Speech of Mr. Mustafa Seçkin
Executive Vice President, Unilever Turkey, Central Asia & Iran
Mr. Mustafa Seçkin delivered at
Happiness and Sustainability Around the World 24 Hours Webinar
organized by The United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network
on April 22, 2020, Earth Day
Theme: “Is happiness possible without sustainable food? What are the key challenges to food security? What are Unilever’s solutions to ensure sustainable agriculture, food security and happiness?”
About Mustafa Seçkin:
Mustafa Seçkin was appointed as Executive Vice President of Unilever Turkey, Central Asia & Iran in January 2019. He joined Unilever at Turkey in 1989 where he held various roles in marketing. In 2000, he moved to Poland as the Director of the Regional Innovation Center. In 2002, he was appointed as the Knorr Brand Development Director Africa, Middle East and Turkey. In 2007, Mustafa Seçkin was appointed as the Vice President for Foods Marketing and Board Member at Unilever Turkey.
His most recent role was Vice President Foods and Refreshment NAMETRUB (North Africa, Middle East, Turkey and Russia) where he was responsible for Unilever’s Refreshment category from 2016 and Foods category from 2017. He has been a member of the Unilever NAMETRUB Board and Global Refreshment Board since 2016.
In addition to his corporate roles, he has been the Chair of Global Compact Network Turkey during 2016-2019. In May 2019, Mustafa Seçkin was elected as the board member of Global Compact Network Turkey. He is also a board member of International Investors Association (YASED), Business Council for Sustainable Development Turkey (SKD) and Make a Wish Foundation.
Mustafa graduated from Lycée de Galatasaray and holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey.
Distinguished UN SDSN Family and Participants,
At the onset, I would like to thank UN SDSN Global and UN SDSN Turkey for inviting me to speak at the “Happiness and Sustainability Around the World 24 Hours Webinar”. The timing of which is excellent in order to lay the foundation for collective thinking in order to safely exit this period of ambiguity defined by the Coronovirus that knows no boundaries in threatening health, livelihood and welfare of all people around the world. As I begin my remarks, I wish you and your families health and joy.
I am very glad to be here with you today as a passionate advocate for sustainability. We recently had a wonderful session with Prof. Jeffrey Sachs and Unilever’s former CEO Paul Polman. I have to say that I am very happy to have the privilege of working with Paul. Paul, who is the reason I am here today, has always been a visionary leader in teaching me and the entire Unilever family about sustainable living and sustainable business.
Although delivering my speech on a major issue such as food in just 15 minutes will be challenging for me; I would like to focus on two key messages today: First on the ‘rationale’ behind food; and second on the enchantment it creates.
If I had delivered this speech two months ago, I would have proudly talked to you about our achievements at Unilever in sustainable agriculture and food systems. I will briefly touch upon those anyway, but instead, I will focus more on the challenges that our food sector will face during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. Although Unilever has increased its investments on safe products in the food sector in the past decade, we have witnessed ever-shrinking agricultural lands in the food industry, technology failing to adequately transform agriculture itself as well as governments and enterprises falling short of delivering much required improvement and transformation against risks in their food policies.
At Unilever, we have committed to achieving %100 sustainability in raw materials used for food production by the end of 2020. We may proudly state that by April 2020, we have come very close to that. We have achieved that goal by almost 90 percent in Turkey, which is one of the major tea producing countries; in other words we supply almost 100 percent of our tea through sustainable agriculture.
We are working on the diversification of food consumption with our well recognized and admired brands. Production of nutritious, frugal, tasty and plant-based foods is part of our agenda. But in these days, we are experiencing a shift in food supply security and how existing food systems function normally. As you may be aware, consumers easily get into panic, when they cannot find flour, sugar and other essential foods at groceries. Supermarkets currently have the availability on shelves; however, misguided consumer panic may potentially put under strain the complicated supply chains and food systems consisting of farmers, agricultural crop, processing plants, delivery, retailers and various other stakeholders.
Due to widespread uncertainty within the first phase of the pandemic, Turkey witnessed panic purchasing, just like anywhere else in the world, which led to disruptions in supply and demand balance. This was the initial reaction of consumers against the pandemic at the onset. Following this impulsive trend, we are expecting a global recession in the following months, which may vary in intensity from one country to another. Unfortunately, we are estimating a more profound recession in least developed countries.
