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  • Writer's pictureWill Sarni

Coca-Cola and Unilever dive into water as a human right

This is part 2 of a 2-part series. (Part 1 is previous article called "Why you need a 'license to grow' strategy")


Several companies have embraced a "license to grow" strategy. For some, this method of engaging the global community and becoming more active in solving resource, environmental and social problems will be a significant shift in its operational model and business strategy. The following are examples that illustrate elements of activating this strategy.


Unilever is a multinational company that recognizes "building a better society and a better business goes hand in hand." Unilever’s "Help a Child Reach 5" campaign and "Lifebuoy Handwashing Behaviour Change Program" aim to educate over 1 billion people on health and sanitation practices.

Over 2.4 million people lack access to proper hygiene or sanitation and each year over 2 million children succumb to water-related illnesses, such as diarrhea, before their fifth birthday. Nearly 88 percent of those deaths are linked to inadequate hygiene, poor sanitation and contaminated water. Up to 35 percent are preventable with soap handwashing practices.

Lifebuoy’s campaign focus is India, the leading country in water-borne illnesses — 318 out of 1,000 children under age 5 die from preventable diarrhea and respiratory infections each year. While Lifebuoy’s campaigns have reached over 130 million people in India, the truly innovative aspect of the campaign is the varied partnerships and stakeholders involved in Lifebuoy’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) mission.

Over 1,500 company employees volunteer at schools in India to promote better hand washing and sanitation practices.

The Lifebuoy case study illustrates the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships, companies alongside NGOs, in designing effective change management programs in predominantly rural, low-income and isolated communities.

To spread the message, Unilever collaborates with "Help a Child Reach 5" ambassadors — who range from academics to Bollywood stars — to build campaign recognition as well as establish trust, credibility and transparency in areas that the campaign is targeting. The "Help a Child Reach 5" campaign has been able to leverage well-established local resources in addition to Unilever’s marketing expertise.

Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, stated: "By working together we can combine the expertise, resources and policy needed to achieve real change." For example, over 1,500 company employees volunteer at schools in India to promote better hand washing and sanitation practices.

Additionally, at the school-level, Lifebuoy developed a "School of 5" change behavior program that teaches children "the importance of washing hands at five key points in the day" through subtle, yet powerful, messaging that "consists of superhero comic books, animation, radio shows, music and games, as well as walk-around characters that visit schools in person."

Parallel to this, Lifebuoy furthers its handwashing campaign through viral marketing and public advocacy. In 2008, Unilever was a founding partner of "Global Handwashing Day," the aim of which was to increase the campaign’s profile and promote better handwashing practices. Lifebuoy also has reached over 8 million viewers on YouTube with its showcase films and educational cartoons.

Lastly, Lifebuoy collaborated with a wide-range of NGOs and donors — USAID, Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor, Public Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap and Population Services International, among others. These varied efforts have catapulted Unilever’s profile while increasing sales of its products.

The Coca-Cola Company

Coca-Cola, as the world’s largest beverage provider, is a company where "[fresh] water is a strategic priority — it’s the main ingredient in every product the company makes."

Each year over 2 million children succumb to water-related illnesses before their fifth birthday.

Coca-Cola, which has targeted Africa as a focus of emerging market growth since 2009, also has engaged in multi-million dollar water sustainability initiatives in the region that are focused at the local level. In fact, the region accounts for 10 percent of Coca-Cola’s revenue and this figure is expected to double before 2020.

The company, however, recognizes the connection between its emerging market growth strategy and water sustainability: "The communities that host our bottling plants are also our consumer base — we sell our products where we make them. If those communities stay strong, our business will stay strong."

For example, in 2009, the company pledged $30 million over six years to the Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN), with the goal of improving clean water access for 2 million people across 37 African countries. Since then RAIN has provided over 1 million people with safe, sustainable water access, 240,000 people access to sanitation.

At a continent level, RAIN also replenished over 2 billion liters of water across 34 watersheds covering 65 percent of Africa. In addition to RAIN, Coca-Cola collaborated with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to improve water efficiency by 20 percent by 2012, a goal that it met, and now it aims to save 50 million liters of water use annually.

Coca-Cola’s partnership with the WWF and its RAIN initiative illustrates how addressing water risk is in the company’s best interest as a global citizen, as well as necessary to support business growth.


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