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

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.

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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.

Is Unilever threatening us that if we don't buy Dove soap, our children will inherit a diseased, damaged planet?

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.

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  • Irma Gerd

    Thanks for this. I foolishly wasted time on the Unilever site trying to figure out what the heck this “project” was. They’ve even got a ridiculous counter on there tallying “acts of sunlight,” as if something is actually getting done. Eventually, I concluded that an “act of sunlight” consists of a consumer “joining,” i.e., providing their identity and contact information to Unilever so that they can send more marketing nonsense targeted directly to the gullible. It was a very Orwellian experience.

  • Counterculturalist

    You’ve touch me, with your ability to withstand corporations’ emotional manipulation :’)

  • DD

    For some odd reason they seemed to be encouraging people to have more babies. And, as we all know, 7 billion is just not enough people infesting the planet, so breeders unite! (insert eye-roll here).

  • piyush2

    I postulate the following:
    As a civilization increasingly senses its growing unsustainability, there will be increasing signs of denial so as to avoid making fundamental common sense obvious changes necessary to move towards sustainability. This denial will be expressed in a variety of ways, mostly notably by prefixing all manner of unsustainable behaviors with the word “sustainable” in front of it in the hope that this word magic will work towards erasing the growing realization of unsustainability that is surfacing into the conscious from the sub-conscious mind. e.g “sustainable consumption of unnecessary goods”, “sustainable population growth” etc.

    • jwkinstl

      piyush2, you seem to be “predicting” the present.

  • Phytoramediant

    When rising birthrates is the worst contributor to ecological devastation and conflict, a campaign telling us to have more kids is like a firefighting campaign asking us to put more petrol onto the flames ‘To make it more cheerful for for everyone’.

  • Claudia

    THANK YOU for the Reality Check. Let’s not forget that Unilever also opposes Prop 37, the bill that would establish our right to know whether our food has been genetically engineered. The impacts, actual and potential, of the GMO industry on human and environmental health and human rights worldwide is so shockingly devastating that the question ‘Why bring a child into this world?’ takes on an even more sinister significance. http://www.responsibletechnology.org/10-Reasons-to-Avoid-GMOs

  • sentyabr

    Thank you for this article! Shame on this marketing campaign!

  • AnIrishVoter

    Glad to see others notice this blatant manipulation. Amazing how easy it is to brainwash a person just by putting an inspirational/emotional piano piece in the background, getting a wise sounding old man to talk in a deep and emotional voice and basically put out a call to action about whether the viewer is against “bad” things in the world.

  • Draxiar

    My wife and I have a small business making skin-care and aromatherapy products with all natural and organic ingredients (no…this is not a plug). We research as far as we can to know where it all comes from, what certifications it meets and if it’s sustainably grown. Our philosophy is that if you can’t understand the ingredients neither can your body. For a company of this size to promote sustainability and good health while still putting crap you struggle to pronounce into their products is insidious and misleading especially when other companies are out there trying to be the genuine article of sustainability.

    • Collin237

      Errr… How does a body “understand” something?

      • Claudia

        A substance exists in the natural world as a result of natural processes , and can be broken down and processed naturally in our bodies and in the environment – or it can’t. The immediate and long term negative impacts on physical and environmental health, if the latter, can be profoundly destructive, encompassing a range of disorders ranging, in our case, from allergies to cancer.