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Guest blog: Why the failed Unilever takeover matters for forests

Whether one global mega-corporation succeeds in buying another global mega-corporation is not normally a subject of much interest to environmentalists. 

Kraft Heinz’s rapidly abandoned US $143 billion tilt at Unilever is different.

If the takeover had gone ahead, a company that thinks of itself as a global leader in sustainability would have come under the control of one with a reputation for ferocious cost cutting. 

Taking environmental issues seriously tends to be expensive for any company that tries it, at least in the short term.

While Kraft Heinz – its products range from soups to Philadelphia spreads and the Weight Watchers brand - made no public statements about its stance on sustainability, it is a reasonable bet that a Kraft-controlled Unilever would be more inclined to focus on next year’s profits and less concerned to burnish its image as a company that cares about the long term health of the planet.

If for no other reason than to find ways of recouping and justifying the enormous cost of the takeover to investors, Kraft would have had strong incentive to take an axe to Unilever’s business expenses, including measures that address environmental concerns.

The proposed multi-billion dollar price tag would have made this the second most expensive corporate takeover ever recorded.

You could argue that “what would have happened if” questions are not worth asking, as Kraft abandoned its plans within a few days of them becoming public knowledge in mid-February.

But that would be a mistake as a great deal was at stake for anyone who cares about deforestation, and there are important lessons to be learned.

Unilever is one of the largest corporate buyers of palm oil for use in its soaps, toiletries and food products, such as margarine and ice cream. Indeed, the company says its purchasing decisions have an impact on eight percent of global production.    

The destruction of tropical forests to make way for palm oil plantations has been one of the most important causes of forest loss due to agriculture - only cattle products and soy have had more impact - and land conversion to agriculture is reckoned to account for 70 per cent of all deforestation. 

While Unilever as major buyer of the product has to take its share of the blame for past destruction of forests and land conflicts with communities caused by palm oil expansion, in recent years it has been one of the better companies.  

It is committed to eliminating net deforestation from its own operations and those of its suppliers by 2020, and has adopted a raft of detailed policies to make sure this happens - not just relating to palm oil but also other agricultural products. 

Partly due to pressure from Unilever (and Nestlé), several hundred other companies in agricultural supply chains have made similar promises to stop causing deforestation over the last five years or so.

These two powerful consumer companies have worked with Greenpeace and other NGOs on this issue. 

But it is best not to get too starry eyed about the effectiveness of big company promises to change what actually happens on the ground.

Even so, Unilever has contributed to a significant shift in attitudes on environmental issues on the part of some corporate players. 

Unusually for a big corporation, Unilever claims that sustainability is a core concern and that taking a long term view will actually lead to higher profits. 

This approach has been championed by the chief executive Paul Polman over his eight years in the job.

If Kraft Heinz had bought Unilever, the chances are that preserving forests would have dropped down the list of company priorities, and more generally some of the momentum for improved corporate behaviour on this issue could have been lost.  

A look at the list of Kraft’s major investors does not suggest that this is a company likely to prioritise environmental concerns.  

The two largest stakeholders are the US financial guru Warren Buffet (through his company Berkshire Hathaway) and 3G, a Brazilian private equity group which has played a major role in the expansion of soy production, with devastating environmental consequences for the Cerrado and the Amazon.

Kraft’s failure to take control of Unilever is, however, not the end of the story.  A common feature of unsuccessful takeovers is that the prey company beats off the attack by promising investors that it will implement the same kind of policies as the predator would have introduced had it won to boost profits, often through slashing costs and paying more attention to short term financial concerns.

Ominously, Unilever announced plans for a thorough review of its business operations in the days following the failed bid attempt.

This is unlikely to result in Unilever changing tack on forests, but it does suggest that the company feels under pressure to be seen to be focussing more on the bottom line.

The lesson may be that there will always be a limit to how far any individual company can step out of line with its peers on tackling ethical issues perceived as likely to be expensive. 

At some point, investors will turn round and say “we want you to focus on the thing we most care about which is making us money”.

Images:

Angel and her friend playing among wooden boards in the garden and a truck in the distance carrying oil palm fruit. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

Protest outside Heinz headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Rainforest Action Network.


 

Mark Gregory worked at the BBC for 20 years, including as the World Service’s business correspondent. His report with Duncan Brack for forests and rights NGO Fern, Promises and challenges: How companies are meeting commitments to end deforestation, is published later this month. 

 

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