Sue Garrard, EVP Sustainable Business and Communications of Unilever “A company without purpose is just a money making machine”

Since 2011 Sue Garrard is responsible for building the Global Communications strategy and delivery of Communications to enhance Unilever’s global business. In 2014, Sue was asked to lead the work to embed the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan into the company to support its growth, build brands with purpose, build employee engagement and future proof the business.

You are the EVP Sustainable Business and Communications at Unilever, but you have announced that you will leave this role in September, and will then take a short career break. Why have you made this decision?

After 8 years at Unilever I had achieved more than I could have imagined when I joined, and worked very intensively. Now I want to help other companies which are on the same journey given all I’ve learned and experienced at Unilever. That is not something that you leap into. A pause for reflection is needed first.

Unilever launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 to 2020. What this Plan has meant for the company?

The USLP has built Purpose back into the core of the company, in the way it was when Unilever was first founded by Lord Lever. It has created a strong sense of loyalty and commitment amongst the people who work in the company; allowed it to build relationships with a wide group of stakeholders; and strengthened the business.

Why would you recommend to any company that the sustainability plan be the business plan?

Ultimately, every company that wants a long term future will need to do this. From an environmental point of view, companies will need to have a neutral impact on major issues such as carbon emissions and deforestation. From a social point of view they will need to demonstrate they are operating in a way that is equitable and fair, for example in their employment practices, their sourcing, the human rights of those in their supply chain. These issues are increasingly becoming central to the viability of a business. Pressure from consumers on one side, and investors on the other side will continue to grow. The smart company is one which sees that leading on these can provide competitive advantage.

What is a company without purpose?

A company without purpose is just a money making machine.

At Sustainable Brands Madrid 2018 you will speak about “Rethinking business as usual: How to stop short-termism in Business». How could it be achieved?

You’ll need to come and listen to the conversation at the event to hear that!

What teaching has been taken from the last years at Unilever?

There are many obvious answers to this; the importance of committed leadership; the way to set targets for accountability; and so on. What is more surprising is how long it really takes to become highly skilled in aspects of sustainability internally; the vital importance of working collectively with other organisations given the scale and complexity of the challenges faced by, for example, halting the production of unsustainable palm oil; and the frustratingly slow pace of change on big system issues such as plastics recycling. These are not challenges for the faint hearted. And they epitomize the saying that, to go fast you should go alone, but to go far you should go with others.

How can we “Redesign the Good Life”?

I don’t believe ‘the good life’ is what we want. And I am not sure it ever existed, it is a romantic notion but not a very realistic or practical one. What I think people crave at a personal level is a genuine sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, and the ability to bring that to bear in both their personal and their professional lives. What builds trusting and positive societies and communities, as an antidote to the growth in extremism. People want companies to make it easy for them to be responsible consumers, buying goods and services that – quite literally – don’t cost the earth, and don’t exploit people on the other side of the world. Purpose is a little world, but it embodies those ideals.


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