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Tackling poverty, now and in the future


Ending poverty requires action from every part of society. And as a business we have a key role to play, from protecting lives in a crisis to using our size and scale to encourage systemic change.

Villagers in Magadgascar using river for drinking water and domestic use

Poverty is one of the biggest and most complex problems our world currently faces. People living in poverty lack access to resources such as food, education, finance, sanitation and medical care. In short, their basic human needs simply aren’t being met.

Fighting poverty is therefore an enormous challenge. And in 2020 it has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. In its latest report, The World Bank says the pandemic, and the global recession that is set to follow, will push an additional 150 million people into extreme poverty by 2021.

Where people are suffering, we know we can play an important role by using our scale for good.

Taking action on the major emergencies the world faces is one way we do this. For example, donations and emergency programmes were a key part of our initial response to the Covid-19. We put measures in place to protect lives and livelihoods by launching the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC): a public–private partnership between Unilever and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCOD) to curb the spread of Covid-19, with leading academics from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) also in the core team.

The partnership aims to reach up to 1 billion people by investing £100 million in hygiene programmes, awareness campaigns and delivering products to those in the developing world.

But Covid-19’s impact on the economic landscape has only just begun. And just as there is no business case for enduring poverty, there is no quick fix to achieving its end.

Collaborating with others to achieve lasting change

Many argue that to really make an impact, a more inclusive form of capitalism is needed. We agree. It has long been clear that the current capitalist model needs repair.

Globalisation and capitalism are good for a business like ours, but globalisation and capitalism at the expense of people (and the planet) are not.

We believe that it is simply not possible to achieve long-term business success in a world which contains poverty, hunger and climate change. It’s why, in 2015, we publicly backed the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to address these global issues.

Since then we have worked to harness our reach and scale as a business and take collective action with governments, NGOs, investors, consumers, suppliers and regulators to create systemic change.

Creating opportunities across our value chain to enhance livelihoods

Though poverty is commonly measured by levels of income, addressing it also requires tackling social exclusion because of gender, long-term unemployment, low income, poor skills or education.

Creating opportunities for women

A study by the McKinsey Global Institute shows that closing gender gaps in labour-force participation has the potential to add 12–25% to global GDP by 2025. In other words, when more women work, economies grow.

A total of 25% of the world’s population are women living in rural areas. And through projects such as our Shakti entrepreneurship programme in India, we offer women an opportunity to earn an income selling Unilever products door to door.

As of September 2019, 118,000 women were actively taking part in our Shakti distribution network in the country. And the programme has been extended to reach more than 100,000 women in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Guatemala, Myanmar and Colombia too.

Advancing financial inclusion for micro-businesses

Building new systems that widen access to finance for groups such as micro-entrepreneurs also helps to break down the barriers that can keep people in poverty.

In partnership with Mastercard in Kenya, and with funding from the CEO Partnership for Economic Inclusion, we created project Jaza Duka, which literally translates as ‘fill your shelves’.

The project enabled 12,000 small retailers to digitise their stocktaking, giving them better control over their inventories. This not only ensured they had a steadier stream of income but also that they could build the credentials needed for banks to give them access to short-term loans that will help their businesses grow.

Supporting smallholders to weather market shocks and fluctuations

Tackling poverty also means helping others build financial resilience, such as ensuring that the smallholder farmers providing ingredients for our brands can be resilient to bad weather or a bad harvest.

One of the many projects we run with our farmer communities is project DiRev. This saw us work with 448 smallholder cocoa farmers in southern Côte d’Ivoire to establish a maize crop alongside their main cocoa fields. And it proved useful from the start. When drought threatened the cocoa harvest, farmers had more than one crop to sell.

Using our brand purpose to provide hope and opportunity

Our supply chain is not the only part of our business we leverage to make a difference.

Our 28 sustainable living brands are responsible for 75% of our overall growth. Each one supports a positive change for people and the planet. This includes providing people with access to basic hygiene needs.

In the US, 30% of profits from our brand Right To Shower is used to give people experiencing homelessness access to a shower every day.

For almost a decade, Domestos has worked in partnership with UNICEF to tackle sanitation issues and helped over 28 million people gain improved access to a toilet.

And Lifebuoy’s Help a Child Reach 5 campaign and its lifesaving handwashing message have reached hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Our boldest action is still collective action

It’s crucial that we don’t lose sight of the issues that fuel inequality, and we must continue to collaborate with others to change the systems that contribute to extreme poverty.

As the world readies itself to face a global recession, we will continue to focus on what we can do to transform global food systems, empower smallholder farmer livelihoods, advance diversity and inclusion, solve chronic malnutrition and promote economic inclusion.

All of this calls for a fundamental change to how we do business, and we will collaborate with others to change how the current capitalist model works to help end poverty.

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