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Raz Godelnik headshot

4 Partnership Lessons from Unilever's Lifebuoy Handwashing Campaign

By the time you finish reading this article (let’s say 5 minutes from now) 20 children around the world will die because of diarrhea or pneumonia. This is 2 million children every year.

This horrible statistic is even more devastating given the fact that the simple act of handwashing with soap can significantly reduce these diseases – 6 out of these 20 children can be saved with this intervention.

These numbers prompted Lifebuoy, Unilever’s soap brand to start the ‘Help A Child Reach 5’ campaign, aiming to eradicate such preventable deaths one village at a time, by teaching lifesaving handwashing habits. Directly connected to Unilever’s Sustainability Living Plan goals, this campaign is not only a great example of Unilever’s ability to create viral video clips (almost 8 million views so far), but also an acknowledgment of the fact that no company or organization alone, powerful as they might be can change this somber reality by themselves.

To further focus the discussion on the need for partnerships between business, NGOs and governments to accelerate such live-saving programs, Unilever gathered some of the partners it collaborates with in this campaign, including Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Karl Hofmann, President and CEO Population Services International (PSI), and Kajol, a Top Bollywood star. They were joined by Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman on a panel which took place as a part of the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Although the panel's start time was 7:00am, the panelists were very lively and provided a lot of food for thought. Here are the main four lessons I learned there (or more accurately, three lessons and one question):

1. New era of partnerships – The era of old-school partnerships - focused on one way philanthropy and incremental successes - is over, explained PSI’s Karl Hofmann. We’re in a new era where simple, interesting partnerships between companies and NGOs like this one can make things happen.

I was curious about the role of business in this new era and asked Paul Polman what he sees as Unilever’s most valuable contribution to this partnership. “The best contribution that we can make is to level up this partnership and the transparency that comes with it, to build a trust, and frankly use the scale of Unilever to have a bigger effect than the company alone,” he replied.

In addition, the participants mentioned Unilever’s expertise in behavior change and marketing as key contributions the company brought to this partnership. Organizations and governments on the other hand bring with them creditability and in some cases better access to the population that companies lack. “By working together we can combine the expertise, resources and policy needed to achieve real change,” Polman summarized.

2. Values drive innovation - one of the questions I’m frequently asked is if intention matters. In other words, does it matter if a company becomes more sustainable because it really believes in it or because it was forced to do so? I have to admit that for a while I thought that intention doesn’t make much of a difference and that we should evaluate companies mainly on their actions rather than the reasons behind them.

Well, these sorts of partnerships have made me reconsider my position. Why? Because as Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart suggest in ‘The Upcycle’ that a good plan starts with establishing the values for your company’s engagement with the world. “Interestingly, by clearly identifying and stating your values, you can drive an innovation process,” they write.

This is exactly what we see in this case. I think we can connect the dots between Unilever’s values (“we are failing the most vulnerable in our society, especially our children. Business cannot stand by and watch. We have a responsibility to act,” Polman writes) and the innovative approach the company takes in this campaign. I guess that once you do start with values it becomes easier to chart new ways to generate value out of values.

3. The challenge of scaling up - “No business, government or UN agency can achieve the agreed reduction of child mortality alone,” writes Paul Polman. And he’s right. The problem is that even an innovative partnership like this one will have a very difficult time achieving systemic change and meeting the goal of significantly reducing child mortality.

The only way to do it is probably through a multi-stakeholder effort, where more companies and organizations collaborate to promote the practice of proper handwashing with soap at critical times. Such a partnership actually already exists – the global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap (PPPHW), a coalition of international stakeholders that was established in 2001.

In addition to Unilever, the partnership includes companies like Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive and my hunch is that this framework will be able to scale up effective solutions if the companies involved can find the way to collaborate and compete at the same time on this issue. Otherwise we’ll be left with incremental changes that will change very little.

4. Lessons in behavior change for the developed world – While listening to Polman, Sachs and the other speakers at the event I kept wondering – will we have similar partnerships to help solve similar problems in the developed world?

By similar I mean problems where the solutions are related to behavior change rather than anything else. After all, the main challenge here isn’t the lack of soap or water but changing hygiene practices. So could we have companies, NGOs and academia working together in developed markets to create effective interventions like handwashing to help solve problems like the childhood obesity epidemic, for example?

I have a feeling that this era of new partnerships can make a difference in the lives of children in the U.S. and Europe, not just in India and Bangladesh, if there will be more companies that would like to be a positive force for good in the world, focusing on the best interventions to change children’s eating habits rather than on the best ways to meet their bliss point.

[Image credit: Frank Aiello]


Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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