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Showdown at Unilever AGM as activists challenge board over environmental impact

Unilever faced a tense annual general meeting (AGM) as activists confronted the board over the company’s impact on people and the planet.

The Marmite and Dove owner is considered a trailblazer in environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance but it recently came under fire for reducing the scale of its targets and extending some deadlines.

The executive leadership team, which has undergone several changes in the last year, also published a new growth strategy aimed at driving greater shareholder returns after a “disappointing” performance over the last few years.

Shareholders voted in favour of all the resolutions at the AGM on Wednesday, with 98% backing its newly updated Climate Transition Action Plan.

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But the board was forced to defend its latest plans as shareholders expressed concern over the firm compromising on sustainability for growth.

Before it started, dozens of protesters lined the street outside the Hilton Bankside London, holding placards reading “Unilever: Stop greenwashing” and “No economy on a dead planet”.

Inside, chairman Ian Meakins’s opening remarks were immediately interrupted by Greenpeace activists, who set off a confetti canon and presented an open letter with 140,000 signatures to the board calling for it to ditch single-use plastics.

As security staff escorted them out, one woman addressing Unilever’s chief executive, shouted: “Hein Schumacher, you and your board are cheap plastic polluters, responsible for the mess that we are in today. You have to change.”

Unilever AGM
Protesters outside Unilever’s AGM at the Hilton Bankside (PA/Rebecca Speare-Cole)

Shareholder questions were dominated by ESG concerns over climate change, consumer health and the firm’s continued presence in Russia.

But the board insisted that sustainability remains “at the heart” of the business as it outlined its new focus on driving performance.

Mr Meakins said: “We do not see there is a trade-off between performance and doing the right thing in terms of sustainability.”

Several activists from Friends of the Earth (FOE) asked the same question about whether the board would answer “yes” or “no” to a target of reducing all greenhouse gas emissions by 48% by 2030.

To one activist, Mr Schumacher listed off examples of the firm’s sustainability credentials over time, adding: “Please look at the league tables. I don’t want to talk about other companies but let me put it this way, we are absolutely leading the pack.”

He later added: “I welcome your presence at the meeting, I really do. But in a way you’re at the wrong meeting. There are many other companies that you need to talk to and I agree with that.”

Eventually, at least 100 FOE activists stood up, singing “power to the people” and holding up green glove-clad fists as they walked in a procession out of the room.

The board was also confronted by members of the Rio Mukti communities from Central Sulawesi in Indonesia, who claim their land was taken and converted into palm oil plantations by Astra Agro Lestari (AAL) in the mid-2000s – a firm which has been identified in Unilever’s supply chain.

Nengah Wantri, 48, said that after losing their livelihood as farmers, many in the community had no choice but to work for the company but the pay was too low to live.

“It’s very difficult to live in my own country and my own land and it’s very hard to live day by day,” she told the PA news agency ahead of the AGM.

“We can’t pay for our children’s education and we cannot buy rice or other food and groceries.”

Ms Wantri said she has been jailed twice for scavenging for fallen fruit, adding: “It’s very embarrassing to be accused of stealing from the company that stole your land.”

Ketut Sovok, 46, who now works on a friend’s farm after losing his land, said: “It breaks our soul because previously we had our own land. Now we have to work under someone else, under the instructions of the company or friends and this is very difficult.”

Unilever AGM
Ketut Sovok and Nengah Wantri outside Unilever’s AGM (PA/Rebecca Speare-Cole)

“To see justice, we want our land returned to us – but we also want compensation for the environmental damage caused, and the years of abuse and intimidation we’ve endured.”

Responding to questions on AAL, Mr Schumacher said that the firm is not a direct supplier to Unilever.

He added that Unilever has carried out its own investigations and chooses to engage with its direct suppliers over their sourcing practices.

The board takes the allegations “very very seriously,” he said. “It is new to me here today and that’s something we need to investigate going forward and your point is therefore well heard.”