SDG 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Paul Polman

The agreement forged at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) marked a turning point for humanity and the planet. Signed by 175 nations, it provided for the first time a global framework for tackling the irreversible impacts of climate change. It was also the first test of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have
given us the opportunity to pursue a more sustainable and equitable future.

We need them now more than ever. Fifteen of the last 16 years were the hottest on record, in what climate scientists have signalled ‘a climate emergency1’. Research by the London School of Economics has shown that inaction on climate change could cost us 17% of the world’s assets – or $24 trillion2. We need to move from linear consumption and production patterns to a completely different way of looking at things.

This concept lies at the heart of SDG 12, to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. As with all of the SDGs, achieving it will require action from business. After all, in developing countries, business represents 60% of the GDP, 80% of the financial flow and 90% of the job creation. But more than that, tremendous opportunities exist for those who are willing to take action. For example, reducing waste that goes to landfill represents a £3.2 trillion market; currently we only recover 20% of that value3. With global spending on responsible consumption products increasing year on year – currently at $400 billion4 – it is clear that consumers are prepared to support sustainable businesses.

At Unilever, we know we have the means to help drive change, with our products reaching two billion consumers worldwide every day. So our response was to build an entirely new business model, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). Its vision is to decouple growth from our environmental footprint, while having a positive social impact in the communities in which we operate. Indeed, many of our USLP goals mirror the SDGs.

By implementing new engineering measures to drive eco-efficiency across our factory network, for example, we have seen cumulative cost benefits of over €600 million since 2008 and our CO2 emissions from energy are one million tonnes less per year. We now send zero waste to landfill at over 600 sites in 70 countries; our energy usage has been cut by more than 20% and the amount of renewable energy in our mix has almost doubled. This is helping us reduce risks from extreme weather and climate change, while contributing to our target of becoming carbon positive in our operations by 2030.

But to make a real and lasting difference, businesses must go beyond what they can achieve in their own operations and infrastructure and commit to redesigning their entire value chain. By building strategic partnerships with like-minded companies, NGOs and governments, companies can bring about transformative change to the broader systems within which they operate. Only then can we hope to help address some of the world’s most urgent challenges.

At Unilever, we are focusing on three areas where we have the scale, influence and resources to make a lasting difference: eliminating deforestation from our value chain, enhancing the livelihoods of smallholder famers, and achieving universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene – contributing to SDGs 13, 8 and 6.

On deforestation for example, a major contributor to climate change, we are part of the Consumer Goods Forum – representing over 400 retailers and manufacturers – in an effort to achieve net zero deforestation by 2020. This helped pave the way for the creation of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, a global umbrella partnership to reduce the tropical deforestation associated with the sourcing of commodities such as palm oil, soy, beef, and paper and pulp.

Waste is another example where partnerships are critical. Through projects such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Project MainStream – a cross-industry, global initiative – we can help accelerate business-driven innovation and scale the transition to a circular economy. Platforms such as the World Class Manufacturing Association are driving change by harnessing collective learnings in sustainable operations to realise results that simply could not be achieved alone.

So momentum is building, with an increasing number of businesses living out their
commitments to sustainable production. But only by working in cross-sector partnerships, pooling our resources and expertise, can we hope to achieve the ambitions set out in the SDGs. As I reflect on the challenges but also the opportunities that lie ahead, I am reminded by the words of Kenyan environmentalist and activist Wangari Maathai, who argued in her Nobel Lecture:

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.”

This could be our time.

1 The Guardian, February breaks global temperature records by 'shocking' amount
2 Climate value at risk’ of global financial assets, Simon Dietz, Alex Bowen, Charlie Dixon & Philip Gradwell
3 Towards the Circular Economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
4 An Imperative for Consumer Companies to Go Green, Boston Consulting Group