Why Unilever Wants You to Spend Less Time Showering

Company Unveils 50 Sustainability Goals to Reduce Environmental Impact

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- David Lewis, president of Unilever Americas, would like the average American woman to spend less time in the shower.

It's nothing personal, and it might even seem counterproductive for a guy who sells soap. But that hot water women use during the 10 to 12 minutes they ordinarily spend showering is by far the biggest piece of the carbon footprint for Unilever's soap and shampoo brands. And as of today, Mr. Lewis is on the hook for helping Unilever cut its environmental impact in half by 2020, including impact from consumer use.

That goal is a centerpiece of 50 specific goals that also include social and health-related targets under the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan released today. It expanded on a commitment made last year to double sales while reducing overall environmental impact.

The new plan gets far more specific. And progress on this "social mission" is now part of every Unilever initiative launch plan alongside sales and profit targets, Mr. Lewis said.

Failure to hit the sustainability target won't necessarily deep-six a launch that meets other criteria, he said in an interview after announcing Unilever's goals in New York. "But a miss won't mean it's not the target next time," he said. "If anything, it's going to up the ante given the time lines we've committed ourselves to."

Unilever isn't the only company to recently step up environmental goals, but its targets are more ambitious than many, maybe even most. Procter & Gamble Co. also announced bigger sustainability goals for 2020 in September, targeting, among other things, a 20% reduction in packaging per consumer use, but Unilever's goal is for an absolute reduction of 33%.

Mr. Lewis said he realizes consumers aren't always buying greener products or willing to sacrifice much themselves.

"In times of plenty maybe," he said. "After a new recession, value equations are rewritten. We need to be bringing those benefits when they don't need to have a tradeoff in terms of value. "

Pledge to use sustainable sources
But consumers weren't really clamoring for sustainable sourcing of tea, he said, though Unilever met a goal of having all of its Lipton Yellow Label and PG Tips tea in Western Europe sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms this year -- without raising the prices. When Unilever did so, he said, many consumers applauded and the market followed.

Now, Unilever is pledging to source all of its agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources by 2020 and half by 2015. That could drive up costs, but Mr. Lewis said he's seen no cases of retailers taking advantage of the supply shift to deepen price gaps with Unilever products.

"As people at Walmart and Tesco make their own commitments," he said, "I think they would have a challenge in terms of consistency in order to have brands behave one way and they behave another."

One of Unilever's more ambitious targets is to expand its PureIt water-filtration brand, launched in India in 2004, to elsewhere in Asia, Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. It aims to have such systems provide safe drinking water to 500 million globally by 2020 -- a population bigger than South America's current 385 million or nearly half of India's current 1.1 billion.

That latter goal drew some incredulity in a panel debate Unilever held in New York with some environmental experts. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said he doubted Unilever could reach a half billion people with a clean-water program without help from governments and policy makers, even at its projected cost of a penny per 2 liters of water.

Mr. Sachs added, "I doubt shorter showers really are the key" to reducing carbon emissions, saying cleaner energy production is more crucial, something he said Unilever and other businesses should put their lobbying muscle behind.

Even so, Unilever is serious about cutting shower time, and not just for women. Dove Men & Care bottles now include an exhortation for men to reduce the time they spend in the shower by 40 seconds to save water and energy.

Product solutions
Mr. Lewis acknowledged a bigger impact may come from working with governments to create standards for more efficient hot-water heaters, but he had some ideas for product solutions, too.

"Maybe we can develop a faster-rinsing shampoo," he said, along the line of a Comfort fabric softener Unilever sells in developing countries that reduces rinsing when hand-washing clothes. Or maybe self-heating shower gels would help, he suggested.

"Though we don't know how to solve it, we're prepared to talk about it," he said. "We now have researchers thinking about things that way, when in the 23 years I worked at the company, nobody ever had."

Mr. Lewis said Unilever won't apply its sustainability goals directly to marketing or media choices, say by shifting away from print ads. But the sustainability drive will likely change how the company spends marketing money against its portfolio of brands, with more going to brands that best help it meet its goals.

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