Unilever’s Kodaikanal Drubbing on Social Media Shows How Weak EH&S Management Systems Can Undermine Sustainability Performance

In a recent viral video with over 3 million views, Indian social activist Sofia Ashraf criticized consumer giant, Unilever, for alleged mercury poisoning of former workers at a thermometer manufacturing facility based in Kodaikanal, a city in the Tamil Nadu state of India. Since its release on YouTube three weeks ago, the video has sent ‘#UnileverPollutes’ trending on twitter and has raised over 85,000 in signatures globally petitioning Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, to personally oversee social and environmental remediation efforts.

While Unilever maintains “there were no adverse impacts on the health of employees or the environment”, alternative evidence, such as Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board’s request to close the factory in April 2000 due to spillage of broken glass containing mercury and testimonies by former employees on YouTube and Facebook, makes it difficult to turn a blind eye to Unilever’s role. Social media has increasingly become the Achilles heel of many firms’ sustainability communications activities – especially when brand marketing efforts do not align with operational realities.

So what can firms learn from the Kodaikanal’s social media coverage?

Firstly, sustainability communications need to be fully transparent and authentic on shortcomings. Too many sustainability executives inevitably fall into the trap of producing an annual sustainability report; they lose sight of the fact that the end goal is not to produce a ‘feel good’ report showing incremental improvements in progress. What is a “sustainable” firm? The more executives dive into their business models, the more they will find that fundamental aspects are ‘unsustainable’ and rely on more than the replenishable supply of environmental and social resources.

Secondly, communications is a two-way street that requires candid discussions. At this early stage in quantifying environmental and social issues, many firms will find they have regrettable impacts on society. Sustainability communications is not just about looking as good as possible through brand marketing. Proactively engage your stakeholders in honest discussions to obtain feedback on top concerns. This is often conducted as part of the materiality assessment to identify top public stakeholder worries, societal impacts, and shareholder priorities. Done correctly, this will minimize the risk of social media campaigns that shame your brand in the public arena.

Thirdly, compliance with the law is not enough. An oft-reminded statement by Robert Malone, retired BP executive, is “what happened may not have broken the law, but it broke our values” expressed during a period of oil and gas environmental and commercial scandals. In the case of Unilever, while official statements claim no legal fault or responsibility, it is clear that miscommunications occurred somewhere along the process. In recent years, “social license to operate” and “shared value” have emerged as concepts that capture the intangible firm benefits from having positive relations with local communities and supply chain entities.

Lastly, sustainability leadership requires technical investments in EH&S management. The Unilever Kodaikanal fiasco is a classic example of a technical EH&S issue becoming a sustainability brand problem. While many firms invest in sustainability reporting processes, some have spared on making necessary investments for actual EH&S performance improvements. Looking forward, Verdantix anticipates that EH&S teams will increasingly need a better strategy to achieve information management best practices and the next frontier will focus on integrating EH&S and sustainability for progressively real-time relevant disclosures.

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