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Unilever’s Australian CEO urges climate change focus in COVID-19 stimulus

The Morrison government has already spent over $200 billion in stimulus to keep workers and businesses afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic and has outlined further packages such as JobMaker, which is focused on infrastructure spending and reform of industrial relations and the vocational sector.

The case for change is there, and we have the ability to do it.

Unilever ANZ chief Nicky Sparshott

Ms Sparshott said the COVID-19 crisis has proven governments and business can work together quickly and efficiently when needed, an approach she believes should now be applied to the looming climate crisis.

“The coronavirus has been a really stark reminder of the fragility of our current economic system,” she said. “With climate change posing a similar threat, here is our opportunity to be much more future-focused.”

Ms Sparshott’s challenge comes as Unilever on Monday announced a €1 billion ($1.63 billion) climate fund dedicated to helping the business and its suppliers achieve net zero emissions by 2039, 11 years ahead of the 2050 Paris Agreement deadline.

Carbon labels

The fund will power a range of initiatives across the broader business, which also includes the Australian tea chain T2 and icecream franchise Ben & Jerry’s. Landscape restoration, carbon capture, wildlife protection and water preservation are among the iniatives it plans to take.

Unilever owns a number of prominent consumer brands, including boutique tea seller T2.

Unilever owns a number of prominent consumer brands, including boutique tea seller T2.

Unilever will also look to significantly increase its use of recycled plastics and will label its products to let consumers know how much greenhouse gas was emitted in the manufacturing and shipping process. Global chief executive Alan Jope has also warned the business would not hesitate to sell off any brands which could not meet the company’s sustainability targets.

Unilever Australia, which boasts local sales of around $1.6 billion, has joined with the wildlife protection non-profit WWF as part of its push. The organisation recently released a report with consulting giant EY showing every dollar spent on clean energy projects generates three times as many jobs as fossil fuel investments.

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The report highlights areas such as battery manufacturing, solar power, electric public transport fleets and renewable hydrogen as areas the government should focus on as part of a renewables stimulus package.

In Australia, Ms Sparshott said her company hopes to be carbon-positive by 2030 and has already switched its local operations to be powered by 100 per cent renewable energy. These moves make “good business sense”, she said and should be emulated by other businesses where possible.

“[Corporate Australia] needs to be way more ambitious,” she said. “This country has experienced the effects of climate change through the drought and through the bushfires. If we don’t take action, it will threaten food security, it will accelerate water scarcity, and it will put downward pressure on the global economy.”

“The case for change is there, and we have the ability to do it.”

Numerous Australian companies have faced pressure from investors over their climate change commitments. Recent examples include major oil and gas companies, Santos and Woodside, with 50 per cent of shareholders supporting a push for the company to slash its emissions.

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Dan Gocher, director of climate and environment at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), supported Unilever’s actions and said companies were increasingly starting to view climate change as a real business risk. However, too few of those revelations are occurring in Australia, he said.

“It’s a shame we don’t have many Australian companies following the same lead,” he said. “There are some bright spots…but there’s not many that are willing to go out and be a proactive advocate for climate action.”

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