Sustainability Discourse in the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods Sector – A comparison between Procter & Gamble and Unilever

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Sustainability Discourse in the

Fast-Moving Consumer Goods


A comparison between Procter & Gamble and Unilever

Sonia Prado Pérez

English III – Linguistics Bachelor Thesis

15 credits Spring 2020


Table of contents



1. Introduction


1.1 Aim


2. Background


2.1 Situational background


2.1.1 Sustainability as a whole


2.1.2 The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 5

2.1.3 The Corporates


2.2 Theoretical background


2.2.1 Sustainability theory


2.2.2 Critical discourse analysis theory


2.2.3 Previous works


3. Design of the study


4. Results & Discussion


4.1 Linguistic strategies


4.1.1 Water


4.1.2 Plastic


4.1.3 Deforestation


4.2 Differences and similarities


4.2.1 The Web pages


4.2.2 The Themes


4.3 The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals


5. Concluding remarks






Environmental protection has gained a lot of attention in recent years. People, governments and NGOs understand that our economic growth needs to be sustainable and respect the ecosystem. Everyone has a role to play in the planet conservation, from consumers to industries. This paper investigates on a linguistic level how the fast-moving consumer goods companies such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever communicate about their sustainability profile, as well as the differences and similarities in their communications. Lastly, I analysed the companies’ sustainability goals and how they relate to those established by the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). My methodology was a Faircloughian textual analysis of each company’s official web pages with a focus on their sustainability section. The results show that each company addresses their impact on the environment on different sustainability goals. To resolve the environmental challenges, both companies count on innovative technologies to improve their products so they become eco-friendly. This study’s implication is the importance of words choices in the companies’ sustainability discourse, in order to convey clearly what measures are applied to diminish their environmental footprint.


1. Introduction

The current economy is based on the consumption of products and services. To generate those goods, the industries rely on processes that are frequently damaging to the environment. Over the past decades, society has come to realize that development should not be achieved at the expense of natural resources. This realization has led to a surge in ethical consumption in order to guarantee social sustainability. As stated in Sharfman et al.’s study (2007), society expects companies to engage in sustainable practices through the use of a green supply-chain approach. In addition, the creation of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has encouraged companies to take measures and put in place efficient procedures to make concrete environmental improvements. In this paper, a critical discourse analysis is conducted to investigate how fast-moving consumer goods companies communicate their perspective about sustainability. In order to perform a critical discourse analysis, Fairclough’s (2015) theory on social practice and Richardson’s (2007) use of specific linguistic tools, such as lexical analysis, predication and modality, have been applied. Finally, as the study concerned sustainability, Munier’s (2005) concepts on sustainability in industries have supported the investigation on that aspect.

1.1 Aim

The aim of this study is to analyse the sustainability discourse of two major fast-moving consumer goods companies, namely Procter & Gamble and Unilever. Their official web pages serve as a basis for analysing the content, in order to answer the following research questions: 1. What linguistic strategies are used by the companies to communicate their

sustainability profile?

2. What are the differences and similarities in the sustainable discourse of the two companies?

3. How do the companies’ sustainability goals relate to those established by the UN SDGs?

2. Background

To situate the research in its wider context, in this section, I provide an overview of sustainability, followed by a discussion of the UN SDGs and finally the implications of sustainability for the corporates. Then comes the theoretical background foundation used to evaluate the investigation’s results and a discussion of previous works related to my paper.


2.1 Situational background

2.1.1 Sustainability as a whole

The current economic growth has become too extensive to be supported by the ecosystem, because humans did not consider that the natural resources, such as forests and water, are scarce and take time to regenerate. In fact, the ‘economic development should aim to “improve” the natural environment rather than result in resource depletion and environmental degradation’ (Mulligan 2018:144). Over the years, people have come to realise that they have an impact on the local ecosystems. For instance, Mulligan (2018) explains that environment deterioration is caused by agriculture, as well as industrialization. The reason for this is that they generate greenhouse gases that accumulate in the atmosphere. As demonstrated by scientists, ‘localised activities are resulting in global warming and the onset of unpredictable climate change’ (Mulligan 2018:128). In short, from a local issue the impact becomes global. Another example is water pollution. When people discard plastic bottles in towns, these bottles end up in the rivers and continue their journey into the ocean. According to Li et al.’s research (2016), one of the problems of plastic debris is the danger it represents for birds and marine animals when ingested, as it kills them; hence the importance of recycling. Both examples were unsustainable, therefore setting common SDGs became necessary after many years of resources depletion. In fact, UN’s members’ commitment to protecting the planet should result in ‘sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations’ (Division for Sustainable Development Goals 2015), as is discussed below.

2.1.2 The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

The UN SDGs are an extension of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The latter focused on poverty eradication, hunger and preventable diseases. Attaining the goals by 2015 proved unsuccessful. It was then decided to add nine goals, which became the seventeen SDGs to be reached by 2030. The Division for Sustainable Development Goals (DSDG) in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) are in charge of those goals and their application within the nations. The goals’ themes are quite varied and include ‘water, energy, climate, oceans, urbanization, transport, science and technology’ (DSDG 2015). In addition, to guarantee a sustainable development, the declaration written by the DSDG states that:

[w]e resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote


and its natural resources. We resolve also to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.(2015)

All UN members are expected to take action to end poverty, improve health, and education. It is noted that the economic growth should not obviate the need to work on the preservation of oceans and forests or climate change.

The DSDG understands that companies also have a role to play in sustainable development. In fact, they ‘support national regulatory and policy frameworks that enable business and industry to advance sustainable development initiatives, taking into account the importance of corporate social responsibility’ (DSDG n.d.). It is thus, interesting for the purpose of this paper to see how Procter & Gamble and Unilever incorporate the SDGs in their sustainability discourse.

