With great power comes great opportunity
Big business must use its influence to drive faster action on climate change. Hannah Hislop and Subhi Barakat, Climate Action Global Sustainability Managers at Unilever, explain why.
In a series of interviews, Unilever is introducing some of the many people helping to deliver its action plan and making change happen. Hannah Hislop and Subhi Barakat, Unilever’s Climate Action Global Sustainability Managers, are part of the team ensuring our business is using its voice to advocate for real change now.
What does your job involve?
Subhi Barakat: Our role involves supporting the business to deliver our own climate goals, while leveraging Unilever’s influence to drive the system-level change that’s needed to enable not just Unilever and other businesses but also entire economies to transition to net zero emissions.
Hannah Hislop: We’re part of the global team looking after Unilever’s overarching sustainability strategy, stakeholder partnerships and advocacy. The team is helping the business to navigate sustainability challenges and engage in the external world, driving the systemic change we need to tackle all sorts of issues, from climate change to deforestation to social inequality.
What first drew you both to the role?
HH: I joined Unilever ten years ago from an environmental policy think tank. I started out working on packaging and recycling, and it was clear companies needed supportive government policies to be able to deliver our packaging targets, for example the introduction of recycling facilities in countries that don’t have formal waste systems. Then I spent several years working on eliminating deforestation, which is such an important part of the climate picture, so it was quite a natural step to start working on climate more broadly.
SB: I originally trained as an electrical engineer, working on semiconductor physics, but then went to law school and became a public international lawyer and multilateral treaty negotiator. Most of my work with the UN and NGOs saw me supporting very poor countries with their national green growth strategies and in the UN climate negotiations. After working on international frameworks for a long time, I decided to see what I could do in the private sector to help drive action to deliver the global goals I helped put in place.
When I started looking at which private sector actors I’d want to work for, I needed to find an organisation that had integrity, a good reputation, and showed leadership. There were only a few companies on the list and Unilever was one of them. It was already trying to deliver change at an international level and had the muscle and clout to make a difference.
How is Unilever accelerating climate action?
HH: We use the ‘onion model’ of change in our team. At the bulb of the onion, you have what you can do with your own operations. That’s very important because it demonstrates credibility and it’s vital that we walk the talk. Unilever has reduced operational emissions by 64% since 2015, which puts us on track in this area. But it’s also only a small proportion of our emissions, about 2%, so we know we need to do a lot more.
The next layer out is our value chain, which is where most of our emissions lie – over 60% come from raw materials and packaging. This is where we are focused on and supporting those with highest impact to take the steps they need to get climate-fit.
The last layer is our wider influence on society and it’s huge. It includes high-level advocacy in support of the Paris Agreement goals and work on quite specific issues on nature and the voluntary carbon market. We’re also part of trade associations and business coalitions helping to speed up climate action.
Why is it so important that forward-thinking companies are using their voice and their influence?
SB: The reality is that in most economies, anywhere from 40–70% of the economy is the private sector. A lot of investment capital is in the hands of those actors, and they can really help shape what our economies and societies will look like going forward, so any kind of systemic change to address a big crisis like climate change or nature loss will absolutely require business to be on board.
Historically, we can see that governments heavy-handedly laying down rules that businesses aren’t part of shaping doesn’t usually work. Vice versa, leaving it for business to voluntarily do what they feel is needed without governments taking on their roles and responsibilities and helping to put in guardrails also doesn’t work. Governments and businesses need to work together towards shared objectives, with each playing their complementary part.
That’s where we come in, in terms of how we engage not only with governments, policymakers and regulators but also with other businesses and platforms. Unilever can help highlight the need to make policy shifts and draw on our experience to show how it’s good for business and the economy. By taking a leadership role, we can embolden governments to be more ambitious, which in turn gives businesses the confidence to take action.
Why did Unilever decide it was important to be a Principal Partner of COP26?
HH: Politicians or national leaders need businesses to say, ‘we want you to make changes because we have ambitious targets and we can’t meet those targets until policy changes’. If businesses apply pressure, then governments can put those laws in place, which levels the playing field between companies and incentivises them to go further.
But to get that ‘ambition loop’ spinning, you need businesses to be outspoken about climate and the changes they want to see, and also the barriers to decarbonisation they’re facing so that governments can unlock those barriers. That’s why we were one of 11 Principal Partners of the COP climate summit last year. We wanted to use our voice and influence for good.
Business was a key player at the last COP in a way that five years previously, you just wouldn’t have seen. Companies were completely central to so many of the plurilateral announcements on things like forests, coal and transport. It now feels like there’s a much more integrated conversation going on and that’s a lot healthier for the process as a whole.
How have things moved on in the last year?
SB: One thing that has changed is that, whether it’s from governments, companies or NGOs, there’s now broader agreement that collectively we’re not on track despite our best efforts. What’s needed is more action and more collaboration to tackle the hard stuff.
For Unilever, we’re mindful that we’ll need to keep stretching and pushing towards more ambition even as we’re delivering. The hardest tasks are where all the big opportunities are, because whoever can crack those challenges can take advantage of the transition and really help bring along the rest of society with them.
What are our asks of governments in terms of tackling climate change now?
HH: We need to see more ambition and urgency. We know that we must limit warming to 1.5°C, and what that means in practice is that governments have to essentially reorientate their economies in a way that will lead to net zero emissions by 2050. To get to that point, this is the decisive decade. The world needs to halve emissions by 2030 to be on track.
We also want a faster clean energy transformation. We need governments to be setting the right frameworks and incentivising businesses to do the right thing, whether it comes to investing or innovating to ensure the transition to clean energy. Then it’s a win–win for everybody.
There needs to be overall systems transformation, incorporating everything from land use change to adaptation and the need for a just transition. It’s about taking people with us as we go on this journey and determine what kind of economy and society we want to transition to.
What is the value of working in coalitions?
HH: A lot of businesses are facing similar challenges so there is value in sharing best practice. It’s particularly important for companies to work together on the emissions in their shared value chain and the emissions downstream from their products.
SB: This is just too big a problem for anyone to move the needle on alone. We need to bring together a plurality of voices across industries, sectors and geographies, to all send a collective message about the direction we want to go. And we can only add greater legitimacy by working with governments and other stakeholders.
HH: Businesses like Unilever are coming together with their peers and saying with a clear, loud voice that climate action is fertile territory for growth, and the only way to tackle the interlinked crises affecting all businesses. The more that we can coordinate and come together with one really strong voice, the more that message will get heard.
How can Unilever help to enable climate justice as we transition to a net zero world?
SB: When it comes to climate justice, we’re predominantly talking about less advantaged people or communities. Expanding Unilever’s model of multi-stakeholder engagement, making sure those people’s voices are at the table, that their priorities are being take seriously and that they can have a say in a lot of the decision-making, is key.
As well as protecting our own businesses from risks associated with worsening climate change impacts, we also need to see an increase in efforts across the private sector that goes beyond the boundaries of company operations and value chains. Ultimately, this is about a transformation of the societies that businesses operate in, not just the transformation of businesses themselves.
What are you hopeful about?
HH: It’s important just how many people seem to be waking up to the climate challenge. To me, it’s really encouraging that so many ordinary people are realising this is an issue that’s going to affect not their grandchildren, not even their children, but their lives today and over the next decades. What does that mean for businesses like ours? Well, already we’re feeling growing consumer demand for quality and affordable products that don’t cost the earth – and we can only expect that to grow in the future.