OSLO: Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant, and Marks & Spencer, the British retail chain, are among the companies with the most developed environmental policies, and which are also making the most effective use of these activities to differentiate their brands, a UN report has found.

The Linking Shareholder and Natural Value study was produced by the UN's Environment Programme's Finance Initiative, conservation charity Fauna & FloraInternational and a business school in Brazil.

It assessed 31 firms across a number of industries, including some of the world's biggest multinationals, and found that 65% were incorporating matters such as biodiversity, ecology and sustainability (BES) into their marketing campaigns.

Unilever was recognised for demonstrating a "structured way of building brand value and addressing barriers to sustainable sourcing through its Brand Imprint tool."

This strategy was argued to take "a 360 degree look at product impact from environmental, social and economic perspectives," and covers areas from soil erosion and air quality to supplier training.

Consumer goods companies should have a particular interest in this field, according to the report, which also looked at firms like Cadbury, Groupe Danone and Nestlé.

This is due to "the sector's high-brand visibility, which makes the issue one of competitive advantage, but also makes these companies very visible targets for campaign groups," it said.

Successful positive examples include efforts by Nestlé to ensure its coffee meets certified agricultural standards, and Unilever's commitment to source its tea from suppliers endorsed by the Rainforest Alliance.

Marks & Spencer received credit for Plan A, its five-year corporate social responsibility programme, which has become one of the key foundations of its business objectives.

The UK-based organisation has implemented a number of initiatives as a result, from schemes focusing on water management to partnering with the World Wildlife Fund, which provides a regular third-party assessment of its performance.

Other retailers featured included Sainsbury's and Carrefour, both of which have taken action to improve conditions for bumblebees, populations of which have been in decline around the world.

The retail sector "shows significantly greater activity in the areas of competitive advantage, governance, and policy and strategy than management and implementation, and reporting," the UN said.

Foster's and SAB Miller were the top-ranked beverage makers, with the former having produced stringent Guidelines for Biodiversity Conservation in combination with the Australian Conservation Foundation.

The latter has carefully designed and implemented a multi-faceted water management programme, which has greatly reduced the resources needed to make its beer brands.

The beverage industry as a whole "performs well in its management of BES issues, compared with other sectors in this analysis showing solid performance on the issues of governance and policy," the UN body said.

However, it also argued there are "untapped opportunities to build shareholder value: the focus of activity (in contrast to some sectors) was not overtly linked to consumer-focused competitive advantage."

Data sourced from UN; additional content by Warc staff