2.1.3 The Corporates

Corporates in the fast-moving consumer goods sector such as Procter & Gamble and Unilever include sustainability goals in their business plan strategies, as well as their company’s values. The reason behind it is due to ‘consumer demand, growing public awareness, employee interest, and new environmental legislation’ (Dauvergne & Lister 2011:39). Indeed, the corporates strive to reduce their impact on natural resources, which they attain thanks to innovation and processes’ improvement, such as ‘life-cycle assessment, supply chain tracing, eco-certification, and sustainability reporting’ (Dauvergne & Lister 2011:38). For instance, Procter and Gamble’s laundry brand Tide washes linen in cold water. According to them, it allows a diminution in water consumption and electricity saving. Unilever also addresses the water usage issue and has created the brand The Good Stuff, which is a no-rinse conditioner. Apart from this, corporates have established their own commitment plans to be achieved within a time limit to meet sustainability goals. Concretely, Procter & Gamble has put in place ‘Ambition 2030 Environmental Sustainability Goals’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.) and Unilever has launched its ‘Unilever Sustainable Living Plan’ (Unilever n.d). In both cases, the purpose of their plan is to reduce the companies’ environmental footprint through concrete goals. Despite their good intentions, large business companies are not fully sustainable, because ‘they remain engines of increased consumerism’ (Dauvergne & Lister 2011:38). Indeed, the consumers continue to buy their products on a daily basis, although they have become more interested in eco-friendly brands.


2.2 Theoretical background

2.2.1 Sustainability theory

In this section, I provide an overview of the industries’ influence on the environment. It is based on Munier’s concepts of sustainability and its recommendations on procedures to improve the industries’ impact on natural resources. The concepts contribute to the subsequent sustainability discourse analysis, as they show how the two companies communicate about their environmental impact.

Munier defines sustainability based on the Brundtland Report, which states that ‘[s]ustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (2005:10). It is interesting to see that sustainability is defined in terms of development, but Munier does not address what development means. According to the dictionary, development is about ‘[t]he economic and social advancement of a country, region, etc., esp. one in the developing world.’ (Oxford English Dictionary n.d.). This definition implies a country's economic growth and social progress through economic policies, education, and a health care system.

Munier (2005) explains the impact of industries on the environment in three areas. First, the contamination of the water, air and soil. The effects on those natural resources are ‘to render many water streams lifeless, many tracts of land sterile, and […] atmospheric consequences with effects that are hundreds of kilometres from their source’ (Munier 2005:149). However, actions can be taken to reduce this pollution. Munier’s suggestions are to avoid using of dangerous pesticides, installing air filters, and undertaking wastewater treatment in industrial plants. The second area is waste generation due to the manufacturing process. The problem comes from the industries that do not ‘recover products at the end of their life-cycles so as to revert them, as far as possible, to their initial components’ (Munier 2005:151). It is important to reuse the materials needed in supply chains, so they do not generate waste. Munier’s solutions are, for instance, to use recycled material in packaging, create materials that are environment friendly, and build products that last longer. The third area is the consumption of resources. Knowing that the resources are limited, the industries are expected by the governments to reduce their water usage and the electricity when manufacturing goods. As Munier explains it, there is a need to invest in new technologies that allow the processes to become more efficient. This requires ‘designing products with a lesser content of raw material’ (Munier 2005:175). The improvements will then lead to a reduction in material wasted, water usage, and electric savings.


Guaranteeing the wellbeing of humans ‘requires significant changes in our beliefs and practices and we are becoming more aware of our increasing responsibility for the future wellbeing of other living things’ (Mulligan 2018:166). Industries participate in the planet’s contamination and need to assume their responsibility. Above all, they have to take actions to preserve the environment and continue their efforts to improve the environmental situation. 2.2.2 Critical discourse analysis theory

The theoretical and methodological approach applied in this paper is based on Fairclough’s (2015) critical discourse analysis perspective. This allowed me to investigate the linguistic strategies used to communicate about sustainability. An important concept in Fairclough’s work is social practice. Social practice means ‘[f]irstly, that language is a part of society, and not somehow external to it. Secondly, that language is a social process. And thirdly, that language is a socially conditioned process, conditioned that is by other (non-linguistic) parts of society’ (Fairclough 2015:55-56). Thus, language belongs in society and is dependent on social conventions. As a matter of fact, language is regarded as a discourse and text is part of that discourse. Textual production is based on people’s internalized cognitive resources. That is, the knowledge they have about language, their assumptions or values. This approach to discourse explains the influence texts have on society, as they are able to shape readers’ point of view.

The process of textual analysis contains three stages, which show the ‘relationship between texts, interactions and contexts’ (Fairclough 2015:58). The first stage is description, which relates to the characteristics of a text. The analysis identifies the ‘formal features of a text in terms of the categories of a descriptive framework’ (Fairclough 2015:59). Thus, in this paper, I look at the vocabulary, the grammar, and how the sentences connect together. The second stage is interpretation, which is about the relationship between text and the process of its interpretation. Concretely, to interpret a text, ‘you draw upon interpretations of utterance meanings; and to arrive at these, you draw upon interpretations of the surface forms of utterances’ (Fairclough 2015:158). This means first looking at the sentence context and then at the words that are part of the sentence. The third stage is explanation, which is concerned with the connection between the process of interpretation and the social context. Its objective is ‘to portray a discourse as part of a social process, as a social practice, showing how it is determined by social structures’ (Fairclough 2015:172). The process of decoding the meaning is based on a wide social context. The interpreter’s culture will thus impact the interpretation.

