Blog: Andy CoyneEverything's gone green

Andy Coyne | 3 May 2019

If you had closed your eyes at a media meet-and-greet at Unilever in the UK last week you could have been at a press conference at Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth so often was the word sustainability used and the future of the planet discussed.

It is easy to be cynical - especially if you're a journalist and it's in your DNA - about what on the face of it seems like Damascene conversions among large corporates from product and profit-making entities to guardians of the environment.

But to be fair to the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant, which is behind food brands such as Colman's mustard and Knorr stock cubes, its journey towards greener pastures is not a very recent one.

Even so, it must be galling for small, independent food businesses, which have set themselves up to be good corporate citizens from day one, to find Big Food companies are seeking to out-pace them in the race to, say, get plant-based food on the supermarket shelves or to scrap environmentally harmful plastics from its product packaging.

At the Unilever press day - 'A Taste of Unilever' - held at its base in Leatherhead, south-west of London, the perhaps inappropriately named Andre Burger, who leads the company's food business in the UK and Ireland, took the assembled hacks through the trends the consumer-goods group is having to consider in everything it does.

From better-for-you and lifestyle choices (vegan especially) via issues surrounding a desire to see less food waste and more sustainable packaging, Big Food is responding, to a lesser or greater degree, to consumer-led priorities.

While none of us are naïve enough to think they are acting out of pure altruism - picking up on consumer trends makes good business sense after all - the reality of the situation is meaningful change will only happen if big businesses get with the programme, whether they are impelled to by government regulations, consumer pressure or a mixture of the two.

Big companies don't usually start trends but, as late adopters, they are more than capable of driving them on when fully engaged.

"There is emerging momentum for industry to do something to tackle these challenges," as Burger put it.

After a whistle-stop tour of what Unilever is doing to meet its 2025 goals around sustainability, us journos were served up a hot buffet made by the company's in-house chefs based, largely, on its vegan and better-for-you offerings.

And delicious it was too.

As an aside, we were presented with some Unilever food products to take away, including its new, radical, Marmite Peanut Butter mash-up.

Having turned up my nose at such a vulgar combination in the weeks since I'd first heard of its launch I was convinced when I arrived home to at least try it before dismissing it out of hand. I did and found that it was the thing I had been missing all of my life. The jar was empty within two days.

Now who's the convert?

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