Beyond The Green Corporation
Friday, January 19, 2007
Under conventional notions of how to run a conglomerate like Unilever, CEO Patrick Cescau should wake up each morning with a laserlike focus: how to sell more soap and shampoo than Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ) But ask Cescau about the $52 billion Dutch-British giant’s biggest strategic challenges for the 21st century, and the conversation roams from water-deprived villages in Africa to the planet’s warming climate.
The world is Unilever’s laboratory. In Brazil, the company operates a free community laundry in a S?o Paulo slum, provides financing to help tomato growers convert to eco-friendly “drip” irrigation, and recycles 17 tons of waste annually at a toothpaste factory. Unilever funds a floating hospital that offers free medical care in Bangladesh, a nation with just 20 doctors for every 10,000 people. In Ghana, it teaches palm oil producers to reuse plant waste while providing potable water to deprived communities. In India, Unilever staff help thousands of women in remote villages start micro-enterprises. And responding to green activists, the company discloses how much carbon dioxide and hazardous waste its factories spew out around the world.
As Cescau sees it, helping such nations wrestle with poverty, water scarcity, and the effects of climate change is vital to staying competitive in coming decades. Some 40% of the company’s sales and most of its growth now take place in developing nations. Unilever food products account for roughly 10% of the world’s crops of tea and 30% of all spinach. It is also one of the world’s biggest buyers of fish. As environmental regulations grow tighter around the world, Unilever must invest in green technologies or its leadership in packaged foods, soaps, and other goods could be imperiled. “You can’t ignore the impact your company has on the community and environment,” Cescau says. CEOs used to frame thoughts like these in the context of moral responsibility, he adds. But now, “it’s also about growth and innovation. In the future, it will be the only way to do business.”
A remarkable number of CEOs have begun to commit themselves to the same kind of sustainability goals Cescau has pinpointed, even in profit- obsessed America. For years, the term “sustainability” has carried a lot of baggage. Put simply, it’s about meeting humanity’s needs without harming future generations. It was a favorite cause among economic development experts, human rights activists, and conservationists. But to many U.S. business leaders, sustainability just meant higher costs and smacked of earnest U.N. corporate- responsibility conferences and the utopian idealism of Western Europe. Now, sustainability is “right at the top of the agendas” of more U.S. CEOs, especially young ones, says McKinsey Global Institute Chairman Lenny Mendonca.
Continue reading “Beyond The Green Corporation“