Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

leonkaye headshot

Safe Drinking Water in India: How Smart Design Positioned Unilever as a Leader

Words by Leon Kaye

Hindustan Unilever is India’s largest consumer goods company, with $4 billion in annual sales and over 16,000 employees--over 1,500 of whom work at the company’s headquarters in suburban Mumbai. The division of the Dutch-British conglomerate dates back to the 1930s and its oldest brand has its origins in 1888. From noodles to laundry bar soap to hair care, Unilever has found success selling to the diverse Indian market, from little sachets of detergent that the country’s poor can afford to the high-end brands of shampoo and men’s care that sell well in western countries.

Unilever also has a booming water purifying business. The company’s PureIt water purifiers cracked the pesky code of delivering a safe and effective product that has a positive impact on lives at an affordable price. And the results are a compelling case study of how businesses, in partnerships with NGOs, can make a difference by looking at a problem through a consumer and design lens. During an interview yesterday with Unilever's Vice President for Water Business  Yuri Jain, I learned how a company addressed the fundamental need for clean water by giving people what they want--and not by what those at the top insisted that the “bottom of the pyramid” needed.

Jain and his team started work on the PureIt line in 2000. The challenges were huge. First, Indian women spend far too much time boiling water in order to purify it--and that chore takes time away from other duties because one must watch over the kettle to prevent bugs, or children, from getting into the water. Boiling water also eats up the household budget because it is energy intensive, and dangerous if the fuel is kerosene -- add the deforestation factor if women are relegated to using wood. Plus, boiled water is unpalatable because it is deoxygenated. In addition, many areas of India with running water lack the pressurized systems we take for granted in developed countries--that forcing water through municipal pipes has a role in expunging particles and toxins out of drinking water.

Consumers, and again most of them in this case are women, require a solution that is easy and frees up their time instead of further complicating their lives. Most importantly, the water has to taste good. (On a side note, I have visited homes in Russia, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and have seen water purification systems that were as tedious to operate and hogged space in tiny kitchens.) The PureIt systems solves that problem as it barely takes up any counter space. Plus, it is seamless to use: just poor water in, and when the filters are close to expiring, a red and white indicator notifies users that it is time to replace the filter. When the filter expires, the system shuts down so there is no risk of drinking contaminated water. And, all of these functions work without any need for electricity.

Features aside, a water purification system must also be affordable. For five years, Jain and his team worked on a solution that would be cost-effective and would work as well as a $200 dollar product. By the time the first PureIt water systems entered the Indian market in 2005, the Unilever crew was able to price them at €18 ($24). Furthermore, these systems are well-designed, sleek and appeal to consumers of all income levels. For lower-income consumers, the system is an easy sell: the cost of using a PureIt product ends up less than 1/3 of a rupee (less than one U.S. cent) per liter, far cheaper than boiling. And of course, the reduced time and expense of doctor visits helps convince consumers to invest in such a system.

But Jain acknowledged that for many consumers, $24 is a sum too far out of reach. Banks were reticent to develop payment plans because administrative costs did not make $2 payment plans feasible. The answer was twofold: Unilever works with many NGOs to support charitable and micro-finance programs to expand access to safe water. And last year, Unilever rolled out a Facebook campaign, Waterworks, in a partnership with the nonprofit PSI. Participants can “Like” the Facebook page and contribute as little as 15 U.S. cents to help fund programs that get PureIt systems into homes where they are needed.

The journey Jain and his team led to the launch of PureIt is akin to what more companies are facing: they have to develop a superior product that performs well, creates social and/or environmental good, and can make a difference in people's lives for a very low price. Consumers are so loyal to the PureIt brand that word-of-mouth has become its most successful marketing tactic. And finally, Unilever is tackling a social problem while adding to its bottom line: the PureIt systems are available in neighboring countries as well as Brazil.

Leon Kaye is currently exploring children’s health issues in India February 18-27 with the International Reporting Project. Based in Fresno, California, he is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Leon Kaye]

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye

More stories from Energy & Environment