Sustainable change is hard work, even at Unilever

Meet Anniek Mauser, Sustainability Director at Unilever Benelux. After working with her on a project in the spring of 2016, we reconnected at the launch of Carola Wijdoogen’s book. As everyone always looks up to Unilever’s ambitions and progress, it was high time for an interview with her about snowballs, politics, and the challenges of sustainable change.


Times are changing

“Fifteen years ago, at birthday parties, people would head to the bathroom if I told them I worked in sustainability. Now, people send me fanmail and seek me out at parties for that very same reason. Society is really changing, increasingly bringing sustainable business into the mainstream.

After studying developmental and environmental economics, the early ’90’s labor market and I were not a great match. It was just too early for jobs with a strong focus on the environment, let alone other sustainability topics. I was “rescued” from a job that just didn’t fit by the University of Amsterdam, which asked me to do a PhD in sustainability management. I loved interviewing over a hundred business leaders on the why and the how of integrating sustainability into their business. After my PhD, I joined Unilever in the sustainability field and have been there ever since. Sustainability is deeply engrained in the DNA of the company, but that doesn’t mean that overnight everyone understands their role and acts accordingly.


The challenge of change for scale

Some people envy me as they assume it must be so easy to get everyone aligned to the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. That with a very visible and vocal CEO like Paul Polman, everyone must be fully on board. But it’s not that simple. Even at Unilever, integration of sustainability into the business is just hard work. Real change just doesn’t happen overnight, it can easily take ten years. So I have to have a lot of patience. I have a virtual shelf with business cases and ideas for which the time isn’t ripe yet. I save them there for a later date, when the time, people and situation are better.

And real change requires many people to be informed and empowered. We have a model with five levers of change to help consumers make more sustainable choices, to change their behavior. Fortunately, that same model also works really well to help to create a necessary mindset change with colleagues. Adapting your systems and processes is a start, but you also need to engage and empower people. Following the five lever model, with the support of an external agency, we designed an online engagement and empowerment tool. It’s based on gamification and helps colleagues better understand and actually make the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan relevant to their daily jobs. Some people contribute very consciously to change; others need more nudging to become unconsciously capable of supporting change.

In the end, it is a very challenging job, as the consumers most eager for change, those trying hardest to find sustainable living solutions, are often the ones who distrust multinational corporations. The ones that seek out local organic produce and brands from small companies. Small is beautiful, but we also need the scale and knowledge of large companies to feed the ever-growing global population, to create a carbon-free society without poverty. That’s why I am so dedicated to driving change from within a huge multinational like Unilever.


Business is leading, but can’t drive change alone

The Sustainable Development Goals provide an agenda for the world. Companies are driving the change to more sustainable living, often in partnership with NGOs. But it’s high time for politics to join the business community in a concerted effort. Consumers also play a role, but they need the support and guidance from business, NGOs, and the government to make the right choices. For them, sustainability is so complicated to understand and act upon. We simply can’t expect consumers to drive change without such support. To drive change, we need authentic leaders in business and in office, brave enough to take the long-term perspective. But both elections and stock markets often get in the way of that much-needed long-term perspective. To me, climate change is the challenge of our time. That’s why I find it shocking that almost none of the Dutch political parties heading into the 2017 elections include a full plan on how to reach our Paris Agreement commitments in their programs.

But I’m not pessimistic, I see the glass as half-full. The tipping point usually does come, when the business case can no longer be denied. Like Unilever’s ‘sustainable living’ brands which are outpacing the growth of the rest of the business. Or renewable energy simply becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. Or sadly, when the harsh reality is so much in your face that denial is no longer an option such as the air pollution in China.


Creating snowballs for positive change

Unilever’s corporate purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. Within the company, we’re now in the process of defining a purpose at different levels. Not just at the brand level, but also at the local and the personal level. My personal purpose is ‘to create snowballs for positive change’. Once they get moving, snowballs are hard to stop, become bigger and bigger and drag people with them. I really enjoy coaching colleagues in the Benelux offices to define their own personal purpose.



I agree with Carola Wijdoogen‘s statement that sustainability managers are not going to be redundant any time soon. The field of sustainability is complex and continuously progressing, hence there is no end point to work towards. There will always be a need for someone to be at the forefront, on top of the in- and external developments, identifying the risks and opportunities, challenging people and reflecting on what we are doing. And to build bridges across functions. And that’s exactly what I like so much about my job!”


In 2013, Anniek was awarded the title Dutch CSR Manager of the Year. And in both 2015 and 2016, she was one of the top 100 sustainability influencers of the Netherlands. For more information on Anniek, her views and the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, check out her LinkedIn profile, her (Dutch) op-ed in NRC, the Unilever global website or the Unilever Netherlands website. Or follow Anniek and Unilever on Twitter.


Interview by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for Change in Context. To read about interesting people, book reviews and other posts about change, communications and sustainability, please subscribe.

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