Once the three stages have been followed, according to Richardson (2007) there are two further aspects within textual analysis. The first aspect is how individuals are represented, as


well as the actions or events. The relationship between text and events, is developed in the concept of intertextuality. Fairclough defines it as ‘the property that texts have of being full of snatches of other texts, which may be demarcated or merged in, and which the text may assimilate, contradict, ironically echo and so forth’ (2015:37). In the current paper, when I analysed the companies’ sustainability goals in relation to those established by the UN, I looked at which parts of discourse were combined to generate a new text. The second aspect is the structure of the clauses. That is, analysis should not only cover what the words convey, but also how sentences are formed. This takes into account, for instance, modality which is linked to the presence of modal verbs and adverbs in the sentence. In addition, modality refers to ‘judgements, comment and attitude in text and talk’ (Richardson 2007:59). In short, the presence of a certain kind of modal verb or adverb expresses the speaker’s intentions. For example, the use of should expresses an advice, whereas, must and certainly, transmit obligation.

Richardson calls the analysis of specific words in texts a ‘lexical analysis’ (2007:47). The role of words, as defined by Richardson, is to ‘convey the imprint of society and of value judgements in particular – they convey connoted as well as denoted meanings’ (2007:47). The category of words that have this capacity are nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. Another linguistic tool completing the lexical analysis is ‘predication’ (Richardson 2007:52). When choosing words to represent people, objects, animals, and events, their description can be performed in terms of a ‘quality, quantity, space, time and so on’ (Richardson 2007:52). Those words can have either an explicit meaning or an implicit one. In addition, they can also transmit criticism, can weaken the social actors and even denigrate them. Ultimately, the choice of words to pass on a message shapes the narrative inside the text in a certain way.

2.2.3 Previous works

The article by Alexander and Stibbe (2013) on ecological discourse analysis is related to the core topic of this paper. Alexander and Stibbe’s (2013) method was to select representative findings on the matter, which brought out ‘the involvement of the language system in constructing or, at the least, shaping a viewpoint on, ecological issues’ (Alexander and Stibbe 2013:2). The authors’ approach is based on the field of linguistics. It investigates the implications of lexical choice in the environmental discourse across different industrial sectors and its impact on the sentence’s meaning, which is similar to the approach used in this paper. Alexander and Stibbe’s article findings explained the various language features present in the sustainability discourse that potentially influence people’s behavior towards the environment.


Lupu and Sandu’s (2017) article was pertinent for the aspect of the critical discourse analysis, as I used the same methodology. The focus on the linguistic tool intertextuality relates to the research question about the influence of the UN SDGs on the companies’ sustainable goals discourse. Indeed, this linguistic tool demonstrates ‘the interconnectedness of different texts from different sources’ (Lupu and Sandu 2017:539). In addition, the data in Lupu and Sandu’s article is based on corporate communication documents, such as press releases and annual reports, which are an equivalent discourse genre to the one present on the official web pages of Procter & Gamble and Unilever that I used. Lupu and Sandu findings identified portions of texts present in press releases that were integrated in the annual reports, which participated in the creation of a new text and that intertextuality is a component of the narrative in those kinds of documents.

Witkowska (2016) focuses on corporate social responsibility. According to Witkowska, the actions taken by companies to address their environmental impact are communicated to the consumers, because ‘businesses are trying to maximise social good and go beyond purely transactional business’ (2016:29). This aspect of the social good is present in the sustainability plans created by Procter & Gamble and Unilever. The sustainability plans show how integrating sustainability goals improved the companies’ daily operations, while diminishing their environmental footprint. Thus, the article’s results demonstrated the importance of the implementation of environmental standards in order to guarantee that companies preserve the natural resources.

3. Design of the study

This research employs a qualitative approach. According to Creswell, the qualitative approach consists of ‘gathering detailed information from participants’ and then placing this information ‘into categories or themes. These themes are developed into broad patterns, theories, or generalizations that are then compared with personal experience or with existing literature on the topic’ (2014:84). The present study collected information from web pages rather than from interviews. Themes that appeared in the collected data were compared to the theories discussed above. According to Creswell, the advantage of a qualitative approach is that it allows the researcher to make close-range observations in order to interpret the data, whereas quantitative research consists of ‘testing objective theories by examining the relationship among variables […] so that numbered data can be analysed using statistical procedures’ (2014:30). The purpose of this study is to investigate the meaning behind specific word choices in the sustainability discourse. Thus, a qualitative approach is more appropriate for the current investigation.


The data collected for this study comes from the official web pages of Procter & Gamble and Unilever, with the focus lying exclusively on their section about sustainability. The scope of the study is the household, the paper and personal care products industry, since these lines contain a large range of products with a significant potential impact on the environment. Indeed, this industry ‘consists of companies engaged in the manufacturing of non-durable goods such as cleaning products, detergents […]. The Household Products industry excludes cosmetics and toiletries, classified in Personal Products; and paper towels and napkins, disposable diapers and sanitary napkins, classified in Paper Products’ (“Business -,” n.d.).

The reason for choosing Procter & Gamble and Unilever is based on the Forbes article ‘The World’s Largest Household Products and Personal Care Companies’ that ranked fast-moving consumer goods companies by their net sales. As the article was published in 2018, it was necessary to look for the 2019 Fiscal Year reports of each company to determine which one had the highest net sales. I chose the first two among the top five companies from the sector of household, paper and personal care products. A summary of the net sales published on each company’s web sites is provided in Table 1.

Table 1. Fast-moving consumer goods companies ranked by net sales

Company name

Fiscal Year

Net sales

Procter & Gamble 2019 $67.7 billion

Unilever 2019 $52 billion

Henkel 2019 $20.1 billion

Kimberly Clark 2019 $18.5 billion

Reckitt Benckiser 2019 $16.4 billion

Note. The figures in the net sales column can be found among the references.

