In 1973, California native, mountaineer, and lover of the great outdoors, Yvon Chouinard, founded apparel company Patagonia. Since then, while Patagonia’s customers have been sporting the companies outfits as they traverse rugged terrains, mountains, and oceans, Patagonia has continued to pioneer new ways of doing business. For years, Patagonia has been at the forefront of global efforts to mainstream sustainability throughout their supply chain. At Patagonia, each product’s entire lifecycle is tracked and assessed for its sustainability: from the sourcing of raw materials, to design and manufacture, through to transportation and eventually, its disposal.
Almost exactly three years ago, as many North Americans engaged in the Black Friday/Cyber Monday consumer madness that follows Thanksgiving, Patagonia broke the ultimate rule of sales: they told customers to stop buying their products. The company’s now famous “Don’t Buy this Jacket” campaign was designed to raise awareness about the enormous supply chain pressures associated with apparel production. Of course, Patagonia also took the opportunity to let consumers know their products were high quality, and built to last, so no need to replace them.
This year, Patagonia shook things up again when they dissolved their sustainability department. Not because they decided they’d changed their mind on the sustainability movement; but because they didn’t think it made sense to separate it from mainstream business operations. Now, Patagonia’s experts in environmental sustainability are housed within the materials department. Experts in labour rights and social impact are housed within production and design departments. For Patagonia, too often sustainability teams are seen as somehow having a separate mission to the rest of the business.
Patagonia is not alone. Companies are increasingly recognising that environmental and social sustainability is often at the core of successful business. The days of the lonely corporate social responsibility (CSR) desk in the corner, shaping public relations stories, are fading. Companies throughout the world are exploring shared value and win-win solutions that reduce supply chain costs, improve social outcomes, and support healthy profits. Shared value is about having a positive environmental, social, and financial impact, while expanding the entire socio-economic pool. Implementation of shared value programs often have multi-stakeholder collaboration at their heart. Private and public sectors alike recognise that each party brings unique skills and resources to the table.
We were fortunate to hear from another global company pioneering shared value at the G20 Innovation Hub, co-hosted by Social Outcomes and the Wise Foundation. Hugo Verkuil, Managing Director and VP of Marketing for Unilever Australia and New Zealand (ANZ), explained Unilever’s commitment to sustainability, and reducing supply chain pressures in the the most simple terms: “its more costly to do nothing”.
Unilever is no small company, globally representing over 174,000 employees and sales of over AUD$73 billion in 2013. Their products touch the lives of over two billion customers, every single week. In Australia, Unilever’s portfolio includes household names Dove, Rexona, Surf, Omo, Lipton, Flora, Vaseline, and many more.
Like their colleagues at Patagonia, Unilever has ensured that sustainability is considered a core business practice. The company has issued every employee business cards with the title ‘Head of Sustainability’, to make the point that social and environmental impact are a key concern for the entire company, not one department.
Last week, Unilever ANZ announced a commitment to sourcing 100% traceable and certified sustainable palm oil for locally produced food products by the end of 2015. “This is about doing the right thing for our planet, our consumers and for the future of our business,” said Chairman and CEO of Unilever ANZ, Clive Stiff. In 2010, Unilever also committed to sustainably sourcing 100% of its agricultural raw materials by 2020 as part of it’s Sustainable Living Plan.