Unilever (NYSE:UL), one of the world’s leading suppliers of food, home and personal care products, has set itself a clear target: to be ‘carbon positive’ in its operations by 2030. This declaration of intent a few days ago was clearly timed to be inspirational for businesses worldwide as leaders meet in Paris this week for COP 21.

‘Carbon positive’ means Unilever will source 100 percent of its energy across its operations from renewable sources by 2030. In just over four years – by 2020 – it will source all the electricity purchased from the Grid from renewable sources, and will eliminate coal from its energy mix. In a statement, the company said it intends also to “directly support the generation of more renewable energy than we consume and make the surplus available to the markets and communities in which we operate.” 

“The reality is, if we don’t tackle climate change, we won’t achieve economic growth. This is an issue for all businesses, not just Unilever. We all have to act. Runaway climate change could wipe out development gains of the last century in little more than a generation” said Paul Polman, Unilever’s CEO.

Citing World Bank estimates that climate change “could push more than 100 million additional people back into poverty by 2030”, he added: “this is not acceptable for governments, business, civil society and humanity as a whole.” Under his leadership, Unilever has long argued a strong business case for sustainability as a means to drive growth, mitigate risk, cut costs and build trust.

Since 2009 – when Mr. Polman became CEO – the Anglo-Dutch company has shown underlying sales growth of 5 percent, and turnover today is around €50 billion (US $53 billion) with considerable exposure to emerging markets. In October this year it said it expected sluggish global markets to continue to weigh on a subdued performance with no let-up in sight

Mr. Polman introduced the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) to halve the environmental footprint of the manufacture and use of the company’s products by 2020, but these new commitments on sourcing 100 percent renewable energy for operations go further. The company admits it will be “challenging to achieve and is market dependent” but says it intends to “work collaboratively with partners, suppliers and others” to achieve its goal.

The international NGO CDP (formally the Carbon Disclosure Project) was set up 15 years ago to serve investors and has repeatedly recognized Unilever for corporate action on climate change. Its 2015 global climate change report, written on behalf of 822 investors with US $95 trillion in assets, includes Unilever for a second time in the the companies awarded an ‘A’ for their climate performance. 

These companies are applauded for their abilities to yield win–win results for the environment and business, apply a business lens to climate change, employ long-term strategies to help cut greenhouse gases worldwide and raise the bar on investment to reduce carbon emissions.

As the provider of the world’s largest environmental data platform, CDP is playing an important role at Paris COP 21 through the following events: https://www.cdp.net/en-US/Pages/events/2015/CDP-at-COP21.aspx

Unilever is a member of the B team, which has called for a net greenhouse gas economy by 2050. Paris COP 21, the company says, is “a first test of our ability to make the progress needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recently adopted by the United Nations.” 

Mr. Polman made his expectations of COP 21 clear when he said recently: “A high level of ambition is needed from Paris, which will act as a strong signal to investors ... we must seize the business opportunities represented by the green economy to make sure the Paris commitments are met, or even better, exceeded.”

Sally Uren, CEO at Forum for the Future – an independent global non-profit working with Unilever on its targets for sustainability, said: “Renewables are now outcompeting fossil sources of energy for businesses around the world. Unilever’s commitments ... show how confident they are about the benefits this will bring them.”


Dina Medland is an independent writer, editor and commentator with a strong focus on issues around corporate governance, ethics, the workings of the boardroom and sustainable business. She is on the team of contributors to @ForbesEurope and is an ex-Financial Times staff member who has been a regular contributor in recent years. Further details about her background and a portfolio of work – including her commercially sponsored blog ‘Board Talk’ are available on her website http://www.dinamedland.com