Consumers’ reactions have availed to give us a preview of what we could encounter whilst crisis raged on further. Thus, I believe companies should prepare themselves for the times ahead within that framework. So, what have we done at Unilever? We immediately moved companywide into working from home regime. We reshaped our living and working spaces considering the crisis. It is possible to summarize, our new agenda during this period when our consumers’ living, and consuming habits are changing as follows;
Food security and sustainability for us are the most significant topics considering the times ahead. We are working in various scenarios for the next weeks, months and the rest of the year. COVID-19 pandemic essentially showed us, how valuable the continuity in food supply and production is. Until the outbreak of this crisis, we were fundamentally misguided in thinking that food production was uninterrupted and that we would have easy access to food any time we went shopping. However, when people were shocked to see empty shelves at markets, they realized the value of food production and abundance. This created a shift in consumer mentality and reminded the food industry of this; “If we fail to take the right steps in the industry, we may end up with no food at all when we most need it.” I believe, we will initiate a positive transformation during the times ahead through crafting sustainable solutions for the food supply chain.
Another topic of our agenda is changing lifestyles and living spaces. Whether we admit it or not we will have to remain confined in our homes and it will be a slow transition to a healthy period. So, in this new reality, the questions are; which types of foods will be produced by the industry and which systems will provide those products to consumers? How the industry will adapt to these crucial changes of the nature.
I think that people started to rediscover the value of food. They realized the role of food as a source of happiness in times when the family meet around a table for dinner or when they bake bread together with their children. In other words, we remembered what was long forgotten by all of us. That’s why the greatest challenge beyond current problems in the food industry today is, ensuring the uninterrupted continuity of supply chains. Because today countries closed their borders and local provision of food is becoming more vital than ever before. So, are countries and companies ready to adapt to this new reality? I don’t think so; because we always assumed food would be available, globalization gained enough pace to cater to all our needs and we underestimated the power of what is local. What we need to do right now is, to go back and create low cost solutions through incorporating local foods in our supply chains.
Second major challenge in food production beyond existing problems is, economic recession and it will add a new dimension and complexity to our ways of doing business. We used to face economic challenges stemming from recession or currency volatility in some of the countries we have businesses. But the current situation led to an unprecedented turmoil and we do not know how to respond yet. I would like to state that all Unilever plants are operational day and night: the production of food and hygiene products continues without interruption. As part of our social responsibility, our company will sustain non-stop production with outstanding sacrifice. Our consumers will keep finding our products on the shelves. I think for our company it will be vital to keep supply chains alive during the times ahead to provide healthy and sustainable food in an uninterrupted fashion.
You will remember my second message about magic (enchantment). As an executive in food industry with 30 years of experience under my belt, I must say that I’m spellbound by the power of food. I admire the change food evokes in people. I admire how food connects us and makes us happy. Isn’t sharing of food a sign of generosity? A sign of compassion? And don’t you think that these two concepts, “generosity” and “compassion” are the things we needed most in recent years and especially during these unprecedented times?
We actually knew that food was a significant source of joy, but we let ourselves forget it in our daily rush. We reminded ourselves once again that food could conjure up a moment of joy for a family during these difficult days. Food is not just a source of nutrition, or a means of survival or even feeling full. Food contains emotional subtexts beyond all. A cup of tea is not just about sipping a hot beverage, it is more an emotional invitation to a conversation. A bowl of warm soup becomes a bonding element that sparks a conversation around the table when we come back home after a cold and trying day. We are aware that food is a source of joy. Every birth is indeed a crisis. Whilst we arrive into a world of light and oxygen, as we leave behind the safety of our mothers’ womb, we cry in the face of that first crisis of our lives. We only find joy in the milk we devour from the breasts of our compassionate mothers right next to us. A baby finds the first food for survival in that moment, as well as their mother’s love and compassion thus a strong bond forges between food and love. I believe, food is a very emotional concept that forms the basis of our first and earliest experience.
That’s why during these times, we should need the assessment of our happiness and welfare status through concepts such as Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) or Gross Domestic Welfare (GDW) instead of the term commonly used in economy, Gross Domestic Product which is solely about economic growth…How can we ignore the happiness that the food bestowed on us? Food is not just a mean of business or a systematic approach to survival. Food is a cognitive element. We will keep working and creating solutions to protect our food supply chains for our happiness.
Thank you so much for listening to me.
Prepared by Bahar Özay
Bahar Özay, coordinator of UN SDSN Turkey, is an accomplished and respected banking and corporate business executive with extensive experience in multi-national banking and professional and governmental organizations. She is a member of Sustainable Development Goals Committee of Turkish National Commission for UNESCO. Currently, Ms. Özay conducts her Ph.D studies at Boğaziçi University, Political Science and International Relations Department on Turkish Climate Policies. She holds two graduate degrees. She received a master’s degree in Political Science and International Relations from Boğaziçi University on European Studies. She also holds a master’s degree from Marmara University on Capital Markets and Stock Exchanges. She conducted double-major studies and earned B.A. in Administrative Sciences and Management and B.A. in Political Science and International Relations from Boğaziçi University.