There’s been a lot of recent discussion about brands contributing to social purposes.
That’s a good thing, but there are many ways to contribute. It’s not all about dry corporate social responsibility. Nor does every brand have to become a world expert on a global problem. Sometimes brands can learn and share in public, showing humility and a genuine attempt to help.
We’ve just launched a project for one of Unilever’s biggest global brands – the Dirt Is Good collection of laundry detergent brands. For giant multi-nationals like Unilever, sustainability is not just a conversation. It’s the conversation.
Sustainability is a grand and pressing issue. It’s Unilever's market share, the survival of their business, the prospering of their consumers. And above all, sustainability is paramount to everyone’s future.
When I was born, there were four billion people in the world. Right now there’s around 7.5 billion. By the time my kids are my age, estimates say 10.5 billion. And after that, bets are off.
The graphs either fade to a dotted line, or stall. The big question is: can our planet support that many people? Or more specifically, can our planet support that many people like us?
Our unelected representatives
Brands are our great unelected representatives. Some command more influence than governments. They lead opinion and they raise topics. It’s a good thing for brands to consider weaving global issues into their personalities.
But they do not have the answers. They are not the experts. It is not the reason they exist. And they must not pretend anything else.
Paul Polman, Keith Weed et al at Unilever are trying to change the way that multi-national businesses operate. They are having some successes, and some failures.
Long may they continue to try, because that is how we learn. We should remember that even the United Nations failed to achieve each of their eight self-set Millennium Development Goals, and are shortly to revise these to a set of Sustainable Development Goals, running parallel with some of Polman’s rhetoric.
Focus on a topic
The great thing that humans can do is focus on a topic, rally around it and work on it until we have changed it for the better. But to rally around a topic, we need to relate to it.
Our project for Dirt Is Good attempts to help people like us (affluent purchasers of premium laundry detergents) to understand how mums feel about their child’s education under very different circumstances. We used the first day of school as a reference point that we could all relate to.
The first day of school
We filmed a young mother called Aiyamma as she took her daughter to school for the first time in a Mumbai slum.
Like millions of other women in India, Aiyamma never had the opportunity to go to school and her daughter will be one of the lucky few in her neighbourhood to get a formal education. In the space of a generation, change is starting to happen.
In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we met a strong and smart mother called Iane who does not want her family to leave the "unpacified" favela in which they live.
On the morning we arrived, there was a pre-dawn military raid and tensions were high. Boys in that favela live to an average age of 23, mostly dying in gang-related violence.
Iane wants her son to walk to school every day, down through the favela’s narrow alleys, to help set a better precedent for the community’s children. We filmed that first walk.
Dirt Is Good is a brand built around the importance of child development. It’s a subject that means a lot to its consumers. And now the brand has partnered with Unicef in a new initiative, supporting educational programmes around the world.
In these very different settings, education is the key to social change. As the global population grows, it becomes even more pressing that we are an educated population.
Face-to-face with reality
The brand does not have the answers to the complex issues and deep challenges of global education. But during our project, we learned two contradictory things. Global challenges can seem oddly remote and distant. But when you encounter them face to face, they can be as simple as a mother’s love and a child’s desire to learn.
And, for me, this is the key. Brands don’t have the answers, but they can bring topics to our attention. They can even make those topics more immediate, relatable and comprehensible.
Brands are not necessarily the true champions of social purpose. That’s the NGOs and the individuals who are facing challenges head on every day. But brands, like people, can learn. And they can share. And that’s a good thing for everyone.
Richard Neville is cofounder of Animl