Every day I get updates from Upworthy into my email inbox. I’m not alone – the site has almost 7 million likes on Facebook. Sometimes I read the updates, sometimes I don’t – but generally it’s good to know that when I do open those emails they are full of videos and infographics that challenge much of the oppressive status quo that exists in our society today. Prejudice and oppression based on gender, religion, sexuality and race are regularly tackled, and there is often input about serious environmental issues – like climate change for example. Not only that, but the content tends to have a feel good element, and inspire some hope that things could be different! True, there’s the occasional advert posted as an inspiring video, which jars a little, because I don’t think equality should be a selling point (it should be a given), but all in all it’s a pretty inspiring job they all do.
Yesterday, I opened an email from Upworthy – it was about about the upcoming UN Climate Summit and Upworthy’s involvement. I was just a teeny tiny (read: huge) bit surprised when I noticed a ‘U’ in the corner. The ‘U’ was none other than Unilever’s logo, announcing their sponsorship. In Unilever’s own words “[o]n any given day, two billion people use Unilever products”. Two billion people?? That’s quite a lot, almost a third of the whole world’s population. What do Unilever make, you might ask, and why are they sponsoring this? A quick look on their homepage shows me the following brands: Lynx, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Knorr, Dove, Surf, Persil, PG Tips, Lipton, Wall’s, Colman’s Mustard… the list goes on. In essence, purveyors of highly processed products. There are any number of reasons that these types of products could be questioned – health impacts, treatment of workers, transparency, the environment. To find out more I’d recommend a read of this report ‘Behind the Brand’: it’s a report by Oxfam on the ethics of ‘Big 10′ food companies, of which Unilever is one. Although Unilever is better than some – they still have a very long way to go.
As our topic is climate change, let’s stick with a couple of the environmental concerns. Body and cleaning products are usually derived from oil and chemicals – aside from the environmental impact of their manufacture, their impact once used, and their packaging (from plastic to aerosol cans) can be highly damaging. (Luckily their are lots of low impact ways to make your own – try this link.) A thought on some of the ‘food’ produced and marketed by Unilever doesn’t inspire a huge amount more hope. At Otesha our purchasing policy is to buy Fairtrade and organic tea and coffee. PG Tips bears the Rainforest foundation mark, which goes someway to protecting biodiversity, but doesn’t guarantee fair trade for the producers. But I’ve heard that non-organic food products, reliant on chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and usually grown in monocultures – are not great for biodiversity and again there is a big impact from the manufacture and use of chemicals. Industrial agriculture has massive carbon outputs too – a really good read to find out more in this area is Stolen Harvest by Vandana Shiva.
There’s so much more I could add here, but I think you catch my drift. So why am I writing all of this? I guess I’m just worried when companies so involved in creating the environmental crisis devise projects and sponsorship to ‘change the world’ when it’s really the core of their business operations that needs to change. I get the need for business to change, but I don’t believe that what they’re doing is changing their business. In their own words, they’re worried about climate change because they’re worried about profit. When smaller or charitable organisations take support from such organisations and advertise it – whilst the companies continue to manufacture products in environmentally destructive ways – the word greenwash creeps to mind. Companies, cooperatives, organisations that produce and trade in environmentally and socially ethical ways don’t need their logo plastered onto other people’s projects – because they are already part of the solution. As individuals let’s support these positive alternatives to build a future that is healthy for people and planet (if you’re in Hackney try Growing Communities for food!) and let’s support other organisations to take a similar stand against greenwash!