Guest editor Amanda Sourry, chairman of Unilever UK & Ireland, on sustainability, reformulating Flora, and the job losses in Wales

After 17 years in the US heading Unilever’s food business and as head of the global spread & dressings category, how does being UK boss compare? One of the fantastic things about Unilever is a very consistent set of values. There are differences in the culture but the values are the same.

What do you enjoy most? I’m a consumer marketeer at heart. I love brands and I’m fortunate to have an amazing portfolio.

How have you changed the business? I’m fortunate to have taken over after the business had already turned the corner in terms of growth. I’ve been concentrating on making sure we retain momentum, growing categories and growing our market share.

What are your proudest achievements? We’ve got 19 quarters of consecutive growth behind us. We’re a business that has global growth but also growth in the UK, in spite of a very challenging economic situation.

You’ve clearly had huge success with Marmite. How did Maa’mite go down and what are your hopes for the gold Christmas version? You’ve got to love it! It’s truly one of the most iconic brands and we’ve been able to demonstrate how you can keep old brands aligned to the consumer.

As chairman, how far removed are you from strategic decisions like this? I’m sure if you ask our teams they would say I was into the detail but I really do try to be an enabling leader. The Marmite team, for example, is really empowered to run its own business.

Two years ago, Unilever launched its Sustainable Living Plan, which set out to double the size of the business globally and at the same time halve its environmental impact. Is it working? We have Unilever brands in nine out of 10 households and with that comes responsibility. We have had success across all the main pillars of the plan. On the environmental front we’ve reduced energy and water use and now send zero non-hazardous waste to landfill.

Consumers use a Unilever product more than two billion times a day. How do you get consumers to be greener? This is the business opportunity. The reality is that 30% of environmental impact is in our direct control, and 70% through consumer use. So one of our biggest priorities is waste. The average family is throwing out £700 of food waste a year. With brands like Colman’s, Hellmann’s and Knorr, we’ve been encouraging consumers to use leftovers.

Which is your most green product in terms of innovation? Persil Small & Mighty has been a tremendous success and a very good example of how you can grow your business but also improve the environment.

The Lib Dems have accused the Tories of blocking the “green” economy. Do you believe the coalition has lived up to its promise to be the “greenest ever”? We believe that not only is green growth possible, it’s the ONLY route to growth. It’s a responsibility for businesses to be sustainable but it’s important there is clarity and consistency from the government.

What are the potential rewards for suppliers helping Unilever meet its sustainability targets? If our suppliers help drive our sustainability agenda by coming up with ideas that reduce our environmental impact, then they will get more business from us.

You recently launched a teabag recycling initiative with two county councils - how is this going? It’s a good example of how we work with a variety of stakeholders but there is an opportunity to look at national opportunities. Waste is one of the most critical issues we face.

You are struggling with salt reduction, with Unilever reporting that just five out of 14 products under your pledges have hit the government’s target for 2012, and 30% expected to not hit them by the end of the year? What’s going wrong? It’s technically very challenging and we’re going at the pace that the technology and - perhaps most importantly - the customer preference will allow. We’re going at the right pace but are we committed? Yes we are.

The relaunch of Flora sparked a backlash from consumers who didn’t like the new taste. How have you coped with that? We relaunched Flora with lower overall fat, fewer calories, lower sat fat and improved taste. It’s always a risk, when you reformulate much loved and trusted brands, that you will have a minority that doesn’t like it, but what consumers told us was that they liked the new taste and they also welcomed a product better for their cardiovascular health.

Ben & Jerry’s claims over dairy welfare were launched with a big fanfare but some say they needed more factual teeth, not Joanna Lumley? It’s important that brands have a point of view. Ben & Jerry’s has a point of view. It’s a brand that has led the way in sustainability and that fundamentally has sustainability at its core.

Last week we broke the news of a new study casting doubt over the safety of GM foods. How do you feel about GM and its role in sustainability? It’s patently obvious that we need to find new technologies to embrace the sustainability agenda but we have to ensure they are based on rigorous science.

You have been very involved with the IGD policy group that spearheaded the recent Feeding Britain’s Future - Skills for Work Week. Is this just a gimmick? It’s a great opportunity to share our industry with young people. We’re the largest employment sector in the country and do need to be tackling the serious issue of youth employment.

Company CEOs who were at No 10 to discuss this initiative spoke of hopes for a closer relationship on growth with the government. Do you think this approach will work? IGD has had tremendous success in sustainability, such as the huge achievement of taking 200 million miles of delivery journeys off the road, but this was the first initiative on the issue of employment and I’m very encouraged by it.

What do you make of the new food manufacturing degree course and centre of excellence coming to Sheffield? We have to have the right skills base and initiatives like this are very relevant. It’s important, too, that as a company, we create the right opportunities to allow young people to realise their potential.

You recently rubber-stamped a major UK restructure. Unilever says Port Sunlight will benefit from a £40m investment and 150 new jobs that “could see it become an unrivalled multifunctional hub”. Unions say the hundreds of job losses at closed down factories in Wales are “devastating”. Who’s right? This gives us the opportunity to have world-class manufacturing, R&D and IT in one location. But there are difficult human consequences. It’s good news for jobs in the North West but obviously there are implications for the individuals affected. We are committed to treating them with dignity and respect.

Many IT jobs will head to Bangalore. How can you justify this? We have to recognise we’re a global business and have to make the right decisions at a global level. That said, the majority of the roles that are being created are at Port Sunlight. Bangalore is an existing centre.

Jan Zijderveld, your European president, said “poverty has returned to Europe”, with the company even producing mini versions of its products like Surf. Has this reached the UK? Yes, we have been ensuring we have smaller formats available for many of our key products, including Surf.