The Resource Revolution Trainer

Coupling Sustainability with Excellence. An online self-training guide for business.

SESSION 2: Innovation and Solutions Required


Session 2 explores response strategies and the types of solutions required from business and industries world-wide to effectively take on the global resource challenge. It introduces decoupling as an appropriate response strategy and the role of innovation in delivering on this demanding goal. It describes the different types of decoupling as defined by the International Resource Panel. Taking decoupling to the level of the enterprise, it signals the level of ambition expected of champion companies. This includes the need for high productivity business models and committed leadership. Examples are given of low hanging fruits in the form of top resource productivity opportunities as well as high level ambitions at industry scale.


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Consumer goods giant Unilever is working to decouple growth from environmental impact in order to double the size of its business and increase the positive social benefits of its products. The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan sets out about 60 time-bound, publicly reported targets designed to reduce costs, support customers and grow its brands, opening up new markets in a sustainable way. Through the Plan, Unilever in 2010 committed itself to decoupling growth from its environmental footprint. The overall strategy sets three goals, namely to (i) doubling the size of its business while (ii) reducing its environmental footprint and (iii) increasing its positive social impact. The company among others aims to halve the GHG impact of its deodorants, food, detergents and other products between 2010 and 2020. By 2016 all Unilever factories worldwide were operating on a zero waste basis. Unilever has noted that reformulating products or creating innovative new products adapted to a world of more constrained resources has translated into commercial gains. For example, the fabric conditioner One Rinse developed for handwashing laundry reduces the amount of water required to rinse detergent from clothes by two-thirds. Unilever’s One Rinse products are now used in 12.5 million households worldwide, a 60 percent increase on 2010.
Reflect on the following questions and discuss with colleagues in your company:

  1. Describe to a colleague or a group the challenge of decoupling, including the difference between resource decoupling and impact decoupling, as well as relative decoupling and absolute decoupling. What is the immediate response?
  1. Do you have clarity on what decoupling would mean for your business? What resources (eg land, biomass, energy, water, materials) does your business use most intensively, and what areas could you prioritise for setting decoupling and eco-efficiency goals?
  1. Which of the Resource Revolution ambitions do you find most attractive from the perspective of your business in the short, medium or long term? Making 50%-80% resource productivity improvements, ensuring 2 years or less payback periods, developing a high productivity business model or the ability to deliver at industry scale.
  1. Discuss the Unilever case with your colleagues. What can you learn from it? What would be the equivalent strategic vision for your company?
  • International Resource Panel (IRP). 2011. Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth. Nairobi, Paris: UNEP
  • Livio D. DeSimone, Frank Popoff. 1997. Eco-Efficiency: The Business Link to Sustainable Development. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Oppenheim, Jeremy, Dobbs, Richard and Thompson, Fraser. 2011. The Resource Revolution: Meeting the world’s energy, materials, food, and water needs. New York: McKinsey & Co. Global Institute
  • Osterwalder. Alexander and Pigneur, Yves. 2010. Business Model Generation. Hoboken: Wiley & Sons.
  • Schmidheiny, Stephan. 1992. ‪Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Vision 2050: