Unilever had painted itself into a corner.
After the global consumer goods company published
Sustainable Living Plan laying out ambitious sustainability goals,
company leaders realized meeting those goals was going to be tough. So they got
Working with GlobeScan,
an online collaboration platform with one clear purpose – to enable
Unilever to hit its sustainability targets for 2020. “We can’t solve these
issues on our own,” explained Miguel Pestana, VP Global External Affairs, “We
need to engage with civil society, companies, government and other key
stakeholders. It’s about developing new models of collaboration.”
The response was huge: More than 2,200
sustainability leaders and experts, representing 77 countries, registered for
the first Unilever
Sustainable Living Lab, a 24-hour live, online, moderated dialogue that ran
from April 25th to 26th. Their task:
Collaborate and co-create ideas and solutions for moving to the next level in
Some described the Lab, designed by Unilever and
GlobeScan in partnership with Fenton
Communications, as a‘crowdsourcing’
solution to sustainability. But, as with Unilever’s
Open Innovation platform, it was important to have the right ‘crowd’
interacting. Therefore, participation in the event was by invitation only, to
opinion leaders identified by GlobeScan and Unilever.
The canvas was broad, with discussions held across
four topics, each theme representing a different component of the value chain:
sustainable sourcing; sustainable production and distribution; consumer
behavior change; recycling and waste. Along with colleagues at SustainAbility, GlobeScan moderated
the discussions, with input from 80 invited senior-level guest contributors.
Over 100 Unilever managers from across the business, from R&D, procurement,
marketing, and customer development, also participated at key points in the Lab
Across the four discussion streams, a total of 3,900
posts were made over the 24 hours. Consumer behavior changewas the
most active discussion theme, generating the most comments overall.
When we look in detail at discussion across the
topics during the whole 24 hours, some clear cross-cutting themes emerge:
The strongest indicator of enthusiasm for
collaboration came in our follow-up survey. Of more than 400 people who
responded, 95 percent said they would participate in a future Sustainable
So, following this marathon 24 hour conversation, what are
the lessons to be learned about engaging with stakeholders? We have
identified four key factors that ensure that stakeholder engagement and
consultation goes beyond a traditional sharing of views.
The first factor is the opportunity for collective
deliberation. The Lab was designed to be interactive and inclusive, an
iterative conversation developing from a starter question. At times the
conversation became challenging to follow, with ‘fast-paced’ dialogue across
several strands. This is something we’ll address in future Labs.
The second factor is mobilisation toward a
common purpose. In convening the Lab, Unilever’s stated aim was to ‘make
more progress on the big sustainability challenges’ – a purpose shared by those
invited to participate and many more beyond.
The third factor is the development of
partnerships – both existing and new. The Lab event as a whole
represented a partnership approach to addressing sustainability challenges. But
more specifically, Unilever, and participants, are following up on some new
partnership opportunities that emerged in the discussions.
The fourth factor is about commitment from
companies and the importance of action, accountability and responsiveness
over time. The Lab is one small step in Unilever’s journey with stakeholders.
Among the hundreds of feedback comments received, ‘what happens next?’ was a
common question. Indeed, the real hard work has now started, with Unilever
teams reviewing the rich content of the Lab to tap into ideas and solutions and
turn them into action. “The discussions touched on a wide ranging set of ideas’,
says Miguel Pestana, “We’re mining these to take back actionable ideas into the
Unilever’s Sustainable Living Lab was a new way to
engage with stakeholders on a live and global scale – it’s been described as
‘unique’, ‘inspiring’, ‘stimulating’, ‘a great open platform’, even as a
‘community’. But its true success will be judged in terms of its fitness for
purpose, that is, its contribution towards achieving ambitious sustainability
goals. As one participant commented, “This was a great step to enable external
specialists to collaborate with internal Unilever experts on key issues. This
in itself was a significant step. The next step is to see how this could lead
to collaboration that helps Unilever to drive more change to create a more sustainable
23 June, 2012.