LONDON: The CEO of FMCG giant Unilever has urged marketers to respond to "consumer activism" by putting a greater emphasis on corporate sustainability.

Speaking at a Marketing Society event, Paul Polman warned that brands are "rapidly losing ground" to digitally-connected consumers, with many firms suffering from social media-driven backlashes over recent years.

"The consumer is often ahead of us," he added. "They are developing markets at an accelerated pace."

As a result, Polman advised that firms be transparent about the provenance of their products and concentrate on ethical sourcing in order to appeal to socially-conscious consumers.

"A small, but growing number of consumers are choosing sustainably sourced and responsibly made products," Polman was quoted by Marketing magazine as saying. "Marketers who dismiss this as "niche" will surely miss out."

Examples of brands falling behind activist consumers cited by Unilever's CEO include the success of a Greenpeace social media campaign highlighting the use of palm oil by food firm Nestlé. Polman also highlighted the online controversy that surrounded streaming media specialist Netflix's 2011 decision to raise its fees.

Earlier this week, Unilever offered a public update on its Sustainable Living Plan – a 10-year project announced in November 2010 that set the firm a variety of targets for the decade ahead, including halving the "environmental footprint" of its products.

In the latest progress report for the initiative, the FMCG firm said it had passed milestones such as sourcing around two-thirds (64%) of its palm oil in a sustainable manner, and purchasing 100% of its electricity in Europe – a process which, the report claimed, will save 250,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

Data sourced from Marketing/Reuters/CNet/Unilever; additional content by Warc staff