youth Business Trust and serving as a joint managing-director of Business in the Community. He has worked with many leading global businesses and international institutions including BP, Microsoft, the OECD and the World Bank.

Cranfield on Corporate Sustainability is out now. Buy it direct from Greenleaf Publishing and get a 30% discount for the next seven days. Just use discount code CCS150 at the checkout.

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One thought on “David Grayson on embedding sustainability

  1. I hope this thinking catches on like wild-fire! Our world desperately needs more companies and their employees moving in this elevating direction. As a consumer I choose to purchase more and more from companies that are taking a clear stand on issues of sustainability and really embedding them.

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