At the Unilever Summit: The role of big business in how we consume and think about beauty

I am currently in Tagaytay for the 3-day Unilever Summit. Yesterday was the first day, and members of the press, social media influencers, vloggers, and bloggers got to know more about the new innovations of Unilever’s different brands. What struck me the most however was the opening program where Dorothy Dee-Ching, Unilever Philippines’ Vice President for Personal Care, talked about how the company aims to be future-fit and purpose-led.

Ms. Dee-Ching shares that Unilever cares for the people, the society, and the planet. They believe that every person is beautiful, and so they’ve created more inclusive campaigns and initiatives such as the Dove Self-Esteem Project to help young people develop their self-esteem at an early age. They have a website, they work with schools (they have an ongoing discussion with DepEd), they even partnered with Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe (man I love that show) to create short cartoons to help boost confidence. They claim to have reached 20,000,000 people with this project, and aim to reach 20,000,000 more by 2020.

Unilever’s second goal is to also support a positive change in society. With their Closeup Free To Love Campaign last year, they shared the stories of couples who fought for their right to love whom they wish. Most striking was Joey Mead-King and Angie King (formerly Ian King) whose marriage survived Angie’s transition into a transwoman. I personally loved these series because sharing stories like this - and supported by advertising spend - helps open up more acceptance of people who are not like everybody else.

Last but not the least, Unilever hopes to contribute to our planet by making their production process more sustainable. They’ve started with Love Beauty and Planet’s packaging which is entirely made from post-consumer recycled plastic. This is a huge deal! Unilever is also opening the All Things Hair Refillery this Saturday in three Ayala Malls (Trinoma, Glorietta, and Alabang Town Center) where people can refill their favorite Tresemme, Dove, Cream Silk, and Sunsilk products by bringing their old bottles. The cost is 20% less than retail and is charged per gram. What’s more – if you have old plastic bottles or sachets that you want to dispose of, you can leave them at the the station, and Unilever will take care of upcycling them with their partners, Linis Ganda Recycling Network and Villar SIPAG Foundation.

“This is just the beginning,” Dee-Ching adds. “We hope to be able to roll out the Refillery in more areas in the Philippines, as well as extend it to our other brands.” This is actually a manifestation of a global initiative by Unilever called LOOP. Basically, it’s like the milkman of the 70s where they pick up and refill your bottle from your doorstep, but for beauty products. Obviously we don’t have systems yet in place here in the Philippines for such an ambitious project, but the Refillery is a step. Please support it this weekend!

All these initiatives bring warm, fuzzy feelings to an optimistic elder millennial such as myself, but more than anything I am fascinated by Unilever’s movement in this direction in terms of business. Most people would have this idea of big evil corporations telling us anything to make a buck. Well, that’s true, they would tell us anything to keep the bottomline healthy, but corporations are not necessarily evil - at least in this day and age where the Internet gives us so information at our finger tips. Corporations and individuals, too, may also be held accountable with social media fury.

All of these movements by Unilever in recent years is dictated by us, the consumers, and all the conversations we have online about the issues we face today. Inclusivity, self-esteem, sustainability - these are all hot topics in beauty. These initiatives didn’t come from the goodness of Unilever’s heart. It came from the goodness of yours, in a way. It came from our idea of the world that should be, and not what is.

This consumer movement is helping to drive economies of scale for every other beauty brand out there, and this is hugely important in how companies will make decisions in the future. The best example is Love Beauty and Planet’s recycled plastic packaging. Everybody wants to use recycled plastic in packaging, but it is in fact more expensive (say 30%-50% more expensive) than non-recycled plastic. I know, I’ve asked in Taiwan before.

It makes little business sense to invest in recycled plastic especially if one’s volume is not high yet. But with Unilever ordering recycled plastic in massive volumes, it drives down the price for everyone else. It improves the economy of scale by encouraging plastic manufacturers to invest in technology, machinery, and labor (to name a few) in order to drive down their own costs in making the post-consumer plastic. Soon, this domino effect will be felt by other manufacturers, and hopefully in the future everybody will be using recycled plastic.

This is what I want you to remember: you have a massive amount of power as a consumer. It’s called your money. Spend it on products and companies that you believe in, so that you can effect positive change on people, society, and the planet. Keep on educating yourself about current issues and keep on publicly advocating for the world that you want to live in - not the world that is.