The Covid-19 pandemic will “herald a new era of responsible consumption”, Unilever chief executive Alan Jope has predicted.
Speaking to CNBC, Jope said the coronavirus crisis would “accelerate” efforts among government, business and civil society to work together to tackle “big problems” such as climate change and inequality.
Jope, a Unilever veteran who took the helm at the Knorr and Magnum maker at the start of 2019, also told the business broadcaster “there’s no doubt the world’s going into recessionary times” and said the “value-for-money elements” of companies’ portfolios “will play an especially important role, probably in the next three years or so”.
Reflecting on the initial impact the crisis has had on Unilever’s sales, Jope said the Dove and Domestos owner had seen “increases in demand in some of the hygiene products” amid growing purchases worldwide of products such as soap and bleach.
However, the Scotsman had a note of caution for investors. “Let me make one very important point: coronavirus is not good news for Unilever,” he told CNBC. “We’re seeing shifts in demand, for sure. We’re seeing a big reduction in out-of-home food consumption of ice cream and restaurant products. Yes, we are seeing increases in demand in some of the hygiene products but the net effect is certainly not good news for us on a commercial basis.”
The Unilever chief said the company had seen “dramatic pantry-loading” in the US but suggested those levels had not been replicated in mature markets in Europe. “In western Europe, we saw a little bit of stocking up in the United Kingdom, but far, far less in continental Europe,” he said.
Looking ahead, Jope said Unilever was “trying to anticipate what the new normal will look like”. He added: “There’s definitely going to be some shifts that stay. I think a greater attention to hygiene. I was working and living in China at the time of SARS and that was a notable point of inflection for the consumption of digital media and purchasing online. I think this is going to mark a step-change in consumers consumption of digital media and online shopping. And, yes, we are thinking about the value-for-money bits of our portfolio because there’s no doubt the world’s going into recessionary times.”
Since Jope became Unilever CEO, he has sought to follow the thrust of a strategy drawn up by his Dutch predecessor Paul Polman and has talked up the company’s “vision” to be “the leader in sustainable business globally”.
Speaking to CNBC, he underlined Unilever would continue to push ahead with those efforts.
“I think coronavirus will herald a new era of responsible consumption. People are going to wake up and say: ‘You know what, we can’t carry on with the type of consumption that was happening before,'” he argued.
“Everyone’s known climate change [has been] a problem for a long time, inequality has been growing as a problem for quite some time. We are certainly picking up social media commentary in our listening that shows there’s an increasing awareness that these problems need to now go more addressed than they have in the past.”
Unilever is set to publish its first-quarter sales on 23 April.