The Sun Shines Out of Our Behinds – Unilever's Project Sunlight Greenwashing Campaign

Unilever's "Project Sunlight" campaign is brilliantly vague; like all genius ad campaigns, it does little other than inspire sentiment. Partnering with Oxfam, Population Services International (PSI), Save the Children, UNICEF and the World Food Programme, Unilever, through Project Sunlight, is “working toward” a more sustainable future, touting its corporate environmental achievements while subtly putting the onus for real change on the consumer.
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Unilever's "Project Sunlight" campaign is brilliantly vague; like all genius ad campaigns, it does little other than inspire sentiment. Partnering with Oxfam, Population Services International (PSI), Save the Children, UNICEF and the World Food Programme, Unilever, through Project Sunlight, is “working toward” a more sustainable future, touting its corporate environmental achievements while subtly putting the onus for real change on the consumer.
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Nearly 2.5 million Facebook users “like” Unilever's just-launched Project Sunlight campaign.

The multinational personal care product corporation is pushing it almost as hardcore as it did its Dove “Real Beauty” ads that told women that they are more beautiful than they think, which women all over ate up and showed their appreciation of by buying more Dove shower gel and anti-perspirant. In the current campaign, Unilever's marketers are plastering Facebook with sponsored posts featuring heart-tugging photos of Fergie, one of its celebrity endorsers, holding her newborn baby with hashtags encouraging consumer environmental responsibility such as #brightfuture and #letsaddhope. And who doesn't love babies and a cleaner, more sustainable environment, right?

Project Sunlight is brilliantly vague; like all genius ad campaigns, it does little other than inspire sentiment. Partnering with Oxfam, Population Services International (PSI), Save the Children, UNICEF and the World Food Programme, Unilever, through Project Sunlight, is “working toward” a more sustainable future, touting its corporate environmental achievements while subtly putting the onus for real change on the consumer.

“If we change our perspective a little bit, we can create a whole new picture,” Project Sunlight promises. “Share if you believe creating a #brightfuture for all children is POSSIBLE through simple, sustainable choices.” (35,700 “likes” and counting.) Other posts share uplifting platitudes such as, “There are two things we should give our children: One is roots, the other is wings.”

In this sensitive promotional video (nearly 2 million views and counting), expectant couples voice their worries and hopes for the futures of their children. The weepy soon-to-be parents are shown sad videos of deforestation and other environmental damage. “I like to think our baby will be one of the good guys,” a smiling couple gushes.

The man providing the voice over for the sensitive video implies that via the right soap and deodorant purchases, we can all ensure that clean drinking water is available for everyone and we can even prevent disease in future generations: “Illnesses that today affect millions of children a year will be prevented by simple, everyday products. Your child could have more possibilities of having a healthy heart than any living person today. And, the same chance of a broken heart. No one can escape that.”

Seriously...what? I had to watch it a few times to make sure I heard it right: Is Unilever threatening us that if we don't buy Dove soap, our children will inherit a diseased, damaged planet?

After these bizarrely ominous statements, the voice reassures viewers, “Bring your child into this world. There has never been a better time to create a brighter future for everyone on the planet. And those yet to come.” This is based on what, exactly? Whether we share this weird video with our Facebook friends and buy more Dove and Axe body wash?

Rachael Post, a digital strategist and professor of social media in Los Angeles, told the Guardian, “The Project Sunlight video reminded me of conversations with industry friends about favourite ways to increase TV ratings. Put a pregnant woman and her unborn child in danger, and ratings rise. Viewers want to see what happens--it's a primordial event.

The creators of Unilever's marketing campaign are surely aware of this gimmick. Women are often at their most vulnerable when they give birth--risking death--and arguably at their most powerful--bringing new life into the world. Newborns are incredibly helpless, lungs filling with air for the first time.

… In the end, it's the inherent contradictions that I find distressing about the video—manipulating emotions and human vulnerabilities to promote 'a better world.'”

It's also worth noting that I haven't found any indication that Unilever plans to remove fragrance and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) – both associated with allergies and organ-system toxicity – in its products. BHT is a respiratory irritant and also a suspected carcinogen, according to the Environmental Working Group. How exposing ourselves and our vulnerable infants to these ingredients will save the Earth is a mystery to me.

And although Unilever's PR machine has been adept at promoting the corporation's sustainability efforts, it remains one of the world’s largest purchasers of palm oil and continues to trade with suppliers that destroy rain forests. Unilever chairs the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry body formed in 2002 to ensure sustainable production. The RSPO issues Greenpalm certificates, which critics point out only certify that a company is “promoting” sustainability, not actually practicing it. Unilever also uses Wilmar, a company with a history of human rights violations and illegal logging, as one of its chief suppliers; Wilmar allegedly destroyed Sungai Beruang, an Indonesian village, when the villagers fought land theft by palm oil plantation owners.

According to CorporateWatch.org, Unilever, “like all multinational companies, is a major advocate of economic liberalization and privatization; processes that will enable multinationals to take ever more advantage of business opportunities worldwide.

Unilever claims to be concerned for the safety of its operations and the environment but this attitude clearly does not stretch to India. Unilever has recently been accused by Greenpeace of double standards and shameful negligence for allowing its Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Lever, to dump several tons of highly toxic mercury waste in the densely populated tourist resort of Kodaikanal and the surrounding protected nature reserve of Pambar Shola, in Tamilnadu, Southern India.”

“The conversion of rainforest into oil palm plantations has made Indonesia the third largest emitter of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. This does not prevent Unilever CEO Paul Polmann to celebrate himself as protector of the earth’s atmosphere at the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009," according to Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade.

So to secure a bright-hashtag future, we should all keep having babies and buying soap and anti-perspirant containing suspected carcinogens from a company with a history of human rights violations and environmentally damaging practices. And of course, share the sappy video with your Facebook friends. Got it.