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"Protecting the environment is also about protecting consumers"


Zaved Akhtar, Chairman and Managing Director of Unilever Bangladesh, talked about environmental protection, the definition of CSR, sustainability actions and more, in an interview with Dhaka Tribune.

Picture of Mr. Zaved Akhtar, Chairman and MD of UBL for an interview with Dhaka Tribune on the World Environment Day
What are the possible ways of business organizations you think can contribute to environmental protection and climate change?

Protecting the environment is also about protecting consumers.

If we do not take care of our planet, we will not have healthy customers, and businesses will not survive.

By focusing on sustainability, businesses can make sure they have the resources they need for the future, and continue to serve their customers well. Businesses have a critical responsibility to protect the environment and fight climate change.

They need to make sure every part of their work, from making products to delivering them, is sustainable.

This means using less energy, reducing waste, and finding greener ways to operate.

In the end, using eco-friendly strategies is not just good for the environment, but it also helps businesses grow and succeed. It shows leadership, sparks innovation, and helps create a better future for everyone.

From Bangladesh's perspective, how do you see environmental protection?

Bangladesh’s carbon emissions have almost doubled in the last 15 years due to increased economic growth and activity. They are currently still insignificant (0.6 tonnes per capita).

However, the United Nations has ranked Bangladesh as the seventh most vulnerable nation to climate change, due to the impacts and vulnerability of key issues such as rising sea levels and extreme weather events.

The stakeholders and the government are trying to be as adaptive as possible by formulating strategies, but we still have quite some grounds to cover.

I must admit that we have made some significant progress in sustainable manufacturing. For example, we have the highest number of Leed platinum certified readymade garment (RMG) factories in the country.

However, the culture of investing in sustainable manufacturing practices has just started in Bangladesh.

This means that the Bangladeshi manufacturing sector has more room for improving energy efficiency and renewable energy usage, sourcing sustainable raw materials and managing our waste better.

For example, Unilever has been sourcing raw materials like palm oil, paper from certified sources for many years, but the practice is not mainstream.

We also must address other pressing issues such as waste management.

According to the World Bank Group, per capita plastic waste generation of Bangladesh has increased from 3 kg in 2005 to 9kg in 2020.

The number is as high as over 20 kg for Dhaka.

We need to invest to improve the holistic waste management infrastructure, institutional capacity, and value chain development.

At the same time, we must ensure that our environmental practices and actions do not adversely affect people's livelihoods and quality of life.

Focus should also be given to developing Human Resources as there will be jobs that would require specialized skills and knowledge to support sustainable business transformation and green growth.

In summary, environmental protection in Bangladesh requires a holistic approach.

We need to think about the environment in every decision we make, invest in sustainable technologies, and tackle the broader issues.

What are your views on corporate social responsibility (CSR)?

Business organisations should focus on social welfare and social issues, but it is even more important to make sustainability part of the business strategy.

In the developed world, the concept of CSR has evolved and it is now not about philanthropy, rather it's more about holistic impact.

If we do not integrate what is expected from business as part of our strategy, our efforts will be mostly symbolic, scattered, sporadic, and won't have a real and long-term impact.

For example, in 2010, Unilever changed its approach from just doing corporate philanthropy to making sustainability a key part of its business strategy by launching Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP).

We included environmental preservation in our goals, aiming to double our profit while reducing our environmental impact by half.

We also added social missions like improving the health and wellbeing of our consumers and working with people’s livelihood.

This shift created awareness not only across the entire organization, but also among the greater business community in general.

As we became aware about our responsibilities and started to make sustainability part of our actions, our actions started to make an impact globally.

Based on the experience of implementing USLP and the awareness, Unilever Compass was launched in 2020 as a long-term goal.

The core foundation of Unilever Compass was the strong sense of incorporating purpose in our operation, brands, and people.

The strategy was simple- when business integrates and instills the purpose of improving the health of the planet or wellbeing of our consumers or livelihood, it drives real change.

It encourages everyone in the company to innovate, be more efficient, and help solve social and environmental issues.

This way, business efforts are not only consistent but also truly impactful for both the business and the community.

This strategy was further evolved as the global pandemic has created a new set of challenges and requirements, like committing more resources and attention to address critical issues such as plastic pollution.

That is why a new strategy, Growth Action Plan (GAP) was announced in 2023.Unilever’s GAP prioritized four critical pillars- Climate, Nature, Plastic and Livelihood with both intermediate and long-term goals.

