Unilever is a publicly traded British-Dutch multinational consumer packaged goods company founded in 1929 following the merger of British soap maker Lever Brothers and Dutch margarine producer Margarine Unie. The company is organised into three main divisions: Foods & Refreshments, Home Care, and Beauty & Personal Care. Among its well-known brands are Ben & Jerry's, Dove, Knorr, Magnum, Persil, Rexona, Sunsilk, Wall's and Marmite.  

Forum for the Future has been a strategic partner and expert advisor to Unilever since 1997.  We’ve acted as an advisor to the CEO and sat on the Unilever Sustainability Advisory Council, providing advice and specific projects to the global sustainability team and some of the key brands.

“For more than two decades, Forum has been a key partner for Unilever on our sustainability journey. Their support to help us create deeper, more systemic change on the issues that matter most has been absolutely invaluable.” 

– Rebecca Marmot, Global Vice President, Sustainability  

Our partnership’s highlights include:

Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP)

Forum worked closely with Unilever to develop its Sustainable Living Plan, which was launched in 2010, and has since been consistently recognised globally as a leading corporate sustainability strategy. Former CEO, Paul Polman was clear this was not a “bolt on” to the business strategy – it is the strategy

Key to the 50 audacious targets was decoupling growth from environmental impact and aiming to contribute to society rather than solely extracting value. Pioneering bold research and development programmes and a new business model, the company pledged to double in size at the same time as halving its environmental footprint, setting out to achieve a series of concrete targets by 2020.

“Forum played a key role in shaping our Sustainable Living Plan. As independent outsiders, they bring in new thinking and help keep us honest. Forum brings not only its intellectual power but also… the right coalitions to achieve our targets; helping us move further and faster.”  

– Paul Polman, former Unilever CEO, Honorary Chair, International Chamber of Commerce  

In 2013, Unilever recognised that a lot had changed since the USLP was launched. Forum engaged Unilever to consider which megatrends would impact the business, its categories and markets up to 2040. Forum designed and facilitated a workshop for leaders and subject matter experts to review trends, prioritise issues, confirm priority themes and identify the areas where Unilever is best placed to drive transformational change. This initiative resulted in Unilever adding a new ‘strategic pillar’ on opportunities for women and three new areas in which to drive transformational change into the strategy.

In 2021, Unilever released a 10 year summary wrap-up progress report on the impact of making the USLP strategy operational. This coincided with the pending launch of the Unilever Compass. Continuing to raise the bar for an ambitious sustainability agenda, the Unilever Compass: From Strategy to Action harnesses the strength of Unilever brands, people and partners to tackle the issues that consumers and stakeholders care deeply about, such as climate change, plastic pollution and inequality.

The Circular Economy Business Model Toolkit

Sponsored by and in partnership with Unilever, Forum developed a toolkit identifying 10 circular business model archetypes. These archetypes distil Forum’s long-term research into circular business models and includes several relevant case studies to demonstrate the circular business models in action.

Visit the Circular Economy Business Model Toolkit for more details on the Circular Economy initiative, along with links to Circular Business Models and a Card Deck for facilitators to use in workshops. 

Tea 2030

In 2012, both Unilever and Finlays, long-standing Forum partners, independently expressed concern about the long-term viability of the global tea industry. As a result, Forum brought them together with additional partners – Tata Global Beverages, Betty & Taylors, S&D, Starbucks, Ethical Tea Partnership and IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative – to understand and diagnose the challenge, explore emerging futures, and create an aligned vision and strategies for collective action to help deliver a sustainable tea industry, from crop to cup.

Tea 2030 tested the hypothesis that tea has the potential to be a ‘hero crop’; a commodity with a truly sustainable value chain that delivers social, environmental and economic benefits for all participants. The Tea 2030 initiative established a ‘market mechanisms working group’ to explore ways to address the risks resulting from price volatility within tea value chains. In fact, the group piloted ‘Tea Swaps’ as a novel market mechanism and business model to smooth price volatility in the Kenyan tea market by moving toward a more equitable and ultimately regenerative way of doing business.  

