Unilever Addresses Public Health Crisis With Global Handwashing Day Campaign


An estimated 3,000 kids die daily, and more than 3.5 million children do not live to the age of five, largely due to diarrhea and pneumonia – both manageable with soap and water. People worldwide wash their hands with water, but far too few use soap, particularly at crucial moments such as after using the toilet, cleaning a child, or before handling food.

In 2008, Unilever, its Lifebuoy soap brand, and Population Services International (PSI) joined forces to declare October 15th Global Handwashing Day. Last year, the public-private partnership produced a PSA starring actress Mandy Moore, among other efforts.

This year’s Global Handwashing Day bring a new partnership with the Millennium Villages Project, a joint effort by the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the United Nations Development Program. The PSA simply asks for support for an initiative working with 500,000 people in rural villages across ten countries in sub-Saharan Africa as part of a bigger goal to reach one billion people:[more]

“We are not trying to make sustainability a separate agenda; we’re trying to make it a central agenda,” stated Unilever CMO Keith Weed. “We didn’t want it to be a couple of pages in a magazine but a commitment that the whole company could get behind.” Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan has to date reached an estimated 50 million residents of Africa and South Asia with the message to soap up, with its outreach efforts centered around its Lifebuoy brand.

For this year’s Global Handwashing Day, consumers are being asked to pledge on Lifebuoy’s Facebook page and donate at PSI.org (follow the Twitter hashtag #iwashmyhands to see the impressive array of partners involved). Just $10 will help educate 20 children about the importance of handwashing and contribute to the (UN’s 2015) Millennium Development Goal of reducing deaths among children under the age of five by two-thirds by 2015. “We look at the world through a lens, which we call VUCA, which stands for ‘Volatile, Unstable, Complex, and Ambiguous,'” said Weed. “So you can say, ‘It’s a very tough world,’ or you can say, ‘It’s a world that’s changing fast, and we can help consumers navigate through it.'”

“The big issues the world is facing require new approaches, new business models and new partnerships. Responsible businesses must take a more active leadership role,” stated Paul Polman, Unilever CEO. “It is unacceptable that two million children die every year from infectious diseases when we have easy and cheap lifesaving solutions, such as handwashing with soap, readily available.”

To explain the scope of the health crisis and need for better hygiene, Myriam Sidibe, the global social mission director for Lifebuoy, wrote a blog post for the Harvard Business Review titled, “The Private Sector Needs to Come Clean About Doing Good,” in which she noted the brand’s activist roots:

William Lever, who founded Lever Brothers, one of the forerunners of Unilever, launched Lifebuoy soap in the northwest of England in 1894. He wanted to produce an affordable soap that people living in the overcrowded slums of Liverpool (which had experienced a rapid population influx as the second city of the British Empire) could use to protect themselves from the spread of cholera. He saw a business opportunity in a social issue.

This year Lifebuoy also produced a video featuring researcher Val Curtis, a professor/researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a self-described “disgustologist,” as the New York Times and BBC have noted. The behavioral scientist, who co-founded the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap, has a background in engineering, epidemiology and anthropology that led her to focus her research around behaviour change, especially in water, sanitation and hygiene.

Below, Curtis talks about the health impacts of handwashing, and the design and testing of programs to promote handwashing with soap with a diverse range of partners:

As part of its bigger sustainability and corporate citizenship commitment, Unilever recently released a Facebook and mobile app designed to facilitate charitable giving, called Waterworks, and signed on as a major partner of UNICEF’s Every Woman Every Child public health campaign via its foundation, as Polman discusses below:

[Image at top via Unilever/Facebook]