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.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

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

Leon Kaye headshot

CVS Health Sponsored Series

Disrupting Short-Termism

Unilever’s Handwashing Campaign Goes Beyond CSR and Saves Lives

By Leon Kaye
hand washing

For any company mulling over a corporate social responsibility program, the best resource is often the product or service that has made it a success. One of the leading examples is Lifebuoy, a brand of soap that dates back to the 19th century. Once a popular soap in North America and Europe, the Lever Brothers brand endured, both in sales and popular culture, largely because of cheeky advertisements that helped make the term “B.O.” famous. And of course, who can forget the Lifebuoy scene in the 1983 classic "A Christmas Story"?

Over the years Lifebuoy’s reach has gone global, and it is now manufactured in India for Unilever’s Asian market. The soap helps contribute to the growth of Hindustan Unilever Ltd., which sells many of its parent company’s brands in India and is a force with its US$4.5 billion in annual sales. For several years running, India’s Unilever and Lifebuoy employees have been instrumental in running one of the country’s most successful social responsibility programs. The brilliance of this ongoing campaign is in its simplicity: teaching a task that takes about 20 seconds.

Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that every year diarrhea kills approximately 800,000 children under the age of 5, or about 1 in 10 child deaths. Many of those premature deaths could be prevented with adequate sanitation. No fancy liquid soaps or hand sanitizers are necessary: Washing one’s hands for 20 seconds is one of the best preventive measures to prevent the spread of germs that can cause diarrhea and other illnesses. Handwashing may seem to be a simple part of the daily routine to us, and science shows it can save lives, but many people simply don’t do it. According to the Hindustan Unilever spokesperson interviewed by TriplePundit, Lifebuoy saw an opportunity to promote this simple habit by combining its success with selling consumer products along with public health and behavioral science research.

Lifebuoy’s first handwashing programs started in 2009. The company currently runs two initiatives. First, Hindustan Unilever works with schools by targeting schoolchildren through child-friendly materials including comics, songs, games and rewards to encourage children to start and sustain regimented handwashing behavior. In addition, the company focuses on new mothers, because 42 percent of deaths that strike children under the age of 5 in India occur during the first 28 days of life.

Lifebuoy employees worked with health officials to organize clinical trials, the results of which showed remarkable improvements in the reduced spread of diseases. Emboldened by this success, the company decided to deploy these programs on a mass scale across India and then to other countries. Hindustan Unilever claims that over the past six years, Lifebuoy programs have reached 257 million people in 24 countries. By 2020, the company aims for its handwashing programs to contact 1 billion people globally.

“Unilever believes that businesses that put sustainability at the heart of their business model can grow profitably,” the spokesperson said, “and make a positive contribution to society whilst protecting the planet for future generations.” Programs such as Lifebuoy’s handwashing agenda are at the heart of the parent company’s Sustainable Living Plan, which since 2010 has been behind the company’s drive to increase profits while becoming more environmentally and socially responsible.

With five years remaining and 25 percent of its goal reached so far, Lifebuoy’s brand team, which oversees these handwashing programs, has much work to do. Nevertheless, the breadth and creativity this program has demonstrated indicate reaching 1 billion people is definitely possible. For example, during an important Hindu festival, Unilever distributed roti (a flatbread) imprinted with the message, “Did you wash your hands with Lifebuoy today?” The company claims 2.5 million of those rotis were handed out, so undoubtedly many of the festival’s attendees got the message. Unilever also has worked with schools to encourage handwashing at mealtimes, and has assisted with the retrofitting of water pumps so that children can embrace this habit seamlessly and even with joy.

Innovation is key to Unilever’s quest to keep the handwashing drumbeat going. Soap and innovation do not intuitively belong into the same sentence, but Lifebuoy has found some different ways to promote its brand and the benefits ofhandwashing. One product, a color-changing handwash, shows children how long they should wash their hands by transforming from green to white; it's fun for kids, and assures parents that their kids have had their hands under the faucet for a long enough period of time. First launched in India and Indonesia, the product is also available in markets throughout Africa and Asia. Of course, liquid handwash has a higher cost than bar soap, so Unilever developed a mini-pump that allows consumers to keep those hands clean, but at an affordable price.

Unilever Hindustan would not release any specific information that indicated any correlation between its handwashing campaign and sales of Lifebuoy. But according to the company spokesperson interviewed for this article, such programs have benefits all the way around. If more people buy soap, after all, the market for this product increases, and not just for Unilever and Lifebuoy, but also for their competitors. Furthermore, an increase in sales can also inspire companies such as Unilever to find, and fund, even more ways to encourage people to wash their hands.

“This program is unique because it is not just a charitable CSR program that sits aside to the business,” the spokesperson said, “but clearly draws resources and innovation to make it even bigger, benefitting both businesses and communities.”

While Lifebuoy’s brand team runs the various handwashing campaigns, the company relies on employees across its operations to contribute in order to make this program thrive. With over 1,500 employees volunteering at schools across India, Unilever’s work in this country of 1.3 billion people is arguably the largest corporate social responsibility program worldwide when considering the number of people touched by this series of campaigns.

Image credit: Pexels

Leon Kaye headshot

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