On March 20, 2020, while gathering the data, a limitation emerged. Each company had a different naming convention for the topic of sustainability on their web pages, as shown in Figures 1 and 2 marked with an orange arrow.


Figure 1. Procter & Gamble sustainability section

Figure 2. Unilever sustainability section

In addition, each company addresses different environmental issues. The next step was to go through each section on both web pages to find similar themes for the research.

Starting with Procter & Gamble, I looked at the ‘Our impact’ section and clicked on ‘Sustainability’. This page is mainly about the goals the company wants to achieve by 2030 in four themes: the brands, the supply chain, society and employees. I did not think the section contained sufficient information about sustainability. Therefore, I explored the site further. The ‘Our company’ section contains a sub-section ‘Environmental Policies & Practices’ that addresses issues such as, climate change, environmental quality policy, wood pulp, palm oil


and water. The data that I found was useful, because the detailed texts explained the company’s sustainability measures. Therefore, those texts were utilized for the research.

As a second step, I explored the Unilever web page. Under the section ‘Sustainable Living’, I concentrated on the sub-section ‘Reducing Environmental Impact’ as shown in Figure 2. This sub-section contained information on greenhouse gases, water use, waste and packaging, and sustainable sourcing. The other sub-section I read was ‘Our Sustainable Living Report Hub’, which contains the goals that support the UN SDGs.

Despite the differences in organising the content about sustainability, I found the following common themes:

A. Water B. Plastic C. Deforestation D. UN SDGs

The themes are analysed in terms of the linguistic strategies used by the companies, based on the theories mentioned above. In addition, the analysis of the themes includes a comparison between the two companies, with the purpose to find the differences and similarities in their sustainability discourse. The same method is applied when investigating the companies’ sustainability goals in relation to the UN SDGs.

4. Results & Discussion

This section is divided into three parts, corresponding to the following research questions: 1. What linguistic strategies are used by the companies to communicate their

sustainability profile?

2. What are the differences and similarities in the sustainable discourse of the two companies?

3. How do the companies’ sustainability goals relate to those established by the UN SDGs?

The critical discourse analysis has been carried out through a thematic analysis of Procter & Gamble and Unilever web pages concerning water, plastic and deforestation with the purpose to organize the presentation of the data. The identification of the themes is based on a selection of the companies’ themes that I judged more suitable for the comparison. Finally, each section starts with Procter & Gamble and is followed by Unilever.


4.1 Linguistic strategies

Neither company’s web pages provided a definition of sustainability. They are assuming that consumers know what sustainability is about and leave them to understand what the companies mean. Procter & Gamble and Unilever’s communication strategy is to explain the background of the issues they want to address in each theme used in the study and then show the actions they take to diminish their impact on the environment.

4.1.1 Water

The themes concerning water identified in Procter & Gamble’s web page are the following: Role of water

1. ‘[w]ater is vital resource’ (P&G n.d.).

2. ‘[a]t P&G, water is of crucial importance’ (P&G n.d.).

3. ‘provide safe drinking water in the developing world’ (P&G n.d.).

Through the utilization of the linguistic tools such as predication, water has been given characteristics using adjectives with the implicit meaning of being essential, which explains why the company protects it. Whereas example number 3 relates to the aspect of safety, which is necessary otherwise the water is undrinkable.


1. ‘Water […] must be preserved, conserved and shared to build healthy communities’ (P&G n.d.).

2. ‘responsible use by both our Company and the consumers’ (P&G n.d.).

3. ‘Thus we are committed to water efficiency and sustainable use of water by our operations […]’ (P&G n.d.).

The lexical analysis of the verbs and nouns show that water usage is connected with protection, for example when it says preserved, conserved. By saying so the company expresses to the consumers its understanding of the importance to protect water. According to Witkowska (2016), the company is doing it for the social good. Examples 2 and 3 demonstrate sustainable consumption of natural resources, but the responsible use is not clearly explained and it is too vague to understand what concrete measures Procter & Gamble will take.


1. ‘use of new technologies, product innovation using lifecycle approach’ (P&G n.d.). 2. ‘We will also seek innovative ways to reduce water use by our consumers’ (P&G n.d.). The utilization of new technologies and product innovation is indeed among the possible solutions to effectively decrease water consumption, as mentioned in Munier’s (2005) sustainability theory. In this case, the consumers get a glimpse of the company’s intentions,


marked by the pronoun we, but without concrete examples to understand what do they consist of. The use of modality in example 2 emphasizes the company’s intention to apply innovation as a way to reduce water usage, but consumers lack information on the innovative ways and they are left wondering what those innovative ways consist of.

Regarding Unilever’s discourse on water the following themes have been found: Usage

1. ‘We rely on water to run our business – from growing crops, to operating our factories’ (Unilever n.d.).

2. ‘agricultural water use makes up approximately 15% of our footprint’ (Unilever n.d.). 3. ‘most water is used for laundry, showering, bathing, and washing hair with our

products’ (Unilever n.d.).

The lexical analysis of nouns shows concrete examples of the areas where water usage is happening, namely, growing crops, laundry or showering. The attention is directed towards the consumers and farmers. So, it is not anymore Unilever’s fault if there is excessive water usage. The percentage shared in example 2 is tangible and gives the consumers an indication of the order of magnitude of the footprint.


1. ‘it is important for us to measure our water footprint to track our progress towards halving our water impact by 2020’ (Unilever n.d.).

2. ‘we assessed the water used to produce our main agricultural raw material’ (Unilever n.d.).

3. ‘We calculate our water impact annually’ (Unilever n.d.).

