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Unilever's Toxic, 15-Year Legacy in India

Words by Nithin Coca
Leadership & Transparency
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Few companies talk the talk – about corporate stewardship and sustainability, that is – like Unilever, which likes to paint itself as the model corporate citizen. But when the media spotlight is off, the company reverts to using its power to skirt responsibility for its actions.

That's how it avoided cleaning up the toxic remnants of its former thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, South India, for 15 years. Now, a global campaign aims to shine the spotlight on the problem and force the company to clean up its mess.

Kodaikanal was the home of a factory owned by Hindustan Unilever, the Indian subsidiary of the consumer products giant, from 1983 until the facility was shut down in 2001. During these years, workers were regularly exposed to toxic mercury -- which, it turned out, was also not disposed of properly. That is why the site remains dangerous to this day. Workers, locals and the environment have all suffered with the toxic legacy of this factory for 15 years.

“Unilever is insisting on leaving up to 25 milligrams/kilogram of mercury in soil – 250 times higher than naturally occurring background levels — even after clean-up. According to activists, that is far laxer than global standards and will harm the environment,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based writer and activist who has been part of the campaign since 2001, in a press statement.

That is why last week, activists around the world convened in the United Kingdom, the home of Unilever's global headquarters, to demand that the company clean up the factory site to the highest international standards. The campaign is incredibly active on social media, where Unilever is currently being flooded with messages using the hashtag #UnileverPollutes

The campaign already has one victory under its belt -- getting Unilever to finally agree to provide compensation to former workers, many of whom are still living with the health impacts of lax safety standards in the Kodaikanal factory. However, without an environmental cleanup, this is only a partial victory.

“The much-delayed settlement is great news, but Unilever still has unfinished business in Kodaikanal,” Jayaraman said.

Fifteen years is a ridiculous amount of time, and if it were not for these dedicated activists and the power of social media, it is likely the company would have remained double-faced -- talking good at big-name conferences, while letting Kodaikanal suffer in the background. It's time for Unilever to not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk, beginning with cleaning up this site immediately.

 

Ed note: William Davies from Unilever Global Media Relations reached out to us with the following statement:

We want to clean up our former factory site in Kodaikanal, and will do so as soon as we get permission from the statutory authority - the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).

There is no single clean up standard (or "remediation standard”) for cleaning mercury-contaminated sites in India or any other country.

The standard proposed for Kodaikanal – 20mg/kg – was set by the TNPCB, the expert Government body, not Hindustan Unilever. It was set using a science-based, site-specific risk assessment as per international best practice.

Applying this standard would make the soil safe for children to play in, to grow root vegetables from, and would be protective to the environment.

Remediating the soil to a more onerous standard would cause greater ecological damage because significantly more soil would need to be excavated and trees felled.


 

 

Image credit: Sean Biehle via Flick

Nithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

Read more stories by Nithin Coca