Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

Unilever’s new Sustainable Living Initiative (see http://www.sustainable-living.unilever.com/ ) is an interesting attempt to take a global approach to sustainability, and by a global company that can exercise serious market clout. But…I have been surprised by the critical responses by a number of ethical business bloggers, who use it as an opportunity to pick holes in it and demand yet more. For an example, see http://ethicalcorp.blogspot.com/2010/11/unilever-raises-sustainability-bar-but.html

As a corporate communications professional, if I managed to get such an initiative supported by my board, I’d be dancing down the streets in delight. So, when the stakeholder activist groups don’t greet it as a major success story, it is disappointing. Do companies that take a bold stance, often at the expense of profits, risk sticking their necks out? Do they get criticised for their misdemeanors more than those (Like Associated British Foods’ Primark, for example) who make little pretence of ethical sourcing? I wonder whether the activists could do more by praising those who are trying hard to do better.


About catherinesweet
Academic, professional, communicator, stakeholder in a dozen different disguises

3 Responses to Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

  1. Ines Alcobia says:

    I agree that no matter how much an organisation tries to be more sustainable, it will always be criticised for not doing enough. Just look at the class debate we had on Nestle making only the Kit Kat fingers chocolate bar fair trade. The question everyone jumps up to ask is, “If they can impove one product why can’t they improve all?”.

    I think that such a big company like Unilever will make a huge impact no matter how small their contribution is to having ‘greener’ products. Also, Unilever might be getting slack now for their proposed initiative, but when other organisations start following in their footsteps, they will hopefully be miles ahead and able to prove them wrong.

    Nevertheless, I do think it’s good for activists to keep organisations like these on their toes so their promises are kept and not just forgotten with time. It’s one thing to say that you will change your sustainable living initiative and making everyone happy and another to produce results. If Unilever follows on to do what they say they will, then they should have no problem to tackle activists and prove to the activists where they stand. I believe organisations that can’t handle activists, primarily have something to hide.

  2. Ines, I agree that Unilever will have to offer the proof rather than just their ideals. The degree to which Uniler sets quantifiable measures as opposed to aspirational targets- and then reports on their progress- will be the key. I wonder, however, whether activists are carrying their side of the bargain? Too many are just stuck in “opposition mode”, complaining when something isn’t perfect, rather than commending what are posititve steps forward. i’d like to see activist groups exercising a little “incentivisation” rather than always being critical. That might encourage CSR advocates inside an organisation. I just know how hard it can be to convince sceptical senior management to “do the right thing”, when all it seems to earn them is more brickbats from the critics and negative coverage in the press. Sooner or later, the backlash can lead to companies like Primark not caring at all, or CocaCola’s denial strategy. Engagement is two way- and sometimes I think that activists are hard-wired against it.

  3. Emily Grainger says:

    I think that people are cynical creatures; we look for and pick holes in things that attempt to be ‘good’. We all know Primark in not an ethical company in the slightest, yet personally it doesn’t deter me, even though I think it should!

    It’s always more of a shock/interest when a company trying to do good gets caught out. I think that activists against Unilever could use their time much more efficiently going after a company not trying to make a difference! They are taking the small steps needed to make a positive difference. Whether they are successful in the long term or not at least they are trying to change and make a difference and I think should get more credit for this.

    If Unilever manage to reach their set targets they should shout about it! (While having concrete evidence of their success to back it up)

    To a certain extent setting off new initiatives like this does put your company in the lime light, rousing activist attention, but I think this is down to lazy activist who want something to shout about. Publicity on new initiative such as Unilevers sustainable living plan is easy pickings, they don’t have to do the leg work themselves to find out who is actually being a ‘baddy’ so to speak and keeping it under wraps.

    Shell face endless barrage from activist groups (who quite frankly I don’t think have the full picture). Like Coca Cola they have adopted the denial strategy to a certain extent, you could even call it an ignore all strategy. In other words they are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Negative coverage always out ways good coverage, it’s more interesting and juicy for people to read about. Maybe with a little bit more praise for companies trying to do good others will feel more obliged to do their bit too.

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