A smiling middle-aged Caucasian man in a light blue shirt in front of shelves stocked with various household cleaning products
Unilever should do more to deliver both sustainability commitments and financial goals, says Hein Schumacher, head of the consumer goods group © Vivian Wan/Bloomberg

In April this year, Hein Schumacher, chief executive of Unilever, announced that the company was entering a “new era for sustainability leadership”, and signalled a shift from the central priority promoted under his predecessor, Alan Jope.

While Jope saw lack of social purpose or environmental sustainability as the way to prune brands from the portfolio, Schumacher has adopted a more balanced approach between purpose and profit. He stresses that Unilever should deliver on both sustainability commitments and financial goals. This approach, which we dub “realistic sustainability”, aims to balance long- and short-term environmental goals, ambition, and delivery.

As a result, Unilever’s refreshed sustainability agenda focuses harder on fewer commitments that the company says remain “very stretching”. In practice, this entails extending deadlines for taking action as well as reducing the scale of its targets for environmental, social and governance measures.

Such backpedalling is becoming widespread — with many companies retracting their commitments to climate targets, for example. According to FactSet, a US financial data and software provider, the number of US companies in the S&P 500 index mentioning “ESG” on their earnings calls has declined sharply: from a peak of 155 in the fourth quarter 2021 to just 29 two years later. This trend towards playing down a company’s ESG efforts, from fear of greater scrutiny or of accusations of empty claims, even has a name: “greenhushing”.

Test yourself

This is the fourth in a series of monthly business school-style teaching case studies devoted to the responsible business dilemmas faced by organisations. Read the piece and FT articles suggested at the end before considering the questions raised.

About the authors: Gabriela Salinas is an adjunct professor of marketing at IE University; Jeeva Somasundaram is an assistant professor of decision sciences in operations and technology at IE University.

The series forms part of a wider collection of FT ‘instant teaching case studies’, featured across our Business Education publications, that explore management challenges.

The change in approach is not limited to regulatory compliance and corporate reporting; it also affects consumer communications. While Jope believed that brands sold more when “guided by a purpose”, Schumacher argues that “we don’t want to force fit [purpose] on brands unnecessarily”.

His more nuanced view aligns with evidence that consumers’ responses to the sustainability and purpose communication attached to brand names depend on two key variables: the type of industry in which the brand operates; and the specific aspect of sustainability being communicated.

In terms of the sustainability message, research in the Journal of Business Ethics found consumers can be less interested when product functionality is key. Furthermore, a UK survey in 2022 found that about 15 per cent of consumers believed brands should support social causes, but nearly 60 per cent said they would rather see brand owners pay taxes and treat people fairly.

Among investors, too, “anti-purpose” and “anti-ESG” sentiment is growing. One (unnamed) leading bond fund manager even suggested to the FT that “ESG will be dead in five years”.

Media reports on the adverse impact of ESG controversies on investment are certainly now more frequent. For example, while Jope was still at the helm, the FT reported criticism of Unilever by influential fund manager Terry Smith for displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of managing the business.

Yet some executives feel under pressure to take a stand on environmental and social issues — in many cases believing they are morally obliged to do so or through a desire to improve their own reputations. This pressure may lead to a conflict with shareholders if sustainability becomes a promotional tool for managers, or for their personal social responsibility agenda, rather than creating business value.

Such opportunistic behaviours may lead to a perception that corporate sustainability policies are pursued only because of public image concerns.

Alison Taylor, at NYU Stern School of Business, recently described Unilever’s old materiality map — a visual representation of how companies assess which social and environmental factors matter most to them — to Sustainability magazine. She depicted it as an example of “baggy, vague, overambitious goals and self-aggrandising commitments that make little sense and falsely suggest a mayonnaise and soap company can solve intractable societal problems”.

In contrast, the “realism” approach of Schumacher is being promulgated as both more honest and more feasible. Former investment banker Alex Edmans, at London Business School, has coined the term “rational sustainability” to describe an approach that integrates financial principles into decision-making, and avoids using sustainability primarily for enhancing social image and reputation.

Such “rational sustainability” encompasses any business activity that creates long-term value — including product innovation, productivity enhancements, or corporate culture initiatives, regardless of whether they fall under the traditional ESG framework.

Similarly, Schumacher’s approach aims for fewer targets with greater impact, all while keeping financial objectives in sight.

Complex objectives, such as having a positive impact on the world, may be best achieved indirectly, as expounded by economist John Kay in his book, Obliquity. Schumacher’s “realistic sustainability” approach means focusing on long-term value creation, placing customers and investors to the fore. Saving the planet begins with meaningfully helping a company’s consumers and investors. Without their support, broader sustainability efforts risk failure.

Questions for discussion

Unilever has ‘lost the plot’ by fixating on sustainability, says Terry Smith

Companies take step back from making climate target promises

The real impact of the ESG backlash

Unilever’s new chief says corporate purpose can be ‘unwelcome distraction

Unilever says new laxer environmental targets aim for ‘realism’

  1. How should business executives incorporate ESG criteria in their commercial, investor, internal, and external communications? How can they strike a balance between purpose and profits?

  2. How does purpose affect business and brand value? Under what circumstances or conditions can the impact of purpose be positive, neutral, or negative?

  3. Are brands vehicles by which to drive social or environmental change? Is this the primary role of brands in the 21st century or do profits and clients’ needs come first?

  4. Which categories or sectors might benefit most from strongly articulating and communicating a corporate purpose? Are there instances in which it might backfire?

  5. In your opinion, is it necessary for brands to take a stance on social issues? Why or why not, and when?

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