News - December 9, 2019

Is Unilever a good match for Wageningen?

Coretta Jongeling

On the day of the festive opening of the new Unilever building, criticism also resounded on campus regarding the newcomer. While Boerengroep and Otherwise organised a discussion meeting, Extinction Rebellion expressed its opinion by flash mob.

The flash mob of the Wageningen branch of Extinction Rebellion. Photo: Coretta Jongeling

Many students are worried about the intensive collaboration between Wageningen University and large multinationals such as Unilever. Can the university remain independent when much of the research is funded by these types of companies? The design of the new Unilever building was supposed to emanate ‘transparency’, but during the discussion meeting between Boerengroep and Otherwise, which attracted nearly a hundred students, the feeling prevailed that this clarity is hard to find. The fact that Louise Fresco held a secondary position at Unilever for a long time did not prove reassuring either.

Point of discussion
The sustainability of Unilever is another important point of discussion. Unilever is one of the largest buyers of palm oil in the world; a product that is not exactly known to be sustainable. And what about the company’s claim that it will double its profit while at the same time halving its CO2 emissions? According to the discussion leader, Unilever does not operate more sustainably than its competitors. Will its collaboration with the university make any difference?

Good sign or not?
‘It’s precisely a large company like Unilever that could become a beacon of sustainability, as they have the funds for innovations. Consumers are increasingly reaching for sustainable products, and they will have to go along with it’, someone in the hall said. But will they? ‘Change in companies like this one is much too slow; the university would do better to work with small, innovative companies’, sounds the objection. ‘It could be a good sign that Unilever has come here. This is where they can acquire the latest knowledge regarding sustainability’, exclaims another hopeful voice.

Unfortunately, nobody from Unilever is present in the hall to answer the questions. According to co-organiser Samira van de Loo from Otherwise, they were invited but were probably too busy with the opening that took place in the early afternoon. ‘However, we are very much open to the idea of discussing matters with them another time.’

Money, Money, Money
During the opening, the Wageningen branch of Extinction Rebellion held a flash mob, dressed in lab coats sporting Unilever logos. They threw imaginary banknotes to the notes of Abba’s Money, Money, Money, while an ample police force stood watching in the rain. The Dutch king and the mayor of Wageningen, the guests of honour during the opening, did not seem impressed by this welcoming committee and quickly disappeared inside.

In addition to Unilever, the discussion meeting also dealt with another concern that students have: the steady expansion of the campus grounds. What effect does that have on the city of Wageningen? There is a lot of concern regarding the increasing traffic, disappearing nature and lack of affordable housing. And isn’t Wageningen more than just the university?