“We are going to be confronting resource scarcity on a massive scale, which science can’t help us with,” he said. “Land, water, even basic minerals are running out. The phosphate and nitrogen cycle could be disrupted. Resource constraint is going to fundamentally change the economic model. People are not going to be accepting growth at any price.”
In addition, Neath told FoodManufacture.co.uk that many strategies traditionally seen as eco-friendly were counter-productive and needed a rethink. He called the practice of prioritising land for biofuel production “a massive public policy failure” and land subsidies for growing biofuel crops “frankly a scandal” in view of the demand for food.
He also challenged carbon offsetting, where firms financed the planting of trees to offset depletion of forests for food production. “We are very sceptical as a business. We think our responsibility is to reduce our own impact. A tree takes a long time to grow. Is the company still going to be there as it does? Who is going to look after it?”
Sustainable business methods
By contrast, Unilever could prove that adopting more sustainable business methods were not just ideologically sound and good for its image – they had also saved the company millions of pounds. “Over the past five years our energy programmes in our factories have saved us over euro 250M (£209M).”
Socially sustainable policies were also important and Unilever had seen improvements in yields of 5–15% in its tea plantations after investing in schooling and housing conditions for workers.
Neath cited the instance of The Coca-Cola Company almost losing its licence to manufacture in India after local officials shut its plant in Kerala amid complaints it was sapping water quality and quantity. A later court hearing exonerated the plant from the allegations, but the perception that Coca-Cola was depleting natural resources still damaged the firm’s image.
“If a company is taking more than its perceived share of water, I don’t believe it will be allowed to operate,” he said.
Model of capitalism
The situation would not demand a wholesale switch away from the current model of capitalism, but it would call for a more equitable model that accounted for long-term environmental impacts, Neath added.
Unilever’s 10-year Sustainable Living Plan, which was launched in 2010, aims to halve the environmental footprint of its products by 2020. It also aims to source 100% of its agricultural products sustainably and help 1bn people improve their health in the same timescale.
“Since 1995 we have reduced carbon emissions by 44%, water use by two thirds and waste by nearly three quarters,” added Neath.