Unilever chief Paul Polman – renowned as a leading light of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – was caught on the hop about the values behind one of his firm’s products in a 27 September panel discussion hosted by business journal Quartz at Work. 
In the talk, US author Anand Giridharadas whipped out his mobile phone and played Polman a TV ad, made several years ago, for Unilever Hindustan’s Fair & Lovely: a skin-whitening treatment. The commercial depicts a young, Hindustani woman using the product until she is able to get a job, enabling her to take her previously disappointed father out to dinner. The implication being that her decision to change her skin tone has made her a more effective member of society.
Giridharadas – whose recent book Winners Take All attacks so-called “elite do-gooding”, in other words, corporates using CSR as a fig leaf for maintaining the status quo – highlighted the existence of a Fair & Lovely Foundation, which provides women with educational resources and career guidance. However, he notes: “Part of me wants to live in a world where there’s no Fair & Lovely Foundation because there is no Fair & Lovely.”
Polman bristled at the author’s tactics, saying: “The world is burning, and we are talking about a micro-issue to make a point. We could stop selling Fair & Lovely tomorrow, and you know better than I do, [it wouldn’t stop] all of those horrible bleaching products in India, because it’s so embedded in the culture. And then you could stop selling your sun care products, because there are horrible things in sun care products.
“In fact,” he added, “you might stop all the cosmetics companies … But by doing that, you’re not solving the underlying issue we’re talking about here of how to make society more inclusive.”
Does this ambush of Polman suggest that corporate leaders should examine absolutely every single product line for potential misalignment with their CSR messaging? Or can CSR programmes realistically only be general and broad-stroked in their approaches?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “CSR is a fairly recent development in the corporate world, and uptake from firm to firm varies considerably. In some companies, it’s a case of staff getting together for a handful of calendar dates to do some sort of good. In others, efforts are a lot more formalised – just think back to the lead story in our 10 August podcast about how US telecoms firm Nextiva put all of its CSR activities under the roof of a wholly owned subsidiary. As we said on the podcast, that wasn’t just a charitable initiative – it was also a team-building exercise to rally staff around a higher purpose.”
Cooper explains: “CSR is still evolving. And in a large organisation such as Unilever, there is a natural trade-off. If your quality-assurance measures are such that there is intensely detailed vetting to ensure that every tiny corner of the firm conforms to the CSR policy, there’s a risk that the policy itself could quickly become unmanageable, and the related costs prohibitive. A firm on the scale of Unilever will be switching suppliers, onboarding new ones and offloading others with extraordinary frequency. At each point in the supply chain, there has to be a degree of trust. And you will also have to accept that, on occasion, suppliers will let you down. It is probably better to deal with those situations when you have been let down than over-legislate to prevent such moments, because they are inevitable.”
She adds: “Polman is taking a pragmatic approach, recognising that there are limits even to what an organisation of Unilever’s size is able to achieve. Clearly, he is unwilling to accept the status quo – so the counter-question here is, what sort of broad, strategic approach is Unilever taking in its campaign for inclusivity, to ensure that one day there will be no need for the products that Giridharadas flagged up in the talk?”
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Image of Unilever logo on smartphone courtesy of Piotr Swat, via Shutterstock