The lexical analysis of verbs shows that the strategy adopted by Unilever to reduce their impact on water usage is to measure their water footprint, they assessed their water usage, and

calculate their annual water impact. Unilever wants to demonstrate to consumers their interest

for the issue by addressing their water usage through a transparent discourse. The transparency is achieved thanks to the tracking of their usage.


1. ‘consumers used around 7.1 billion m3 of water when using our products’ (Unilever n.d.).

2. ‘our biggest water use – over 99% – occurs when consumers use our products’ (Unilever n.d.).


The narrative in the examples points to the consumers as the main factor in water consumption, so the attention is diverted from the company as they state that they are responsible for only 1% of its consumption, hence they are not as much to blame. It has to be noted that it is unclear what this percentage represents in regards of m3 of water. Thus, it is too vague to understand the company’s usage.


1. ‘So we are developing innovative water-smart products – that is, products that use less water. For example, our Rin and Sunlight SmartFoam fast-rinse laundry detergents’ (Unilever n.d.).

2. ‘our Love Beauty and Planet range, which uses fast-rinse technology in its conditioners, are helping people to use less water as they require less water to work effectively’ (Unilever n.d.).

The lexical analysis in terms of nouns demonstrates that Unilever uses innovation that created a new kind of products with features such as water-smart products and fast-rinse. The solution to diminish Unilever’s impact on water usage is thus in line with Munier’s (2005) theory on resources consumption.

4.1.2 Plastic

The themes identified in Procter & Gamble’s web page concerning plastic are the following: Temporal aspect

1. ‘P&G will reduce global use of virgin petroleum plastic in our packaging by 50% by 2030’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

2. ‘P&G brands are making our packages with a next life in mind and continuously innovating with recycled plastic (PCR) to reduce our environmental footprint’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

The terms by 2030, next life in mind and the adverb continuously indicate the intention to improve the actual situation through a long-term plan, which is made especially pertinent with the presence of the modal verb will in example 1. What the company seeks to convey is that ‘[t]he present is always presented as the sum of the consequences of the past and the necessary platform for the emergence of the future’ (Harré et al 1999:7). In short, by the time the company reaches the deadline they set themselves, they can demonstrate the significant changes in their plastic footprint. The use of the preposition by in example 1 is indeed the indicator of the deadline.



2. ‘increasing recycled content’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.). 3. ‘using alternative materials’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

4. ‘more concentrated product forms (eg. Tide Pods) ’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

Procter & Gamble’s solution to reducing plastic in the packaging is by working on the material itself. The lexical analysis shows that the improvements happens in three areas. First, the company changed the plastic weight. It has become light weight. Second, they changed the nature of the material. It is composed of recycled and alternative materials. Third, they worked on the design. It has a concentrated form. Procter & Gamble’s discourse centres only around the issue of waste management. They are aware of their impact on the environment, but they do not mention the aspect of contamination developed by Munier (2005).

In Unilever’s approach to their plastic footprint, the following themes have emerged. Plastic type

1. ‘100% of our plastic packaging will be designed to be fully reusable, recyclable or composable by 2025’ (Unilever n.d.).

2. ‘Halve the amount of virgin plastic we use in our packaging’ (Unilever n.d.). 3. ‘We are moving away from using single-use plastic packaging’ (Unilever n.d.).

4. ‘we created the bottles from 80% recycled plastic bottles, and 20% reclaimed ocean plastic’ (Unilever n.d.).

Throughout the text, plastic is referenced in specific ways. The linguistic tool of predication allows the researcher to investigate the adjectives that describe the plastic’s characteristics. For instance, recyclable, composable and virgin plastic are linked to the type of plastic used. The words single-use and reusable are related to the plastic utilization and reclaimed ocean plastic gives the consumer an idea of the plastic provenance. The adjectives associated with plastic lead the consumer to explicitly understand that there are several methods participating in the company’s efforts to decrease the presence of plastic in the packaging. In addition, they are managing the waste thanks to recycling, as seen in Munier’s (2005) set of possible solutions in waste management.


1. ‘Omo laundry detergent brand in Brazil, with a formula at six times the concentration of the original […] This has reduced the volume of plastic used by 75%’ (Unilever n.d.) 2. ‘Lightweighting initiatives in our skin care product packaging […] reduced plastic


3. ‘Through using rPET, Omo EcoActive is predicted to save the equivalent of 7 million tonnes of single-use plastic bags from entering the environment each year’ (Unilever n.d.)

Thanks to innovation, Unilever expects to reduce plastic usage by making an effort in three aspects. First, the product. The formula has been improved and its concentration has had an impact on the volume of plastic production. Second, the weight. As the material is of a

lightweight kind, the content of the plastic in the bottles could be reduced. Third, the material.

By using recycled PET (rPET) in their packaging, they avoid environmental pollution through single-use plastic packaging. Thus, Unilever’s initiatives diminish the contamination of the environment through innovative technologies, conforming to Munier’s (2005) suggestions to avoid contamination.

4.1.3 Deforestation

Procter & Gamble uses wood pulp for their tissues and absorbent hygiene products. The company specified that they do not own or manage the forests. As a consequence, they have to control the procurement practices to protect the forest resources. The themes identified in Procter & Gamble web page are the following:


1. ‘wood fiber obtained from converted forest lands’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

2. ‘Ensuring that there is no sourcing from genetically modified trees’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

3. ‘trees are not harvested from high-conservation-value forests’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.). The lexical analysis of the verbs used to talk about traceability are obtained from, sourcing

from and harvested from. These verbs have the connotation of the wood’s origin and convey

the message of control over purchase. In addition, to protect the consumption of the resources, the company’s intention is to ensure that the trees’ harvest is not coming from

high-conservation-value forests. Authentication

1. ‘unwanted wood sources are avoided and that wood is legally harvested’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

2. ‘will collaborate with key stakeholders on increases in preferred certification schemes’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

3. ‘our supply chain is incorporating the principles of sustainable forest management’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).


The lexical analysis of the verbs and nouns shows that the ongoing efforts from the company to use a wood that is legally harvested, has a certification and that respects principles. Those standards are put in place by the company to demonstrate to the consumers the actions they take to protect the forest. In addition, Procter & Gamble portray themselves as following the existing legislations about wood purchase, but the noun principles is vague. Indeed, the consumers do not have all the information to judge the company’s commitment.

Features of the forest

1. ‘the sustainability of forest resources through responsible procurement practices’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

2. ‘to ensure sustainable forest management’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

3. ‘P&G requires the forest certification systems utilized by our wood pulp suppliers adhere to the following criteria’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

4. ‘obtained from converted forest lands where HCV are present have been protected’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.).

With the help of predication, it can be noted that the forest is referenced in different ways. Indeed, it is presented as forest resources, the forest is an asset. Also mentioned are forest

management, the forest needs control, forest certification, the forest has to be authenticated,

and forest lands, the forest is a territory. All these notions have developed the narrative of the different criteria that Procter & Gamble has put in place for the protection of the forests and the explicit message of a responsible wood utilization.

When looking at Unilever, their aim to stop deforestation is through what they call the ‘zero net deforestation’ (Unilever n.d.). They selected three themes to focus on in order to achieve their objective. First, the transformation of their supply chain. Second, improving the agricultural practices. Third, getting political involvement.

Supply chain

1. ‘we believe that transparency helps us to build a more sustainable supply chain’ (Unilever n.d.).

2. ‘making sure the palm oil, soy, paper and board, and tea we buy is both traceable and certified as sustainable’ (Unilever n.d.).

The lexical analysis of nouns shows that to avoid deforestation Unilever’s supply chain relies on transparency, traceability and certification. Those measure will thus guarantee that they operate within the law. Because the company is a big buyer, they ‘want to use this purchasing power to transform these sectors’ (Unilever n.d.). Their purchasing power can have a concrete


Agricultural practices

1. ‘We’re encouraging the entire industry – growers, traders, manufacturers and retailers – to set and meet high standards, extending beyond current certification schemes’ (Unilever n.d.).

2. ‘To protect against further losses, the Malaysian government wants to see all palm oil producers in the state achieve certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’ (Unilever n.d.).

3. ‘We are moving our agricultural commodity sourcing to areas with sustainable forest management’ (Unilever n.d.)

The lexical analysis of nouns about the improvement of the agricultural practices reveals the necessity of high standards, the creation of a certification and sourcing wood from areas where forests are managed in a sustainable way in order to stop large-scale deforestation. These efforts are in line with Munier’s (2005) solutions to diminish the resources’ consumption. Admittedly, the noun standards is vague, as the consumer lacks the knowledge about the official rules used when harvesting and manufacturing wood.

Political involvement

1. ‘ensuring that tackling deforestation gets the political attention and financial resources it needs’ (Unilever n.d.).

2. ‘we are focused on helping catalyse transformative change at the landscape or jurisdictional level in key regions of South-East Asia, South America, and West and Central Africa’ (Unilever n.d.).

3. ‘we have increased our work with industry partners, governments and NGOs, advocating for change across the entire tropical forest commodities sector’ (Unilever n.d.).

Political involvement is necessary. Indeed, governments have the responsibility to protect the forests, as they are the ones in charge of the territory. Lexically speaking, it can be noted that Unilever suggests that financial resources are a way to encourage, for example, farmers to apply sustainable agricultural practices. In addition, the forest protection is attained at the

jurisdictional level, because the laws put limits on the tree harvest. Unilever’s advocacy for

protecting the forests requires the support of not only their suppliers but also the governments, so everybody is aligned on effective measures on forest management. Unilever’s discourse about a sustainable forest management is developed around the message that they cannot achieve it on their own, but they need to associate themselves with others.


4.2 Differences and similarities

This section is divided in two parts to explain the differences and similarities identified between the web pages of Procter & Gamble and Unilever, as well as in the companies’ sustainability discourse strategies about the three themes namely water, plastic and deforestation.

4.2.1 The web pages

Procter & Gamble does not have a dedicated sustainability section. Instead sustainability appears inside the section ‘Our Impact’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.). The sustainability section contains the sustainability goals for 2030 and then it splits into four themes, as illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Procter & Gamble’s web page accessibility

Each of the four themes are explained briefly, but it is possible to get detailed content by clicking on any paragraph, which opens another page with short texts together with an image. It is thus, a multi-level structure. The web page accessibility was neither straightforward nor easy, because the information is distributed in different places.


Sustainability is called ‘Sustainable Living’ (Unilever n.d.), but the consumer can easily make the connection between the two terms. As my focus lies on the environment, I accessed the sub-section ‘Reducing environmental impact’ (Unilever n.d.), which had another level of sections, each of which had itself other sections. The subject is thus organised comprehensively, but at the same time there are too many choices. Lastly, the content is mainly long texts, sometimes with graphs.

Procter & Gamble’s strategy is to share the outline of their actions concerning sustainability with short texts that go straight to the point, although, the access to this information was not straightforward. Unilever, on the other hand, dedicated an extensive section to sustainability with long texts packed with a lot of information.

4.2.2 The themes


Each company has adopted a different strategy to address the water usage. Only measures for sustainable consumption of resources are mentioned, but there is nothing about Munier’s (2005) theory on waste management and contamination. Procter & Gamble focuses on water preservation and commits to a sustainable water management, thanks to new technologies and product innovation. By contrast, Unilever’s discourse is around measuring their water footprint. The reason behind this is to track their products’ impact and see the progress they are making each year. Similar to Procter & Gamble, they count on innovation to develop products that will use less water.


Concerning plastic, both companies mention recycled plastic as the main way to improve the issue around plastic packaging because, as explained by Munier (2005), it diminishes the waste it generates. Of course, this is not enough to solve the problem, so each company has also invested in new technologies. Procter & Gamble concentrates on improving the material, whereas Unilever improves not only the material, but also the products’ formula, so the concentrated liquid needs a smaller bottle.


Procter & Gamble’s deforestation discourse was about tracking the provenance of wood and being transparent about their sourcing. Furthermore, they want to reassure the consumer that the company buys wood that is not only certified but also legally harvested. Together, these measures ensure a sustainable forest management. Unilever refers to similar measures to protect the forest, such as buying traceable and certified goods and being transparent about the wood’s origins. Where the company differs from Procter & Gamble is that in their steps to


eliminate deforestation, they are collaborating with governments and NGOs, which has a bigger impact on local communities, due to laws enforcing sustainable farming practices. This guarantees the development of the population and at the same time preserves the environment.

4.3 The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

In this section, I consider the discourse around each company’s sustainability goals and their relation to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN has a list of seventeen goals, summarized in Figure 5.

Figure 5. UN SDGs

In addition to a lexical analysis, Fairclough’s (2015) concept of intertextuality is used in the investigation.

Procter & Gamble calls their plan ‘Ambition 2030 Environmental Sustainability Goals’

(Procter & Gamble n.d). Starting with the title, there is a strong focus on achieving the sustainable goals, which is expressed through the word ambition. Indeed, according to the dictionary ambition connotes a ‘determination to succeed, excel, or prosper; drive’ (Oxford English Dictionary n.d.). In addition, there is a similarity in naming the goals between Procter & Gamble and the UN, although Procter & Gamble centres its attention on the environment. The UN goals have a broader scope, as they include the idea of sustainable development for the society by ‘ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests’ (DSDG 2015). The efforts to


limit the company’s impact on the environment is focused on four themes that are selected by Procter & Gamble and discussed below.

Brands The company expects from its most important brands to integrate a plan that measures their

social and environmental impact. The company’s goal is to ‘enable and inspire responsible consumption’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.). The discourse is connected to UN SDG number twelve, which says ‘[e]nsure sustainable consumption and production patterns’ (DSDG 2015). The lexical analysis of the verbs shows that enable and inspire used by Procter & Gamble are not as strong as ensure in the SDG. Compared to ensure, the other verbs do not transmit the sense of effectiveness into the measures. Despite that, Procter & Gamble has, in Fairclough’s (2015) term, ‘assimilated’ the UN SDG, as it respects the essence of the UN SDG.

The supply chain Tissue towels and the absorbent hygiene products contain wood pulp. The policies already in place guarantee a responsible sourcing of the material, but by 2030 Procter & Gamble ‘will protect and enhance the forests we depend upon’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.). In comparison, UN SDG number fifteen states that one has to ‘[p]rotect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification […]’ (DSDG 2015). The aspect of protection is not rephrased by Procter & Gamble, but the enhancement of the forests differs from a sustainable forest management, because improving the quality of the wood varies from responsible use. Thus, as per Fairclough’s (2015) terminology, Procter &

Gamble takes ‘snatches’ of the forest protection idea present in UN SDG number fifteen. Society

Procter & Gamble wants to collaborate with municipalities and getting the consumers engaged to avoid plastic bottles polluting the environment. Their goal is to ‘find solutions so no P&G packaging will find its way to the ocean’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.), which corresponds to UN SDG number fourteen, which mentions that people have to ‘[c]onserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ (DSDG 2015). Saying that they find solutions to protect the oceans gives a positive connotation to Procter & Gamble’s goal. Indeed, if they had mentioned conservation like in the UN SDG, this would give a negative sense, because it means ‘to preserve (a condition, institution, privilege, etc.) intact’ (Oxford English Dictionary n.d.). This might have induced in the consumer the feeling that before this goal was established the ocean was damaged, i.e. in contrast with the word intact. Still, Procter & Gamble’s goal ‘assimilates’, as per Fairclough’s (2015) term, the UN SDG.



The company counts on its employees to have in mind sustainability when putting in place the business plans, so they help the company to meet the goal. To succeed, Procter & Gamble ‘will integrate social and environmental sustainability as a key strategy in our business plans’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.). This goal does not match with any of the UN SDGs, because Procter & Gamble’s goal focuses on their business plan. The link with the spirit of the UN SDGs lies in the company’s respect for ‘[a] world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources […] are sustainable’ (DSDG 2015). Thus, this theme concerning the employees is specific to Procter & Gamble.

In conclusion, to use Fairclough’s (2015) term, Procter & Gamble has ‘assimilated’ UN SDGs numbers twelve, fifteen and fourteen by planning to achieve a sustainable consumption, protecting the forests and conserving the oceans from plastic bottles.

With regard to Unilever, they ‘believe that business growth should not be at the expense of people and the planet’ (Unilever n.d.). They launched the ‘Unilever Sustainable Living Plan’ (Unilever n.d.), which aligns with the UN SDGs. By giving it this name, the company is setting broad goals in their plan, which is intentional. In fact, they admit the need for ‘transformational change to whole systems if we are to make a genuine difference on the issues that matter’ (Unilever n.d.). In practice, Unilever has selected three important goals supporting the UN SDGs, which are presented below.

