A global approach to sustainability: an interview with Ray Bremner, President & CEO Unilever Japan

Ray Bremner

Ray Bremner OBE, President of Unilever Japan, spoke with me about his personal concerns about sustainability.  He received his OBE for championing the relief efforts of foreign firms after the earthquake. His interview demonstrates what can be achieved when corporate leaders are personally committed to addressing social and environmental issues – and lead from the front. (Ray’s Scottish local proudly reported his OBE award here).

What would you most like readers to know about you? 

I am a Scot who joined Unilever over thirty years ago, directly from college, and since joining I have worked and lived in eight countries.  The opportunity to experience different cultures and to work alongside wonderful colleagues has enriched me to an extent I had never envisaged when I joined Unilever and more than compensates the fact that I rarely get to visit Scotland.

What role, if any, do you think business should take in leading transformational change in society? What do you think Unilever’s key contributions have been?

Business is part of society and needs to play its part in shaping society, providing employment and opportunities to people and in protecting the world we are caretaking for the future generations

In 2010 Unilever set three big goals, all to be achieved by 2020:

1) Help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being;

2) Source 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably;

3) Halve the environmental footprint of its products across the value chain.

After two years I am pleased to say that we have made solid progress on two of the three big goals.

Help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being:

The company has reached 224 million people with programmes to reduce diarrhoeal disease through hand washing with soap, provide safe drinking water, promote oral health and improve young people’s self-esteem. Lifebuoy soap reached 71 million people in 16 countries in 2012 – five times as many people as in 2010.

Source 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably:

Unilever now buys over a third (36%) of its agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources, with particular progress in palm oil, sugar, cocoa, vegetables and sunflower oil. We have also now helped to train 450,000 tea farmers in sustainable practices, of whom over 300,000 have achieved Rainforest Alliance certification.

Halve the environmental footprint of its products across the value chain:

Unilever is making good progress in areas it can control. Between 2008-2012 greenhouse gas emissions from energy in manufacturing have been cut by nearly a third and manufacturing waste has halved. Over half of Unilever’s 252 manufacturing sites around the world now send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill, and the company has set itself a new target of extending this to all its factories by 2015. However, its own manufacturing impacts account for only a small part of the total environmental footprint of Unilever’s products in the total value chain – just 4% of its greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint for example. The majority of Unilever’s product footprint is in the sourcing of raw materials (25% of its GHG footprint) and in the way consumers cook, clean and wash with the products (68% of its GHG footprint). One of our biggest challenges remains how we encourage our consumers to use our products more sustainably at home.

What do you see as being the big sustainability impacts of the future that corporations will need to prepare for?

The lack of access by many people to food, nutrition, basic hygiene and sanitation, clean drinking water or a decent job should be a concern to all of us. We firmly believe business has a big role to play in striving for more equitable and sustainable growth

What do you think are the biggest obstacles to businesses doing more to address sustainability?

Although many businesses are making progress on sustainability, they also face challenges which they can’t solve alone. To reach its goals and achieve large scale change, Unilever believes even more collaboration is needed between companies, governments, NGOs and consumers. Among the areas where the company would welcome more cross-sector collaboration are: reducing and eliminating deforestation associated with soy, palm oil, beef, pulp and paper by 2020; integrating hygiene behaviour change into national health policies and education curricula; linking more smallholder farmers into food supply chains; and building infrastructure to promote waste recycling and recovery.

Helping consumers change their behaviour to live more sustainably is also key. In the absence of major framework changes by governments, the company is tackling this in a number of ways, from driving habit change through packaging solutions, such as single dose laundry detergent capsules which make it easier for consumers to dose accurately, to working with others such as retailers and civil society organisations to encourage shoppers to make sustainable choices at the supermarket and in the home. In addition, Unilever is leveraging its scale and reach to work with its many suppliers across the value chain to instil sustainable practices.

You have worked for Unilever in a few different places.  How does culture and context impact on senior exec and staff attitudes to sustainability?

Originally there were differences with countries such as Germany taking a lead. However, Unilever now has a global agenda with objectives which apply to every part of our business. As managers we are all targeted with making steady progress against our sustainability goals.  In certain countries the management will have higher priorities on certain activities e.g. In India about clean water and Hygiene whereas in Japan it has been about welfare for children and packaging reductions. However, all businesses are in pursuit of all three objectives.

On a personal level, why do Unilever’s responses to sustainability issues matter to you?

One of my reasons for staying my whole career with Unilever is that it has always had care for society as a business pillar. In recent years the challenge of sustainability has become so much more important and Unilever has responded by creating a global approach so that we can achieve more and act more quickly.  As a father of five I really worry about the world we will be leaving behind us. We are already using up the resources of two Earths and this will only get worse unless governments, business and people take action.  I am proud to be part of an organisation which believes that business success doesn’t need to cost the Earth.

Related articles on this website:

Five essentials to embedding sustainability

Understanding (how sustainability fits into) your business model

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