Skip navigation

2011 Power 50: No. 28 David Lewis

Sustainability promises to figure prominently in the tenure of David Lewis, who is taking over as Unilever's president of personal care, with responsibility for skin, deodorants, oral and hair.

The multinational CPG company — manufacturer of brands like Lipton, Hellmann's, Dove and Vaseline, among others — introduced its Sustainable Living Plan last November. At that time, Lewis, who was Unilever's Americas president, described how Unilever planned to decouple future growth from environmental impact.

“Many would say making consumption sustainable is impossible,” Lewis said. “Our view is that we have to make it possible. We cannot choose between growth and sustainability. We have to do both.”

The company aims to achieve three goals by 2020: Reduce the environmental footprint of Unilever products by half; sustainably source all agricultural raw materials; and help more than 1 billion people take action to improve their health and well-being.

Progress has been swift on some aspects of the goals. The company partnered with Recyclebank to launch a digital “Learn & Earn” promotion in May. Consumers of its Knorr brand were alerted to a salt-reduction awareness campaign. Last month, the company announced the purchase of the first available certificates for sustainable soy oil.

Unilever products are sold in more than 180 countries and used by some 2 billion consumers every day, so the potential impact of any green-focused initiative has enormous potential.

Minimizing environmental impact hasn't precluded the company from growing. In May, Unilever completed the acquisition of Alberto Culver Co. for $3.7 billion in cash. The deal made Unilever the world's leading company in hair conditioning, the second largest in shampoo and the third largest in styling.

“The acquisition improves the mix of Unilever's portfolio towards higher-growth areas in developed markets, and filling in category gaps in fast-growing developing and emerging markets,” Lewis said.

Food was also a busy area with the U.S. introduction of Magnum, a handheld indulgence ice cream bar that was originally launched in the United Kingdom in 1987. The stateside debut was made in high style during the Tribeca Film Festival, where the brand was involved in sponsoring a three-piece film directed by designer Karl Lagerfeld.

Also during the past year, Hellmann's expanded its 100% cage-free egg policy to include Hellmann's Reduced Fat Mayonnaise with Olive Oil and Hellmann's Canola Cholesterol Free Mayonnaise.

In all, Unilever has enjoyed five quarters of solid growth. In the most recent period, total revenues were up 7% to 10.9 billion euros, on sales that grew more than 4%.

However, the Sustainable Living Plan remains the company's proudest achievement of the past year. The ambitious agenda sets out more than 50 social, economic and environmental targets that will contribute to the company's three goals. Unilever officials say the effort will not only involve the company and its direct operations, but also suppliers and consumers.

“As we expand globally and continually advance our sustainability goals, we aim to develop new ways of doing business with the aim of doubling the size of our company while reducing our environmental impact,” Lewis said.