Any consumer goods company trying to reduce its environmental impact faces this challenge: your footprint is largely determined by what customers do with your products, not what you do directly. At Unilever, nearly 70% of the greenhouse gas impact of our products occurs when consumers use them to wash their hair or do their laundry.
The success of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan — our strategy for sustainable, equitable growth, tied to 50+ time-bound targets we've set for ourselves — depends on external factors like these, where we only have so much influence. While we can drive down the energy and water consumption of our factories directly, an entirely different approach is needed to reduce the greenhouse gas impact of our products across their lifecycle.
Fortunately for us, we engage directly with consumers through our brands, and it is these brands that have huge potential to be agents for change. As the renowned environmentalist Jonathon Porrittargues: "Brands are so much better placed to narrow that frightening 'values-action' gap that politicians have to confront (where voters say one thing and promptly do another) and are somehow more trustworthy precisely because they are so clearly in the business of making money out of doing the right thing."
This point is illustrated by our Lifebuoy soap brand, which spearheads our efforts to reduce childhood mortality through the simple act of handwashing at key hygiene moments throughout the day. Handwashing promotion is an extremely cost-effective intervention: a $3.35 investment in handwashing brings the same health benefits as an $11 investment in latrine construction, a $200 investment in household water supply and an investment of thousands of dollars in immunisation.
But it is the fact that this brand is critical to our business's future growth that gives NGOs and governments the confidence that our handwashing programmes are not flash-in-the-pan philanthropy. As for consumers, as our Global Social Mission Director for Lifebuoy, Myriam Sidibe, pointed out recently on this blog, "using local brands that people know and trust can actually be one of the most comfortable and easily accepted approaches to educate them about a topic like hygiene."
Brands can be even more powerful agents for change when we understand exactly how people use products, and what values, habits or motivations influence this use. We synthesized our own knowledge and experience as a marketing company with insights from experts from psychologists to academics and those out meeting the people who cook, clean and wash with our products every day. The result was Five Levers for Change, a set of principles brought together in a new approach we believe can increase the likelihood of achieving sustained behavior change:
The five levers are:
Make it understood. Do people know about the behavior, and do they think it is relevant to them? This lever is about raising awareness and encouraging acceptance. Lifebuoy soap's 'glo-germ' demonstration uses ultra-violet light to help children understand that washing hands with water alone isn't good enough to get rid of invisible germs.
Make it easy. Do people know what to do and feel confident doing it? Can they see it fitting into their lives? This lever is about convenience and confidence. In many parts of the world, laundry is washed by hand, but it is typically in these countries that water is scarce. Our Comfort One Rinse fabric conditioner only requires one bucket for rinsing, not three. But it took live demonstrations and samples, not just TV commercials, to establish consumer confidence that one bucket of water was really all that was needed for effective rinsing.
Make it desirable. Will doing this new behavior fit with their actual or aspirational self-image? Does it fit with how they relate to others or want to? We are social animals, and we tend to emulate the lifestyles and habits of people we respect, and follow social norms. Recycling has reached a tipping point in some countries because the bag or box outside the house is so visible. To tackle infant mortality, Lifebuoy taps into desire of new mothers to be a good mum, and to be seen that way by others.
Make it rewarding. Do people know when they're doing the behavior 'right'? Do they get some sort of reward? This lever is about demonstrating 'proof' and pay-off. Our Suave shampoo brand encourages people to turn off the shower while they lather their hair and showed how families could save up to $150 a year through cutting their energy bills.
Make it a habit. Once people have made a change, what can we do to help them keep doing it? This lever is about reinforcing and reminding, 'refreezing' people in their new habits so it becomes unconscious again. Lifebuoy's handwashing campaigns run for a minimum of 21 days and include quizzes, posters and songs to encourage repetitive behavior.
Using these five levers, marketers have an incredible opportunity to positively shape the lives of consumers and their impact on the rest of the world. But can brands do it all? We would argue no. Whilst brands are perfectly placed to tackle some of the five levers, such as "Make It Desirable," they can struggle to tackle others alone, because there are still so many factors that are out of our control. It is difficult for a brand to help make recycling easy, for example, if there is no recycling infrastructure for a consumer to use. Similarly, while we've tried to make the case to customers that shorter showers can save them money, it is a hard sell because consumers' energy bills are difficult to understand, and it isn't clear to them what sorts of activities cost them the most money.
Brands will have the most positive influence when they work with these 'structural' factors, rather than against them. This is why we are also working to influence the broader factors that shape our behaviour: the presence of good hygiene education in the school curriculum; the availability of recycling infrastructure; and energy and water policy that incentivizes efficient use. These are just some of the things we believe would enable our brands to act as multipliers to achieve the transformative changes needed for a sustainable world.