Unilever CEO: Turning Vision into Execution
Detergent industry must do a better job on sustainability.
By Tom Branna
It’s been four years since the last World Detergent Congress, and though the
industry has done a good job defining the issues for the next 100 years—which
include developing solutions for developing markets, sustainability and forming
effective partnerships between marketers, suppliers and retailers—much more work
needs to be done.
“Vision is one thing, execution is another,” charged Patrick Cescau, chairman of
Unilever, in his keynote address to open the 6th World Conference on Detergents
in Montreux this week.
Mr. Cescau pointed out that the recent success of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient
Truth” underscores the gravity of the environmental issues and insisted that
the need for action has become more urgent. Unfortunately, the detergent
industry has so far failed to keep pace.
“The time for talk is over,” he insisted.
Instead, marketers and their suppliers and retail partners must find solutions
to the two biggest global issues for the next 100 years: climate change and
sustainable development. Mr. Cescau noted that one report suggests that
one-third of the earth will be desert by 2100.
“We must act as an industry, the tide is irreversible,” he said. “Our industry
is too concerned about its own future, but we are not masters of our own
While the detergent industry mulls its future, other companies are already
taking action, proving that the green consciousness is everywhere. Wal-mart,
for example, made its entire staff watch “An Inconvenient Truth” and in recent
years, has become the biggest buyer of organic produce. Elsewhere, UPS now has
1,500 alternative-fuel vehicles on the road.
Digital TV…Not Detergent
And while the industry takes baby steps toward sustainability, it continues to
lose customers who choose to spend their money elsewhere.
Mr. Cescau recalled how in one market survey, Unilever researchers discovered
that some consumers in India prefer satellite TV to running water!
“How can we make our brands as exciting as mobile phones?” he asked. “It all
starts with the consumers. They’re excited by technology, not detergent.”
That’s because the industry hasn’t offered consumers anything truly different
for decades. While products have become more convenient, the technology behind
them remains the same.
“We’re offering them the same solutions that we offered their parents,” he
Besides exciting the consumer today’s detergent makers must deal with a host of
new regulations, not the least of which is REACH. But Mr. Cescau insists that
the new regulation provides an opportunity to reinforce to the consumer and
regulators that detergent ingredients are safe for the environment.
“But REACH is just the tip of the iceberg,” he told the World Detergent
Conference audience. “Are we really facing up to the challenges of
sustainability and lack of water?
He noted that Unilever rolled out Surf Excel in India. It reduces water
consumption by 50%, according to the company. Unilever launched Skip Actigel
laundry tablets in India and other markets around the world last year. The
chemical composition of the tablet was reduced by 20% and the size and weight
of the package fell 5%. Skip Actigel debuted in 2005 and was one of the fastest
growing home care brands in France.
“At Unilever, we’re raising our sights on responsibility and sustainability,” he
insisted. And now, Unilever has its sights set on the consumer too, as Mr.
Cescau noted that 95% of the water used in a detergent lifecycle comes at the
“We have much more work to do to get the consumer to save more water,” he
admitted. “In Africa, 10% of water use goes to the laundry process.”
To help reduce the amount of water in a typical load, Unilever is studying the
feasibility of recovering and recycling rinse water and improving the
rinseability of its products.”
But Unilever’s efforts aren’t totally focused on Africa. The company broadly
rolled out All Small & Mighty, a compact detergent that greatly reduces the
environmental impact of the laundry process and saves retailers valuable shelf
“We must look at the world and see how new environmental initiatives, new
textiles and new regulations are shaping our business,” he insisted. “Digital
cameras made film obsolete almost overnight. We can’t let that happen to our