We felt that these priority areas demand faster, urgent actions with roadmaps, clear accountability, and reward.

How does Unilever Bangladesh see sustainability and what is the approach?

At Unilever Bangladesh, we have been driving an ambitious sustainability agenda since the launch of Unilever Sustainable Living Plan in 2010.

In the face of ever-growing economic, environmental, and social challenges, we are evolving our local approach as well.

We have a long legacy of using the power of brands, scale and reach to improve the health and wellbeing of our consumers like Lifebuoy teaching school children the right ways of handwashing through Lifebuoy School of 5 or Pepsodent providing free dental consultation. Along with these brand-led actions, we are investing to decarbonize our operation.

Unilever Bangladesh is considered as one of the pioneers of responsible industrial practices in Bangladesh such as the introduction of advanced Effluent Treatment Plants (ETP), water stewardship, maintaining a Zero Landfill Operations since 2014 or use of Data and Technology to optimize our Logistics.

We have also been working to improve the livelihood of our partners, especially our field force and retailers.

We work with around 1.7 million retailers across Bangladesh and are helping them to use technology for better income.

Since 2020, we have also started to work towards a plastic waste free future for Bangladesh.

We felt that plastic packaging is essential for bringing essential products into the hands of people and serving their needs.

But we also need to face the fact that plastic packaging -- including our own -- is ending up as waste in the environment. We have been working hard to create a circular economy for plastic packaging as well.

Our ambition is an end to plastic pollution through reduction, circulation, and collaboration.

We are taking steps to reduce plastic waste, including using more recycled materials in our packaging and collecting more plastics than we use in our packaging.

We have also introduced retail refill machines and are currently working to expand the model through consumer behavior change.

We are proactively working to improve the plastic waste management system in Bangladesh, including infrastructure and capability development, new business models, and creating a circular economy for plastic waste.

We are collaborating with the municipality, our partners, and the community to implement systematic changes and interventions that are smart and scalable to keep plastic in a loop.

Which is the sustainability action and initiatives that makes you the proudest?

The beauty of being part of an organization like Unilever is that all our actions and initiatives are designed to drive the right impact and partner Bangladesh’s growth journey.

However, looking at Bangladesh’s current context, the sustainability initiative that makes me proudest is our plastic waste value chain initiative.

Our initiative in collaboration with Chattogram City Corporation (CCC) is the largest public-private plastic waste management initiative in the country.

In 2024, we have scaled up this initiative to collect and to ensure recycling of 10,000+ tonnes of plastic, which is 10% of the mismanaged plastic waste in Chittagong, the second largest city of our country.

This initiative is not only making a significant impact on reducing plastic pollution but also showcasing the power of collaboration between the public and private sectors.

It is a testament to our commitment to environmental stewardship and creating positive change in the communities we serve.

Alongside improving the situation of plastic waste management itself, it has also become a beacon of hope for all the value chain actors who have been benefited directly by the initiative.

For example, we have managed to improve the livelihoods of 2800+ waste workers till date.

This year’s World Environment Day theme is Land Restoration. We would like to know your thoughts on this.

Land restoration is indeed a critical issue, particularly in a densely populated country like Bangladesh where we are experiencing issues like increased salinity and desertification.

We need to have a comprehensive strategy, like the Delta Plan 2100 to counter the adverse effect of these climate disasters on our agriculture, nature, and people.

However, along with these natural phenomena, we must not forget about the human-made issues as well.

As our population continues to grow, with an estimated 50% expected to live in urban areas by 2041 according to Vision 2041, the pressure on land, especially in urban cities will continue to increase.

Currently, our waste management infrastructure is not standardised and we rely on using urban landfills to dispose of our waste.

If we continue to do this, we will soon be left without any fields in the city as the plastic waste land-filled in Chittagong city annually alone requires the space of 350 soccer fields.

It is essential to adopt sustainable waste management practices to mitigate these challenges and preserve our land resources.

I feel land restoration is critical for improving the quality of life for our citizens and ensuring the long-term sustainability of our environment.

Initiatives such as afforestation and combating desertification are crucial for restoring degraded land and promoting biodiversity.

However, it is also equally important to integrate land restoration efforts with waste management strategies.

By reducing the amount of waste produced and effectively managing what we do generate, we can minimize the impact on our land resources.

This requires a holistic approach that considers the entire lifecycle of products, from production to disposal.

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