Category winner: Sustainability as Opportunity:
Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan

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This case won the Ethics and Social Responsibility category at The Case Centre Awards and Competitions 2018.
The case
Paul Polman

Who – the protagonist

Paul Polman, Unilever CEO.



Unilever is a decentralised global company, listing 400 brands in its portfolio and engaging more than two billion consumers a day.

The company has operated in developing countries for more than 100 years, and has built its business on applying innovation to the masses.


Sustainability has long been at the heart of everything that Unilever does. Its holistic approach – the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) – combines elements of modern day economic development with good business practices, creating sustainable communities even as it helps to generate sustainable revenues and profits.

It is no wonder then, that Unilever seems to be one of the few companies who have successfully cracked the code of emerging markets, which are estimated to account for 50% of global consumption by 2050. Unilever reported that 57% of its revenue came from that sector in 2014, compared to an average 17% for most multinationals.


The USLP was launched in November 2010 – after Polman was appointed CEO in 2009 –
and was designed to achieve three significant sustainable outcomes by 2020: halve the environmental footprint of their products; source 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably; and help more than a billion people to improve their health and wellbeing.


Unilever is a truly global company, working in emerging markets situated in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Key quote

"Sustainability is contributing to our virtuous circle of growth. The more our products meet social needs and help people live sustainably, the more popular our brands become and the more we grow. And the more efficient we are at managing resources such as energy and raw materials, the more we lower our costs and reduce the risks to our business, and the more we are able to invest in sustainable innovation and brands." – Paul Polman, Unilever CEO.

What next?

Is Unilever being too bold, too ambitious? By committing to such aggressive social, environmental and financial goals so publicly, are they making the company vulnerable to criticism from a whole range of stakeholders, particularly investors? Or does setting such aggressive targets create challenges that ultimately leads to even greater success?

Interested in finding out more?

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Sustainability as Opportunity: Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan
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Teaching note
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The authors

Joanne Lawrence, Andreas Rache and Kevina Kenny

Joanne and Andreas explain how they created a case while thousands of miles apart, and how role play made the case come alive in the classroom.

Recognising sustainability as strategy

Joanne said: “I am very pleased and honoured to win this award. Hult is striving to create case studies that are global, innovative and relevant for the 21st century, and this case captures that spirit. 

“We are especially pleased with all the interest shown in this topic – sustainability as a strategic opportunity rather than a risk to be managed – and to shed light on an enlightened leader (Paul Polman) who believes this to his core.

“Furthermore, it’s great that our colleagues are finding the case useful for discussing with tomorrow’s leaders how sustainability can be a source of competitive advantage, and a positive way forward for businesses and for the world.”

The wonders of the internetDig deep

Andreas commented: “While you may lose a bit of the personal element of communicating face to face, speaking via the internet may actually turn into an advantage.

“You are forced to organise your thoughts and coordinate more in written form, which helps you to structure your questions, and the possible arguments or challenges before you speak. It allows both parties to collect their thoughts and take a bit of time to reflect on their responses, enriching the conversation when we finally do connect.

“In some ways, it actually can be more effective.”

David and GoliathCombining direct and secondary sources

Joanne added: “We did not interview Paul Polman directly for the case: both our schools are members of the UN Global Compact’s PRME (Principles of Responsible Management Education), and so we have heard him speak at various sessions, including at the UN Global Compact meetings in New York. He has also been a guest speaker at Hult. We are both very familiar with his passion and commitment to this topic.

“For Paul’s direct quotes, we tapped into secondary sources, such as the many statements and interviews he has given relating to the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

“After hearing Paul speak about his bold vision, it was our in-depth conversations with Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer and Vice President for Sustainable Business that led to them providing the details as to ‘how’ that vision might be realised.

“They described the processes and practices, indeed how Unilever’s entire management system is designed to support and realise Paul’s vision of sustainability as a strategic platform. This input further helped to put a real-life angle on the issues we discuss in the case.”

The case comes alive

Andreas concluded: “We tried role play in class, and students loved it. Role play generates not only a higher level of discussion, but a more fruitful one.

“Being able to hear the arguments for or against an action, and then to experience the same frustration of the manager as he/she seeks to create alignment among multiple stakeholders, brings home the point that stakeholder management is hard work and can be a core management competence. It makes the lessons of the case much more meaningful and memorable, and achievement of the manager’s alignment task that much more appreciated.

“The multiple aspects to this case – such as is Unilever’s plan too bold, too ambitious? Is Polman taking a risk with investors? – enables students to connect easily with the various roles, and creates a lot of robust discussion.”

About the authors

Joanne Lawrence is Professor of Business & Global Society at Hult International Business School.

Andreas Rasche is a Professor in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School and Visiting Professor at the Mistra Center for Sustainable Markets (MISUM) at the Stockholm School of Economics.
tw @RascheAndreas

Kevina Kenny was an EMBA student (Class of 2013) at Hult International Business School’s London campus when the case was written. She is now Vice President of Customer Experience at Liberty Global in Amsterdam.


View all the 2018 winners