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Unilever head: We can profit from sustainability

From Juliet Mann, CNN
March 22, 2012 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
  • Unilever's Europe head plans to grow the business by stengthening green credentials
  • He says consumers don't simply want the cheapest products, but ones made responsibly
  • The emerging markets are more business-friendly than Europe, he says
  • Europe is in need of a "spring clean" to encourage innovation and growth

London (CNN) -- The European head of consumer goods giant Unilever believes that improving the company's environmental practices could help double its sales, such is the appetite from customers from sustainably-made products.

Jan Zijderveld, the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate's president of Europe, said there was a clear demand from consumers for "green" products.

"What they want is products from a company where they know that the company makes the products responsibly," he said. "When they buy PG Tips they know that the tea is grown from sustainable plantations, they know that the way we make it and produce is in the most responsible (way) possible."

He said the days were gone when consumers were driven by low prices alone. "The funny thing is that for the consumer, 'good value' doesn't necessarily mean 'cheap.'"

The funny thing is that for the consumer, 'good value' doesn't necessarily mean 'cheap'
Jan Zijderveld, Unilever's president of Europe

He rejected the suggestion that Unilever's environmental focus was simply "greenwashing," saying it was "part of our European heritage to build a decent business that is rooted in society and does the right thing."

While cynics might doubt the company's ability to make good on ambitious plans to double the business while halving its environmental footprint, he believed Unilever could be a world-leading example of corporate responsibility.

"We will prove to the world that this is the right plan and this is also the right sustainable plan for business."

Read also: BT CEO: Smartphones and tablets transforming workplace

While the company had strong global credentials, having operated in Asia for more than a century, it had recently been extending further into emerging markets such as Russia.

"As a global enterprise we really have to look at where the opportunities are, and that is where the people are, where the population growth is, where the economies are growing and the consumption is still low," he said.

He saw opportunities for the future in Russia, China, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as in African markets, "because in many of these countries the consumption is lower, they are not consuming many of the fast-moving consumer goods we sell."

The emerging markets compared favorably to Europe in their attitudes toward business, he said

Europe needs a little bit of a spring clean to be able to innovate again and grow again
Jan Zijderveld, Unilever's president of Europe

"The environment is much more pro-business ... they understand that business is a force for good. Business generates new products, it generates jobs, it pays taxes," he said. "It is a lot easier to do business in the emerging world -- it is a lot more proactive, it is less bureaucratic."

He felt there was "too much negativism" towards business in Europe, and said he would like to see a cultural and policy shift to create a more dynamic, innovative business sector.

"To get the innovation through takes too long, to get approvals through takes too long, so things are just too slow and too bureaucratic," he said. "If we want to reinvent this continent and make it creative, growing and dynamic, you need to loosen it up a little, give it some fresh air ... Europe needs a little bit of a spring clean to be able to innovate again and grow again."

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