In an era marked by unprecedented challenges, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have emerged as a beacon of hope, guiding nations, organisations, and individuals toward a more inclusive and sustainable future. Countries have taken a wide range of initiatives, at both state and non-state level to achieve global goals. Often, we see discussions in various spheres focusing on SDG initiatives by government authorities and various non-governmental organisations. However, in the Bangladeshi context, the alignment of corporate houses and private sectors, particularly the large conglomerates, with SDG actions is rarely discussed.
Amidst the countries experiencing a surge in GDP growth, it is commonly observed that the private sector is also witnessing remarkable expansion. Despite recent inflation, the country’s economy holds the promise of propelling into a high growth trajectory, largely driven by its substantial consumer base.
Following that direction, we see so many local conglomerates and multinational companies expanding their FMCG portfolio, launching new products and brands in the market. Most of them are setting up new factories in Bangladesh by taking the investment opportunities in the Economic Zones (EZ) to reduce the production cost. Keeping all these commercial initiatives aside, the question is whether these companies are aligned with the country's national goals of sustainable development (SDG).
In this regard, a few companies are showing promising commitment to their policies, while the majority still seem to be falling behind. As an example, Unilever has demonstrated its global commitment through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), effectively aligning it with global SDG goals. Initially perceived as a policy, Unilever has taken gradual steps to implement tangible implications for it in countries like Bangladesh.
Unilever Bangladesh has started to focus on the SDGs to reshape the landscape of sustainable business practices in the country. The company has mobilised the power of the SDGs to drive positive change, making a tangible impact on the lives of millions while simultaneously ensuring the long-term viability of its operations.
One of the key areas where Unilever Bangladesh has made remarkable strides is in poverty alleviation (SDG 1). Through various initiatives, the company has created sustainable livelihood opportunities for vulnerable communities. For example, their Joyeeta project in Bangladesh, which is known as Shakti project in India, empowers rural women by providing them with entrepreneurship training and access to microcredit, enabling them to become successful business owners and break the cycle of poverty. By leveraging its extensive distribution network, Unilever has been able to reach remote areas, effectively improving living standards and contributing to economic growth.
Unilever Bangladesh has also played a crucial role in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment (SDG 5). Recognising the potential of women as agents of change, the company has implemented several initiatives to enhance their participation in the workforce. The Fair & Lovely Foundation, a Unilever initiative, has provided vocational training and mentorship to thousands of young women, equipping them with the necessary skills to pursue careers and become financially independent. By championing gender equality, Unilever not only contributes to societal progress but also fosters a diverse and inclusive work culture within its own organisation.
Furthermore, Unilever Bangladesh (UBL) has been a pioneer in environmental sustainability efforts, particularly in relation to SDGs 13 and 15. Through initiatives like recycling polythene and repurposing plastic trash, UBL, along with UNDP and Narayanganj City Corporation, has taken proactive steps to combat plastic pollution. The company has achieved remarkable progress in reducing its carbon footprint and preserving precious natural resources.
Notably, Bangladesh’s per capita plastic usage stands at 9kg, with only 36% of post-consumer plastic waste being collected and approximately 40% being recycled. Tragically, the remaining 60% finds its way to landfills and water bodies, severely impacting the environment. In response, UBL has adopted a plastic sustainability approach to transition towards using less or no plastic and to establish a circular model that keeps plastic materials in a continuous loop.
As part of this crucial endeavour, UBL has collaborated with BUET’s Research and Innovation Centre for Science and Engineering (RISE) by awarding them a research project to address plastic packaging circularity in Bangladesh. Recently, the two entities signed an MOU to solidify their commitment to this cause. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that this vision requires sustained efforts and a long journey ahead to materialize fully.
Ideally, through its Sustainable Living Plan, Unilever aims to achieve a zero-waste and carbon-neutral future. For instance, they have implemented innovative packaging solutions that reduce plastic consumption and introduced sustainable sourcing practices for raw materials. Additionally, they have been actively involved in reforestation projects, contributing to the preservation of biodiversity and the fight against climate change.
Education and health are also areas where Unilever Bangladesh has made substantial contributions (SDG 3 and 4). The Unilever Health and Nutrition Program has been instrumental in raising awareness about hygiene, sanitation, and nutrition among underprivileged communities. By partnering with local NGOs, Unilever has implemented school-based health and hygiene programs, positively impacting the well-being of thousands of children. The company’s commitment to education is evident through initiatives such as the Lifebuoy School of 5 program, which promotes handwashing habits among children and instils essential hygiene practices from an early age.
UBL’s proactive approach to integrating the SDGs into its business model has not only garnered recognition but has also set a benchmark for other companies to follow. By aligning its operations with the SDGs, the company has not only demonstrated its commitment to sustainable development but has also created a positive ripple effect throughout the value chain.
The efforts undertaken by Unilever raise a crucial question: Why aren’t other multinationals and local companies following suit? Additionally, can’t our government ensure that companies adopt sustainable practices and prioritise environmental responsibilities?
Unfortunately, there seem to be several companies, including some prominent tobacco brands, who claim to be advocating for sustainability while posing a significant threat to both sustainability and public health. The sincerity of their commitments is often questioned, leaving doubts about whether they are genuinely dedicated to sustainability or merely making lofty promises. For example, proclaiming a sustainability approach that aims to reduce health risks associated with smoking by offering alternative products with reduced-risk potential. Or, aspiring to positively impact employees and farming communities, while also safeguarding the environment through emission reductions, water protection, waste minimization, and biodiversity enhancement. As tobacco manufacturers, such claims may be perceived as overly futuristic and contradictory.
As a conscientious society, we must monitor and educate our communities to raise their voices. By encouraging dialogue and awareness, we can influence companies to make sustainable choices, safeguard the environment, and prioritise public health.
Lastly, as the national GDP grows and the middle and affluent class expands, we anticipate a sharp rise in consumerism. However, responsible consumerism and manufacturing are severely lacking. As brand practitioners, we hold high hopes for all companies to prioritise green factories, environmentally safer supply chains, safer workplaces, and lower carbon emissions, echoing Professor Yunus’s 3-Zeros formula – Zero poverty, Zero unemployment, and Zero carbon emissions.
Achieving these goals is a collective responsibility, with the government playing a crucial role in driving sustainability through awareness campaigns and regulations. Together, we can work towards a greener and more sustainable future for everyone.
Mohammad Zakaria is working as a Lead and Asif Ali Jaedi Tamim is working as an Associate in Quantum Consumer Solutions Ltd., a global insight, strategy and innovation consultancy working in multiple geographies across the world.