The programme created a robust case for change and shifted mindsets across the industry. This started by delivering the first global trends report for the tea commodity and all industry players in 2013, which was updated in 2017. Forum then hosted six sector-wide trends analysis and opportunity mapping workshops in North America, Europe and Africa. In addition, Forum contributed to workshops hosted by the Indian Tea Association, the Tea Association of the USA and the Ethical Tea Partnership. The production of a landscapes assessment tool in partnership with the Rainforest Alliance was a welcome practical step in the understanding of how to secure sustainable landscapes. And finally, TeaSwap Ltd. (operating in Kenya as TeaSwap Africa) is continuing to trade tea swaps in East Africa. It is also trialling different ways for swaps to bring benefits to smallholder tea farmers – such as by improving the accessibility and terms of bank credit.  

Edible Fats and Oils

Starting in 2015, the Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration is a global multi-stakeholder initiative that focuses on accelerating the sustainable production and use of edible fats and oils. The initiative set out to consider the issues of all edible fats and oils with a systemic perspective, rather than only addressing concerns over one ingredient, palm oil, and one issue, deforestation. The Collaboration’s objective is bringing about the deep transformation needed for the edible fats and oils sector to become a truly sustainable and equitable food system overall.

The founding members of the Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration are Forum and Volac Wilmar Feed Ingredients. Over the years, its members expanded to include independent conservation organisation, WWF-UK, then - in 2018 - both multinational retailer M&S and Unilever. In 2019, the Collaboration published a Case for Action outlining the anticipated drivers of change for fats and oils and identifying areas for collaborative action. Later, global leading plant-based nutrition company, Upfield, and international nature organisation, IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands, brought new insights to the partnership.  

In 2021, the Collaboration released the Breaking down fats and oils: a catalyst to transform the global edible fats and oils system report - the first analysis of all major vegetable oils and animal fats as one single system. It argues that for the transformational change needed, food service companies, manufacturers and retailers must carefully consider the impacts of all the oils and fats used in their product mix and calls for a joined-up approach to answering necessary questions:

  • How do we source and use all edible fats and oils across any given product portfolio in a way which minimises environmental impact, respects human rights, and improves livelihoods?
  • How might we inspire consumers to eat healthier diets with the right balance of fats and oils?
  • How can we formulate fats and oils into products which support healthy nutritional outcomes, rather than exacerbating health problems such as obesity and heart disease?

Transforming Consumption

In 2011 Unilever and Forum, along with Sainsbury’s, developed a practical tool called Consumer Futures 2020 to help the global consumer goods industry - including retailers, brands and manufacturers - to use four different but plausible scenarios of how patterns of consumption and consumer behaviours may have changed by 2020.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, how we consume has shifted: in early 2020 alone, the growth of e-commerce was more prominent than in the past decade. On the flipside, consumers' expectations of brands to deliver on their sustainability promises is at an all-time high; yet trust in brands to deliver on these claims is at an all-time low.

Alongside Forum, Unilever followed this up in 2022 with the Reimagining Consumption programme, bringing together wide-ranging stakeholders to transform consumption and to develop action plans with game-changing potential.  Alongside leading brands and retailers, six ‘Big Hows’ – areas where action is needed to co-create systemic impact – have been identified and tested.

Critical Friend

Over the years, Forum has also acted as a critical friend to Unilever, providing strategic advice to individuals and teams to help them to stretch their sustainability thinking and action. We worked across the sustainability teams to help them to identify where there were overlaps between their work, and identify the advocacy asks that Unilever needed to unlock action.

Transforming Business in Partnership

Forum and Unilever continue our partnership today, working together to address and overcome some of the most challenging systemic issues for leadership teams and value chains globally. Unilever was one of the key business partners who provided essential insights for Forum’s 2021 report, A Compass for Just and Regenerative Business, created in partnership with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Launched after the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, the report calls on businesses to urgently start Looking Beyond Net Zero to reset their sustainability ambition and adopt the ‘just and regenerative’ approaches critical to transforming the way they operate.

Resources and further reading:  

Ready to transform business with us? Whether it’s rethinking your supply chain or resetting your ambition, reimagining how goods and services are consumed or influencing the wider context in which your business operates, there are many ways we can help. 

Contact James Payne, Forum's Global Strategic Lead - Purpose of Business, to find out more. You can also explore how we're transforming the purpose of business in society and the economy.