What Everyone Missed in the Unilever/Seventh Generation Deal


Just one business day after I wrote Can Purpose Be Acquired?, which keyed off Unilever’s purchase of Dollar Shave Club and its possible acquisition of The Honest Company, another shoe dropped: Unilever acquired Seventh Generation, for a reported $700mm. But a funny thing was missed in nearly all the business reporting around the deal: Like Ben & Jerry’s before it, Seventh Generation negotiated an unusual clause in its deal that insured Unilever would maintain and protect Seventh Generation’s core mission and purpose.

It’s not like either party was hiding the fact: Seventh Generation’s CEO posted a note about the arrangement, and the company confirmed the details of the deal to me the day it was announced. But for the most part, coverage of the deal focused on how the acquisition positions Unilever to compete with its nemesis P&G in various product categories, or how Unilever has “gone green.”

Don’t tell Unilever CEO Paul Polman or CMO Keith Weed that Unilever all of a sudden “went green,” this is the company that ranks #1 on Dow Jones’ sustainability index, and has pivoted its core brand to be “the trustmark of sustainable living.” Unilever understands that otherwise undifferentiated consumer packaged goods must ladder to more than brighter whites or more absorbent diapers. The company is positioning itself as the indisputable leader in an area its surging millennial customers are most concerned with: sustainability.

Any large company should be held up to scrutiny when it claims to be doing well by doing good. So it’s heartening to see that Unilever is doing more than changing the words on its packaging, it’s also legally requiring itself to stand by the missions of the purpose-driven companies it’s acquiring. That’s a point worth highlighting, and commending. It’s also good business — if you’re the founder of a purpose-driven company and find yourself in the fortunate position of deciding between multiple bids from a host of BigCos, the one that promises to protect your core mission is certainly going to win, all things being equal. Unilever is showing that purpose can be a business advantage, and that’s reason to cheer.

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