Purpose At Work: How Unilever Leverages Growth and Acts On Advocacy

Simon Mainwaring
6 min readNov 25, 2020

Purpose has become competitive. While there’s a lot of good coming from the cohort of impact-driven businesses, it is increasingly difficult for companies to carve out a competitive advantage while making real change. “There’s an ongoing debate around whether purpose is a statement or an action,” Jean-Laurent Ingles, Executive Vice President of Hair Care at Unilever tells We First. “I think it’s both.”

Across the spectrum of its wide portfolio, Unilever has led by example, showing how a large corporation can be both profitable and purposeful. “If you want to be relevant to society, especially younger generations, that’s what you have to do,” Jean-Laurent says. Unilever takes a multi-stakeholder approach to returns. “You can marry profit delivery with other stakeholder needs like people, planet waste, and climate,” he says. “That’s the guiding philosophy behind how we act. It also encourages talent to join Unilever.”

The consumer packaged goods giant is taking that philosophy seriously. It recently committed to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions from all its products by 2039, and invested 1 billion euros in a new dedicated Climate & Nature Fund.

Unilever is already delivering on purpose. For example, 89% of its forest-related commodities are certified as sustainably sourced to globally recognised standards, and over 10% of Unilever’s plastic footprint is now post-consumer recycled (PCR) material. It is committed to making that 25% by 2025.

Essentially, Unilever is marrying philosophy and strategy to support people and the planet, effectively building its bottom line and a sustainable future. The consumer packaged goods pioneer’s performance offers valuable lessons for brands looking to Lead With We.

Act on what matters to your community

Unilever’s hair care department sets a great example of how to walk the talk when it comes to social good. “We’re committed to helping to support self-image through beauty and haircare. It is a very dynamic debate,” Jean-Laurent says.

Dove has been building on its purpose over the last 15 years. “Dove is democratizing real beauty, debunking objectivized beauty, and showing how ideas of beauty are influencing self-esteem in ways that are not always positive,” Ingles says.

Via a global campaign, Dove has been encouraging women to celebrate their differences using the tagline My Hair, My Say. “In many countries, some people hold prejudice about how women wear their hair,” Ingles says.

To fight discrimination in the United States, Dove teamed up with the National Urban League, Color of Change, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty to form what’s known as the CROWN Coalition to advance anti-hair discrimination legislation called The CROWN Act. The CROWN Act, which stands for Creating a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair, works to ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists, and knots in the workplace and public schools. . Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed the CROWN Act of 2020, pushing the legislation closer to federal law.

The company is engaging in discussions, addressing challenges, building partnerships and taking initiative. By making real change in society around issues that matter to its community, Dove and Unilever are able to win consumer goodwill and purchases.

Join cultural conversations

Another example of how Unilever’s hair care division is turning advocacy into action is illustrated in its CLEAR brand’s COVID-19 response. The realities of quarantine, social distancing and everything else that comes with the pandemic have a toll on people’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, especially among youth.

To help people get through these hard times, Unilever launched the CLEAR Resilience Program, a two-week resilience challenge developed by resiliency experts and promoted by influencers like Cristiano Ronaldo. The challenge provided participants with daily coaching advice, “providing real content, actions to go and support, especially, the younger generations, on the journey,” Ingles says.

By providing people with content to build their resilience skills, Unilever is joining the cultural conversation around living during the coronavirus pandemic, while supporting consumers in a meaningful way.

Weave sustainability into your value chain

One of the best ways to take eco-friendly action is to incorporate sustainability into your value chain. While packaging and materials sourcing are critical, it is also imperative to think about how the consumer will use your products.

In recent years, the company has been paying more attention to water use. Specifically, the amount of water consumers use when showering and rinsing out shampoos, conditioners and other hair products. “We’re starting to design products that give people the opportunity to use less water,” Ingles says. “We’re exploring no-water products, dry shampoos and quick rinse cleaners.”

Unilever launched the Love, Beauty and Planet brand as a way to innovate around sustainability.

“It incorporates everything from natural ink to sustainable product packaging,” Jean-Laurent says. “We also use our best possible sustainably sourced ingredients and our best possible fast rinsing technology in our conditioner.” Love, Beauty and Planet is also vegan and cruelty free.

Of note, Unilever has also made impressive advancements in recycled plastic packaging “The environmental profile of a bottle has become one of the key drivers for consumer preference”, Ingles says.

A great example of Unilever’s recycled packaging leadership is the TRESemmé brand’s actions around black plastics. “Black plastic was not detectable in recycling plants,” Ingles explains. “We took on the issue. We found a technical solution, together with recycling plants, and in partnership with some of our customers, to make sure we were making black plastic detectable.”

In turn, the industry at large is shifting towards these changes and others that increase the use of recycled plastics in packaging. “In the past companies have been driven solely by the traditional definition of growth, which hasn’t always respected the earth’s finite resources. That has to stop,” Unilever’s head of hair care says.

Ultimately, Unilever is utilizing its supply chain to shift consumer and industry behavior. In turn, the business gains earned media and moves the needle on sustainability across the sector.

Communicate purpose across your portfolio

With myriad brands under one roof, how does Unilever manage complexity and stay true to purpose? “It’s important to stay in tune with the DNA of the brand you have in hand,” Jean-Laurent explains. “We’ve got Sunsilk, which is a very accessible, young and positive brand. CLEAR is challenging convention and out there. TRESemmé is focused on individual look and success and Dove making hair a positive experience of beauty, universally acceptable to every woman.”

Regardless of their different personalities, Ingles says these hair care brands tend to address similar topics like “women’s empowerment and relationship to beauty. Each brand is finding its own way.”

“A brand should be willing to take a view on things that are not just consensual,” he says. “At the same time, brands need to do it with respect.”

It comes down to the overarching goals of the company and how each brand contributes to those goals. “When it comes to portfolio choices, it goes back to being clear about your portfolio strengths and weaknesses. Know how your brands are positioned and what issues and opportunities they’re well placed to tackle,” Ingles advises.

Get comfortable with imperfection

Success and impact lead you on a winding uphill journey. It is “imperfect and humbling,” Ingles says. “Try and test new things.” Be careful about how you define success and what type of people you bring on to your team. “We believe we can make a difference,” he says. That belief is what frames the company’s culture and philosophy.

“In this imperfect journey, be true to your point of view. Also, make sure you act against the things you’re advocating for,” Ingles says. “The difficulty and the magic is actually how you marry the statement and the act together in a synergistic way.”



Simon Mainwaring

Founder/CEO brand consultancy, We First, bestselling author of We First and Lead With We, host of podcast, Lead With We.