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“Business can play an effective role in poverty reduction, and brands can be an agent of positive social change,” said Patrick Cescau, group chief executive of Unilever plc and Unilever N.V., while addressing more than attendees at the Social Enterprise Conference on October 26, 2007. “Doing well and doing good are not mutually exclusive.”
These are words to lead by for Cescau—and words that have resulted in success for Unilever.
Cescau, 59, was this year’s recipient of the Benjamin Botwinick Prize in Business Ethics. Cescau, who became the head of Unilever in 2005 after more than 30 years with the company, was presented with this honor by Professor Bruce Kogut and Senior Vice Dean Paul Glasserman.
“It is my privilege and also pleasure to be at Columbia today,” Cescau said, crediting the School for having provided talented MBAs to Unilever.
Companies that operate with a global and forward-looking perspective have redefined the role of business in society. Under Cescau’s leadership, Unilever has pursued the integration of corporate social responsibility and sustainability into core business strategies. With brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Ragú and Hellmann’s, Unilever is a market leader in many segments and pursues innovative social strategies, such as the notable Dove campaign for real beauty.
Cescau mentioned that sustainability and corporate responsibility issues will determine which companies succeed and which fail in the future.
“The key is understanding that the consumer of the future will have very different demands,” he said. “We believe consumers are paying more and more attention to what sort of companies are producing their products.”
Cescau spoke of Unilever’s numerous sustainability projects throughout the world, including in Indonesia and Colombia. He noted that the company is conducting studies to measure the social, economic and environmental impact of Unilever’s presence in local communities and throughout its supply chain.
But Unilever’s social innovation does not end there. Greening the Lipton brand, one of Unilever’s most popular in the United States, is one of its most important sustainability initiatives. In 1998, Unilever started its sustainable agriculture program for tea, the most consumed beverage in the world other than water. Unilever purchases about 12 percent of the world’s black tea, but only a portion of that is grown by the company.
“Unilever will move to purchase its tea from sustainable sources,” Cescau said. And to ensure this, the company has partnered with the Rainforest Alliance to certify that all its vendors operate with methods that use less fertilizer, less water and less pesticides.
Unilever has committed to having all of its tea bags certified by the Rainforest Alliance by 2015.
“Consumers will have the reassurance that our tea is sustainably grown,” Cescau said. “And the tea initiative is good news for farmers and consumers and makes good business sense.”
Cescau’s overall message was simple:”We can be trusted. The concept of doing well by doing good is not about fitting the corporate social responsibility agenda, but it’s good business, profitable business.”
Written by Liz Bello