Canadian Packaging

A heavyweight clash of cultures

Canadian Packaging editor George Guidoni provides insight on the swing-and-a-miss hostile takeover attempt by Kraft Heniz against Unilever.


April 10, 2017
by George Guidoni, Editor, Canadian Packaging

It may have been the deal of the decade in the global food industry, but last month’s failed US$143-billion hostile takeover bid launched by Kraft Heinz to acquire Anglo-Dutch CPG (consumer packaged goods) rival Unilever is unlikely to go down in corporate history as an epic case of missed opportunity for either side.

Although there is no telling if Unilever’s swift “thanks but no thanks” refusal to accept the offer is the end of the story—given Kraft Heinz’s seemingly endless appetite for game-changing megamergers—it’s safe to say there are thousands of Unilever employees all over the world sleeping better at night in the knowledge that their jobs are relatively safe for time being.

Having developed a fierce and fearsome reputation for massive job cuts, heartless plant closures and relentless penny-pinching across all of its business units, Kraft Heinz has undoubtedly become the proverbial Big Bad Wolf of the global CPG business, devoid of sentiment or moral obligation to any cause higher than fattening its bottom line.

And while it would be a stretch to paint Unilever as a model of selfless altruism and social philanthropy, there is no denying a huge gap in the two companies’ respective corporate cultures—especially when it comes to environmental sustainability.

Primarily controlled by investment magnate Warren Buffett and Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital, Kraft Heinz is one of a very few large multinationals that does not even bother with producing a corporate sustainability report, which seems like a an arrogant omission for a company with a massive global environmental footprint.

In contrast, Unilever practically wrote the book on environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility—namely the Unilever Sustainability Living Plan—hailing the virtues of a gentler, kinder and softer capitalism “with a human face” that sees clean environment and happy consumers as partners in the company’s quest for continued growth, rather than annoying obstacles and roadblocks to it.

Aiming to cut Unilever’s environmental impact in half by 2020 from 2008 levels and to improve the lives of one billion people worldwide, the plan often reads like it was penned by Greenpeace or a human rights institute, rather than a corporate heavyweight with serious financial obligations to its shareholders.

And full credit to Unilever shareholders for buying into this humane corporate vision relentlessly championed by the company’ charismatic chief executive officer Paul Polman, who only a few weeks ago publicly reasserted Unilever’s commitment to making all of its plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

“Our plastic packaging plays a critical role in making our products appealing, safe and enjoyable for our consumers,” Polman stated. “Yet it is clear that if we want to continue to reap the benefits of this versatile material, we need to do much more as an industry to help ensure it is managed responsibly and efficiently for post-consumer use.

“To address the challenge of ocean plastic waste we need to work on systemic solutions—ones which stop plastics entering our waterways in the first place,” Polman said, pledging Unilever’s commitment to developing and sharing a practical technical solution to recycle multilayered sachets, particularly for coastal areas most likely to allow plastics to leak into the ocean.

“We hope these commitments will encourage others in the industry to make collective progress towards ensuring that all of our plastic packaging is fully recyclable and recycled,” he said.

For our part, we would hope to see Kraft Heinz be sufficiently encouraged to do the same, but something tells us not to hold our breath, at least for the time being.

This editorial can be found in the March 2017 magazine edition of Canadian Packaging.