Unilever's toxic waste fallout shows brands can be pilloried even if they do invest in CSR

Brands need to live and breathe their purpose
Brands need to live and breathe their purpose

Unilever's toxic waste fiasco shows brands need to live and breathe their purpose. Failing to take this into account is a serious threat to the majority of brands, argues Anthony Edwards director of strategy at Havas Worldwide London.

Last week Hindustan rapper Sofia Ashraf took to YouTube to petition Unilever to clean toxic mercury from the soil, as well as compensate farmers for the damage it had caused.

The video went viral and is a dent for a brand that has been streets ahead at anticipating consumer empowerment, pivoting its marketing to include ambitious CSR programmes such as Project Sunlight and its Sustainable Living Plan. But Unilever is a vast organisation – owning over 400 brands and spread cross 190 countries – so is naturally going to find it harder to affect organisation-wide change. In today’s world brands are firmly in the limelight and CEOs need to be brand managers in their own right.

Brands need to live and breathe their purpose in every facet of their operations  – no matter how big they are

There is no doubt that Unilever has a future-facing strategy. Branding used to be about advertising and start-stop campaigns, where the business controlled the messaging with monologue rather than dialogue with customers. However, last year Social Enterprise UK revealed that one third of consumers feel ashamed of buying from socially irresponsible businesses, and on top of this we see consumers increasingly calling brands out on social media.

Failing to take this into account is a serious threat to the majority of brands. Havas’ recent study of 1,000 brands and 300,000 people across 34 countries discovered that consumers wouldn’t care if 74% of all brands disappeared for good. In response the tide is definitely turning, with Unilever being just one example of a brand trying to create real value. P&G is working hard to do the same by partnering Pampers with Unicef to provide lifesaving vaccines, and Intel introduced its Girl Rising campaign to improve education for young women.

Transparency and accountability

But in an era of transparency and accountability, all should be prepared for criticism and understand that they will increasingly be judged on their impact; good or bad.

The lesson from Unilever's recent experience is that, however hard, brands need to live and breathe their purpose in every facet of their operations  – no matter how big they are – otherwise they can be pilloried for the best of intentions.

Ultimately advertisers are sitting on a powerhouse of communication that they can and should be using to affect real change

It’s why we created ‘The Venture’ fund for Chivas, as it allowed them to create a legacy of supporting social enterprise, which is something the whole company can get behind for years to come. Arguably, it’s a task that’s easier done for smaller businesses, as they have a closer sight of all their constituent parts and can bring all employees together to imbue the individual sense of ownership that a real meaningful brand identity requires.

My hunch is that Unilever will be taking stock of this backlash and understanding that what they proactively do on the CSR front is fantastic – but that they need to do some serious housekeeping to make sure all areas of the business are fully on-board.

Brands should connect with consumers in a meaningful way 

It is unlikely to be a setback for the brand either, because – aside from the fact that, from a purely altruistic standpoint, businesses should be doing good – it actually makes good business sense. Brands that play more of an active role on the ground will undoubtedly win, because consumers are overwhelmed with choice, but also empowered to have their say.

The hope is that in future all brands will look to really connect with audiences in a meaningful way, offering people ways to make their lives easier through smart technology, or community events – but also broadening this out to make a real impact on the wider world.

Ultimately advertisers are sitting on a powerhouse of communication that they can and should be using to affect real change. Only this will ensure longevity for brands in an increasingly noisy world where meaning is increasingly the thing that matters.


A spokesperson for Unilever said: "We would never allow our employees to suffer ill-health because of their employment with us and not address it.

Several independent studies, carried out by experts on mercury-related health complaints, concluded that our former employees were not harmed by working in our factory in Kodaikanal. Contrary to other claims, there is no authoritative medical data from any report showing that our operations at Kodaikanal caused illness.

The sale of glass scrap containing mercury residue to a scrap dealer about three kilometres away from the factory was in breach of our company rules. We immediately addressed it, including removing both the glass and the underlying soil.

Independent expert studies showed that there was no adverse impact on the environment in Kodaikanal, except in some areas of the factory premises. We are keen to continue work on clearing up the factory site. We have submitted a Detailed Project Report for soil remediation to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and will commence the preparatory work immediately.

We have been striving to resolve these issues for over fourteen years, and remain determined to do so.

This is a longstanding issue and we believe it is in the interest of all parties for it to be resolved. We believe the sooner this happens, the better. We urge all to come to the table to agree on an outcome."

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