The Sound of One Hand Clapping

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

This week’s big announcement from Unilever about its ambitious Sustainable Living Plan is welcome news. The global consumer packaged goods behemoth – let’s face it, any company whose products are used by two billion people a day classifies as a behemoth – has committed to 50 specific goals ranging from sustainable tea sourcing to water conservation.

This new direction is based on three core goals:
• To halve the environmental impact of their products
• Help more than 1 billion people improve their health and well-being
• Source 100% of agricultural materials sustainably

Just to put the last bullet in perspective, consider this – Unilever buys nearly 12% of the world’s black tea, 6% of the world’s tomatoes and 3% of its palm oil. These are market-moving, potential game-changing numbers.

The company is doing what it can, and it’s asking consumers to pitch in and do their part as well. Take shorter showers, for instance. The biggest environmental impact of Unilever’s soap and shampoo brands is the water used in the shower.

Thus the one-handed clap.

While I applaud Unilever’s commitment (with two hands), there’s only so much they can directly impact in terms of real behavior change. Let’s face it, a small bit of copy on a bottle of Dove shampoo asking people to cut their shower time by 40 seconds isn’t likely going to produce significant behavior change.

I was thinking about this, of course, in the shower this morning. I take short showers, and I was trying to figure out how to cut 40 seconds from my already-streamlined routine. Frankly, it’s not possible for me. I don’t just stand around in the shower. I suspect it’s that way for many folks whose lives are too busy to permit such luxuries.

So if Unilever wants to motivate people to change their behaviors, they’re going to need a whole different approach than this model. Right now, it kind of sounds like Unilever’s saying “Hey, guess what? The biggest environmental impact of our soaps and shampoos is that hot water you’re using in the shower. Can you help us out and cut your shower short?” Most Americans probably don’t even know who Unilever is or feel the slightest bit inclined to “help them out” by making a sacrifice. Unilever will need to figure out what’s in it for consumers and get in front of them with a behavior change campaign that will need cutting edge creative and lots of money.

Here’s a second thought: I hypothesize that change mandates like these are easier to implement in a corporate setting rather than in a private household. The highest-ranking executives at Unilever are pitching this as a new way of doing business, and the brand managers, sourcing specialists, and other employees have little choice but to comply with the new directive. Regular people, though, aren’t accountable to anyone else, and we know that total compliance isn’t even a faint reality. Laws were designed to create total compliance, but we know that there are plenty of tax cheats and speeders. Asking a person to comply often leads to rebellious behavior – you can’t tell me to do that! Screw you! – and that instead creates the exact opposite effect we were originally seeking.

So while I sincerely hope that Unilever achieves and surpasses its lofty goals, I’m also not going to count on regular people to change their behavior as a result of Unilever’s announcement.
Perhaps Unilever’s bold pronouncement will pressure other companies to strengthen their commitment to sustainability, since change at the corporate level may be easier to achieve than on a personal level.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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