Truus Huisman (Unilever) at the RSM Sustainability Forum 2016
Truus Huisman (Unilever) at the RSM Sustainability Forum 2016

Investing in the social aspect of sustainability makes a solid business case, according to Truus Huisman, vice-president of sustainable business and communications for Unilever Europe. But to be successful it requires attention to economic and environmental sustainability as well as social sustainability. Huisman's comments were part of her keynote address at the 2016 Sustainability Forum hosted by Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) on 15 April.

The event, titled 'The Social Face of Sustainability', attracted around 200 executives and students to the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship in the Rotterdam Science Tower, and took a closer look at the social aspect of sustainable business, one of the three factors that define sustainability.

Participants learned what constitutes the social face of sustainable business and the business case for endorsing it during breakout session presentations led by practitioners from a variety of international organisations including Samsung, Enviu, Except, ABN AMRO, Ahold, Ernst & Young, Delta Lloyd and Robeco. The event was moderated by Muriel Arts, co-founder and director of the Flow Foundation.

Sustainable brands at Unilever

Huisman has been instrumental in developing Unilever's sustainability policy over the past 13 years and said Unilever had its roots in social sustainability. “Improving nutrition and hygiene were the driving forces behind the company's first products,” she said, and the company wanted to reduce the huge number of people still suffering malnutrition. Unilever recently topped an annual ranking of food companies by Oxfam for human rights, and considers the 'social' aspect of sustainability as a fundamental part of its strategy.

“For us, the business case is clear: sustainable brands are more popular, greater efficiencies reduce costs, long-term sustainable relationships with our suppliers reduce risks, and sustainability improves our reputation – we have been named the third most favourable company to work for after Apple and Google. This is our business case for our 'sustainable living initiative',” said Huisman. Unilever was the first to publish a human rights report last year and is now sourcing all raw materials from sustainable agriculture. She described the company’s decision to phase out a relationship with the biggest palm oil supplier in the world as a 'very uncomfortable decision'. “When you put into practice responsible sourcing it has huge knock-on effects, and may mean not meeting targets,” she said. “But we have done it.”

KPMG awards top master's thesis

This year's RSM Sustainability Forum marked the tenth anniversary of the KPMG-RSM Sustainability Master Thesis Award. Jan van den Herik, Director Strategy & Innovation KPMG presented the top award, including a €1000 prize, to Tirza Voss, with the runner-up award, including a €500 prize, to Nadine Kooiker.

Breakout sessions

Six parallel breakout sessions, hosted by experts in sustainable business, followed the award ceremony. Participants engaged in solving a variety of case studies relating to a range of issues including how organisation's fostered employee well-being, procured socially responsible products, financed social-welfare projects, strategised for socially-driven competitive advantage, and innovated for humane working practices.

Innovative information sharing

A pub quiz based on international development and sustainable business provided an entertaining and thought-provoking conclusion to the event; it was hosted by Siri Lijfering and Shahrzad Nourozi from IDleaks. The quiz sparked debate around the room that continued long after the quiz had ended.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Erika Harriford-McLaren, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at

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