Health improvement and well-being for more than one billion people

According to Unilever, they want to fight obesity by having products that meet high nutritional standards in their portfolio, so people can eat healthy food. In fact, their goal consists of ‘selling appealing products with health, hygiene and nutrition benefits’ (Unilever n.d.), which relates to UN SDG number two recommending to ‘[e]nd hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’ (DSDG 2015). Lexically speaking, the notion of

nutrition benefits is linked to the UN SDG’s improved nutrition. Indeed, a benefit is an

advantage and what is improved is something ‘made better’ (Oxford English Dictionary n.d.). As per Richardson’s (2007) concept on the role of words, the chosen nouns give to the nutrition the connotation of something healthy. Thus, to use Fairclough’s (2015) term, Unilever’s goal ‘assimilates’ the UN SDG on the aspects they choose to address, as they do not mention ending hunger or promoting a sustainable agriculture.

Reducing environmental impact by half


more and use less water and less energy through producing products with a lower environmental impact’ (Unilever n.d.). As per UN SDG number twelve, one has to ‘[e]nsure sustainable consumption and production patterns’ (DSDG 2015). The concept of a sustainable

consumption stated by the UN is not specific. So, Unilever’s willingness to encourage the

recycling and decrease the utilization of water and energy fits the UN’s description. According to Munier, those are the kind of measures that participate in the ‘protection of the environment so all can enjoy nature and its biodiversity’ (2005:14). Similarly, a sustainable production is guaranteed by Unilever by enforcing production with a low environmental impact, which echoes what the UN wrote. Thus, Unilever fully ‘assimilates’, as per Fairclough’s (2015) term, the UN SDG.

Enhancing livelihoods for millions

Unilever explains that they collaborate with farmers, distributors and retailers in many countries, including emerging markets, and it is important for the company to contribute to their suppliers’ growth and to have a positive social impact. Their goal stipulates that they ‘develop an inclusive business – by improving the livelihoods of 500,000 smallholder farmers and the income of 5.5 million small-scale retailers’ (Unilever n.d.). When looking at the UN SDGs, goal number nine specifies that one has to ‘[b]uild resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation’ (DSDG 2015). Using Fairclough’s (2015) term, Unilever has thus, ‘assimilated’ the idea of inclusiveness, which consists of ‘accommodating participation from all sections of society’ (Oxford English Dictionary n.d.). In the case of Unilever, their focus is on supporting the small-scale businesses to guarantee the farmers a good standard of living.

It can be concluded that Unilever’s goals are linked to the UN SDGs numbers two, twelve and nine. The company aims to sell products with nutrition benefits, to promote a sustainable consumption and production patterns, and to develop inclusive businesses.

In both companies’ texts, Fairclough’s concept of intertextuality has been demonstrated. Although, the texts have articulated the elements from the UN SDGs in their own ways, in the sense that there is no direct quote of the UN SDGs, they have kept the essence of the goals. In addition, both companies’ goals have assimilated the texts from the UN SDGs and none has contradicted them. The difference between the companies’ texts and the UN SDGs is in terms of the structure. Indeed, the UN SDGs consists of numbered goals that look like articles in a declaration. Procter & Gamble and Unilever, on the other hand, incorporate their goals within an explanatory text.


When talking about water, plastic, and deforestation in the web page sections dedicated to those aspects, Procter & Gamble does not refer to the UN SDGs; they only appeared in their plan called ‘Ambition 2030 Environmental Sustainability Goals’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.). Unilever does imply that they support the UN SDGs by placing the logo of the goals they relate to in the text’s header, see Figure 6 marked with an orange arrow. By doing so, Unilever’s measures are legitimated.

Figure 6. Unilever water section

Both companies have a responsibility towards the society and ‘need to integrate, social, environmental and economic responsibility with everyday business operations and decision making’ (Witkowska 2016:29). Indeed, the companies’ communication is focused on their daily basis sustainable measures. Procter & Gamble has set goals to be reached by 2030, which allows them to ‘extend our commitments even further’ (Procter & Gamble n.d.). That might be a reason for separating the information on water, plastic and deforestation from their ‘Ambition 2030 Environmental Sustainability Goals’ plan (Procter & Gamble n.d.). Regarding Unilever, no motive has been found to separate the information.

5. Concluding remarks

This research analysed the sustainability discourse in the fast-moving consumer goods industry. Based on a qualitative data analysis of Procter & Gamble and Unilever’s official web pages, the results regarding the textual analysis revealed word choice vagueness concerning


companies. So, it was not always possible to grasp the measures taken by the companies. The contamination aspect was most of the time omitted. Indeed, the companies focused on the solutions that decreased their environmental footprint such as, water preservation thanks to a sustainable water management, recycling plastic and tracking the provenance of wood. The differences in the discourse is about the methods used to preserve the natural resources not in terms of linguistic strategies. For example, Unilever tracks its products’ impact to measure its water footprint. Finally, the companies’ web pages content about the sustainability goals referred to elements from the UN SDGs in their own ways, but both companies’ goals have assimilated the texts from the UN SDGs. Due to the limited scope of this paper, for future research, I propose to do a quantitative research and create a corpus of the sustainability discourse of several companies in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, which will allow to look at variables in the discourse. Lastly, the findings confirm the companies’ interest in sustainability due to the extensive data found in each web pages. In fact, the companies explained their efforts to protect the natural resources thanks to the establishment of green initiatives.



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Table 1. Fast-moving consumer goods companies ranked by net sales

Table 1.

Fast-moving consumer goods companies ranked by net sales p.11
Figure 1. Procter & Gamble sustainability section

Figure 1.

Procter & Gamble sustainability section p.12
Figure 2. Unilever sustainability section

Figure 2.

Unilever sustainability section p.12
Figure 3. Procter & Gamble’s web page accessibility

Figure 3.

Procter & Gamble’s web page accessibility p.21
Figure 5. UN SDGs

Figure 5.

UN SDGs p.23
Figure 6. Unilever water section

Figure 6.

Unilever water section p.27



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