US activist investor Nelson Peltz has taken a stake in one of Britain’s biggest companies: food, beauty and homecare giant Unilever, which owns household brands such as Breyers ice cream and Lipton tea.
The $115 billion company – which has been stagnating for years – is clearly worried about the move.
That gives Peltz, who is famous for shaking up underperforming companies, a seat on the board. Some fear this could lead to a clash of cultures. While billionaire Peltz is laser-focused on cutting costs and improving the bottom line, Unilever says it has a deeper and broader purpose: to better the planet.
Unilever sees itself as a champion of social justice and an activist against environmental abuse. But the altruistic image – projected through brands like Dove soap, Hellmann mayonnaise and Domestos sanitizer – has at least paled shareholders.
“The shares underperformed the UK market and its global peers,” said Russ Mould, chief investment officer at AJ Bell. Rival food giants Nestlé and Procter & Gamble have seen their share prices rise sharply over the past five years, while Unilever’s has fallen more than 10%.
Some shareholders blame the company’s do-good culture.
“Some have criticized the company for being too obsessed with environmental, social and governance issues when they want the company to make more mayonnaise and sell more products,” Mold observed.
Matthew Lesh, head of public policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free markets think tank, echoed that sentiment.
“Unilever has focused too much on social goals rather than shareholder benefits,” he said, adding that the company was preoccupied with promoting high-profile liberal causes. “Things like LGBT+ rights, solving the climate crisis as well as speaking out against Brexit.”
The move away from the European Union was among the targets of Unilever’s most militant brand, Vermont-based ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s. The brand also tweeted against the British government’s immigration policy and, in a protest against Israel, refused to sell its products in the “occupied Palestinian territory”. (Unilever ended that boycott after a firestorm of criticism.)
Lesh described it all as “playing with fire” for a consumer products company, as it risked alienating many of its customers.
Unilever did not respond to Marketplace’s request for comment, but Simon Rawson of ShareAction, a nonprofit that promotes socially and environmentally responsible investing, was happy to champion the activism of the company. He thinks it feels good.
“For example, Unilever is, I think, one of the world leaders in committing to paying living wages to people throughout its extensive supply chains,” he said.
The company has also campaigned against plastic pollution and, through its beauty products, has attempted to change perceptions of physical perfection and reduce the pressure on young people’s body image. “I think that’s commendable,” Rawson said.
He criticizes the company for what he calls its “unhealthy food portfolio”, but credits it for solving the problem by agreeing to report its level of compliance with government-backed nutrition recommendations in its main markets. worldwide.
Rawson added that he doesn’t believe Unilever is driven by pure benevolence.
“Having a social purpose makes business sense for a consumer products company,” he said. “Consumers are increasingly moving away from brands they know are unsustainable or irresponsible, whether because of their exploitative labor practices or their environmental credentials.”
But even corporate supporters admit that Unilever’s political activism can be polarizing. A bit like Marmite. The company’s most controversial brand, a tangy British spread, is actually advertised under the slogan “You love it or you hate it”.
As a fearsome activist investor takes a seat on Unilever’s board, British commentators are equally divided. Some hope it will lead to a rude awakening for woke business, while others fear a potential setback for concerned capitalism.
There’s a lot going on in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is there for you.
You rely on Marketplace to break down world events and tell you how it affects you in a factual and accessible way. We count on your financial support to continue to make this possible.
Your donation today fuels the independent journalism you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help maintain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.