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Ana Palencia (Unilever): “Our goal is to create an awareness of sustainability among our employees, consumers, customers and society to create a better future for everyone.”

Ana Palencia (Unilever): “Our goal is to create an awareness of sustainability among our employees, consumers, customers and society to create a better future for everyone.”

  • April 15, 2021

Ana Palencia is the Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility Director at Unilever, considered the best consumer company to work for in Spain according to Forbes magazine, based on the opinions of more than 8,000 employees of the largest companies in all sectors in Spain. Unilever is present in more than 190 countries (in 44 of which it is considered as the employer of choice) and it has almost 400 brands. What’s the secret of your success? Ana tells us all about it below.

 

If you had to highlight just one of the advantages of working at Unilever, what would it be?

That it is a purpose-driven company, which promotes a sustainable lifestyle in the daily lives of everyone (employees, customers and society), and through its values: respect, responsibility, integrity and pioneering spirit.

What is it that most attracts new candidates?

The company’s commitment to working each day to create a better future, and its clear sustainability agenda, with goals and commitments in health & well-being, the environment and quality of life. All of this is integrated into the business agenda; to do well by doing good.

Almost 2 months have passed since you started implementing the 4-day working week in New Zealand. What results are you getting?

That’s right, it’s a small pilot project in a country with only 80 people working in the headquarters in which it is being carried out. The results won’t be known until December 2021 and decisions will be made based on them, which may or may not be replicable in other countries around the world.

Would such a measure be effective in our country?

We advocate a culture that we call “agile working”, which is based on self-organisation and personal management so that each employee can achieve their goals by working in the place that best facilitates their well-being, whether in the office or at home working remotely. At the moment, bearing in mind our country’s culture, I think that we are a long way off considering such a measure in Spain.

What are your main challenges in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility?

Our challenges are common to the goals of the whole planet, as we defined the CSR agenda, specifically to be able to respond to the great challenges facing the world and which we believe are very well-defined in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In order to contribute to each of these goals, we carry out initiatives linked to each of our mission-driven brands to help us achieve them. Personally, I like SDG17, the one on strategic partnerships, because I believe that combining our efforts under the same goal is the most effective thing, we can do to be able to achieve the goal in question. In any case, at the company level, we consider that the 2 major challenges are climate change and global inequality, which have been accentuated with the current pandemic.

One of your goals is to become the most sustainable company in the world. How can you face this challenge on an individual basis? Is it achievable or is it utopian?

We believe it is achievable when sustainability is fully integrated into the business agenda; there is no other way to do it in our opinion.

For personal care products, we were considered a leader in the S&P Dow Jones Sustainability Index, scoring 90/100 in 27 of the environmental, social and governance criteria. This index is a key tool for investors who recognise that responsible business practices are critical when it comes to generating long-term value for their shareholders.

People are key for us to become the world’s most sustainable company, especially for a large consumer goods company such as Unilever, present in 2 billion households every day worldwide. Our goal is to create an awareness of sustainability among our employees, consumers, customers and society to achieve this sustainable movement that will help create a better future for everyone.

How can a company contribute to a better world?

By understanding the world’s major challenges and taking action; not just talking about what we want to do, but doing it. We are currently starting to take action; we’ve been saying what we are going to do for some time now. Each action should have a clear objective and a measurement indicator to show how it is progressing. Through our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan that we created in 2010, we are committed to achieving 3 major goals: to help improve the lives of 1 billion people through health and well-being, to halve the environmental impact of our products and to ensure that 100% of our raw materials are from sustainable agriculture. It has been in place for 10 years now and we have already achieved 80% of the goals we set ourselves.

Is it possible to connect social sustainability and business growth?

According to our business model it is, absolutely. Purpose-driven brands grow almost twice as fast as those without it, and already contribute almost 70% to business growth. It also enables us to make significant cost savings and to be rated as the number one employer brand in the vast majority of countries in which Unilever operates.

You have been with Unilever for almost 20 years. Have the expectations you had on your first day been met?

I’d say they have been met, and then some. I have a degree in chemical sciences. I started working in the research and development department and I have had a career path which I am very proud of because I still keep learning every day. After 12 years had passed since joining Unilever, in 2006, I went on to lead the corporate communication and sustainability department, where I am fortunate to be able to carry out and experience my life’s purpose every day: the passion to build a better future each day; and most importantly, always surrounded by a great team of people and excellent professionals.

If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give yourself for that first day?

To maintain the same humility, humour and honesty which I started with on that day. Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything, I’d just want me to be myself and continue to offer the best version of myself every day as if it were my first day in the company, something which I still do after almost 27 years working in this great company. I love to feel that I still have blue blood on a daily basis, and not because I am a princess, but because I feel Unilever’s blue colour.

Tell us a question you have never been asked, but would love to be asked, with regard to people.

I have had the good fortune to be surrounded by wonderful people who have never ceased to surprise me professionally and personally, and after half a century of life, I feel very contented; although I am always ready to be surprised.

 

Be yourself

  • What did you want to be when you were little? A classic at that time: a teacher. I thought it was a great way to always be surrounded by people and share knowledge.
  • What is your favourite book? There are several, but one of the ones I liked the most and which, in fact, I ended up giving as a gift on behalf of the company to all the employees one year for Sant Jordi (St George’s Day in Catalonia), was The Kite Runner by a writer of Afghan origin: Khaled Hosseini.
  • Do you follow any TV series? At the moment I’m watching Patria on HBO
  • Which film would you recommend? I really like French comedies. Untouchable is now eight years old, it is hard, but at the same time tender, because it minimises pain and has great touches of humour.
  • What is your biggest hobby? Spending time with my family and friends by the sea, walking, talking, reading…
  • And what about your greatest virtue? It shouldn’t be for me to say, but I think humility.
  • For a holiday, which do you prefer, the beach or the mountains? The sea, hands down. I need it, it fills me with positive energy and brings colourful light into my life.
  • What do you still have to learn? Millions of things, as long as I want to learn each day it means I am still alive.
  • What do you most value in your day-to-day life? The time having dinner with my family on workdays, telling one another about our day and taking care of one another to end the day.
  • A phrase that defines you. Love is paid back with love.
  • What’s your favourite dish? A good Spanish omelette with onions.
  • The day hasn’t really started for you until… Lluis, my husband, gives me his first kiss and hug of the day. He tries to do it early so that I am ready to face the day.
  • If you had to put on music, you would choose a song by…It depends on the moment. Just now I was listening to “Si tú no estás aquí” by Rosana. You can steal my heart with any romantic song, which I enjoy listening to at any time. Some more are: “A te” by Jovanotti, “Quem Me Dera” by Mariza, “She” by Elvis Costello, “No se tú” by Luis Miguel… Although the two that I repeat the most are “Always on my mind” by Elvis Presley and “My way” by Frank Sinatra.
  • A city that you find captivating. Positano, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

 

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