In this series, co-founder Viv documents her attempts to put her money where her mouth is and finding practical ways to make better ethical choices.
I was in Budapest last year, and while there I I bought some mayonnaise in a supermarket there. The front label was a totally benign-seeming, local brand. It was homey, rustic and independent looking. In short, it was designed to appeal directly to someone like me, who likes the idea of supporting small producers rather than big conglomerates.
But when I got home, I turned it over to find a small but telltale Unilever ‘U’. It looks like this:
This means that this brand – owned by a huge corporation – was deliberately using the visual language of homey, independent foodmakers. To fool me. I was really annoyed.
So I’ve been considering it and this year I’m going to try and avoid buying Unilever products because I believe in giving smaller businesses—exactly the kind of that my mayonnaise was attempting to channel— a chance. Large corporations try to stamp them out, which leads to market monopolies. That’s bad for us as consumers, because that means there’s less competition and therefore, higher prices. I also dislike that they use clever marketing and branding to make us believe that we’re buying from different companies, when it all ultimately goes to the same place.
However, boycotting Unilever this is no mean feat, because they’re one of a handful of companies that own most of the world’s major consumer brand names:
As you can see, Unilever isn’t the only big company, but here’s why I’m picking on them in particular:
Unilever owns both Dove of ‘real women’ and ‘body positive’ messages. While body positivity is a worthwhile goal, the idea behind the Dove campaigns still hinge on women being valued for their appearance. So, getting an artist to show women that they’re more beautiful than they think still emphasises that it’s important to be beautiful. Dove claims it wants to ‘help…women develop a positive relationship with the way they look – helping them raise their self-esteem and realize their full potential’ [and to buy Dove products]. Actually, we need to uncouple self-esteem and looks entirely. Realising your full potential shouldn’t be contingent on looks at all, for anyone. Using Dove moisturiser won’t dismantle the patriarchal society preventing women from achieving their full potential, but that unfortunately, that message doesn’t sell beauty products.
Meanwhile, the same parent company owns Lynx, which has a horrendous track record of sexist and misogynist advertising. So, basically, Unilever uses messages of empowerment where it suits and misogyny where it suits: hypocrisy at its finest.
Here’s an excellent article that goes into lots more detail about Dove, Lynx and more ways that Unilever is totally sexist.
Bad environmental record
Unilever has also got a pretty bad history with the environment, too. It made mercury thermometers in India and made some people very, very sick. Because corporations must, by law, act in the interests of their shareholders, sometimes, if faced with a choice of, say, safely but expensively disposing of waste and dumping it and being potentially fined or damaging people’s health in the developing world, (and the cost of the fine is less than the cost of the proper disposal), the latter often prevails.
The illusion of choice
One of the most insidious things when it comes to consumer rights is that, when faced with, say, buying Dove for Men or Lynx deodorant, there’s an apparent choice: that you can align your values and tastes with the product you wish to buy, using your purchase power to vote, as it were. But when a small number of companies own almost everything, there is no real choice, there’s only marketing to appeal to different demographics. Yesterday I was in a supermarket where Dove, Lux and Pears soaps were all sitting next to each other – and all of them have the telltale ‘U’ on the back of them. If every label were replaced with Unilever, I’m sure people would be raising a lot more eyebrows. Personally, I don’t like being played for a fool.
So, what will I be doing to cut Unilever?
- Avoiding Coles and Woolworths in favour of local/independent producers and shops or alternative supermarkets, which don’t seem to stock a lot of Unilever products (although this might take some further investigation). This is also a way to
- Checking the labels for the Unilever logo
- Keeping a list of brands handy for reference
- Buying generic labels
Unilever is far from the only major company. There’s also Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Kellogg’s, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, Kraft and Mars – they all operate in similar ways. I’ll certainly try and a But you have to start somewhere, right? I’m a firm believer that making small stands—and more importantly, talking about them—can make a difference, and also that educating yourself about the choices available is the best thing you can do to empower yourself. Corporations are helped when people don’t question them. So let’s question them as much as we can!
If you’re thinking about joining me, here are some of the other Unilever products on the no-buy list:
- Rexona. Sorry, between Dove, Lynx and Rexona, we might just have to smell.
- TREsemmé and Sunsilk. Did you know that if you leave your hair long enough, it’ll clean itself? Who needs shampoo, anyway?
- Streets Icecream. Also known as Wall’s in the UK and many other names in many other countries under the same logo. Ben & Jerry’s is also Unilever. Yeah, I know.
- Flora and I Can’t Believer it’s not Butter. Don’t worry, real butter is probably better for you anyway.
- Lipton’s and PG Tips tea. Byebye, Lipton’s Iced Tea.
- Omo, Surf and Persil. Your clothes don’t reeeaaaaally need to be washed, do they?
- Domestos, Jif. Baking Soda, friends.
- Hellman’s Mayonnaise.
- Knorr. Make your own stock! It’s easy.
- Bertolli Olive oil and pasta products. THis one’s tricky because it doesn’t have the label on the back. Cheeky!