Why supply chains can be crucial vehicles for impact

Why supply chains can be crucial vehicles for impact

Behavioural scientist Richard Wright explains how consumer goods supply chains can provide crucial access to goods and services, and thereby have an impact on global poverty.

At Davos this year, Alan Jope, Unilever CEO and my boss, spoke about the importance of sustainable supply chains. As a global consumer goods company whose products are used by 2.5 billion people every day, supply chains and distribution networks are fundamental to the operation of our business.

While most people know Unilever for our brands, we spend as much thought on optimising our supply chains as we do on a product recipe or formula.  This makes sure that people can buy Dove soap, Knorr bouillon, and Domestos bathroom cleaner when they need them.

During the Forum, nobody predicted the turn the global economy has taken these last few weeks because of COVID-19. We are now in a global crisis. There are many uncertainties about the future. But in the midst of these uncertainties, just as businesses have mobilised to contribute to the SDGs and slow climate change, they must identify opportunities to combat this virus and its wider social and economic effects.

For example, Unilever believe we can use our supply chain knowledge and expertise in marketing to create a positive impact. Many of us take everyday products for granted. But for poor or underserved communities, access to soap to enable handwashing, nutritious stock cubes or bathroom bleach can help to prevent illness or malnutrition. At this time, these essentials – especially those for health and hygiene – are more important than ever.

One way we are using our supply chain knowledge for positive impact is through TRANSFORM; a joint initiative between Unilever, the UK’s Department for International Development, and EY. Set up to improve the lives of low-income households in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, TRANSFORM blends funding with private-sector support to help entrepreneurs develop sustainable solutions to some of the world’s biggest development challenges.

While not overstating the impact of consumer goods on global poverty, the TRANSFORM perspective is that business solutions can provide crucial access to goods and services, with the potential to play an essential role in accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by their 2030 deadline.

TRANSFORM’s own goal is to help up to 100 million people gain access to products and services that improve their health, livelihoods, environment and well-being by 2025. Unilever’s expertise in building effective supply chains helps to create this impact at scale, while our experience in marketing and behaviour change is central to making this impact sustainable.

So, what does this look like in practice? Consider HappyTap, a social enterprise that manufactures and sells a portable sink designed to inspire children and their caregivers to wash their hands with soap.  This simple behaviour provides the most cost-effective way of protecting themselves from diarrhoea; a disease that kills more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined [1].

TRANSFORM helped to develop product prototypes, tapping into behavioural science insights. This helped to make the HappyTap fun and easy to use, encouraging children and their caregivers to form the new habits of regular handwashing.

HappyTap also worked with Unilever’s supply chain experts to develop a multi-channel distribution plan for Bangladesh. This includes plans to engage with commercial retail distributors and development agencies with a mandate for improving public health. HappyTap hopes to piggy-backed on existing marketing and distribution work for Lifebuoy, Unilever’s mass market soap brand. With this scale, HappyTap has the potential to reach millions of children and their caregivers and help them to protect their health.

Product designers and marketers know that the best products and services are those that provide something that people genuinely want, though sometimes smart marketing is needed to ignite that desire and create a repeated habit. Telling people that they must wash their hands to protect their health is less effective in changing behaviours than transforming it into an appealing activity, rather than a chore. HappyTap has been designed with this in mind – it’s a great experience for the children and their caregivers, and our research shows that it’s been highly effective so far.

Businesses like HappyTap will be essential in contributing towards the SDGs and limiting the spread of COVID 19. Larger businesses like ours have the opportunity – and responsibility – to help them achieve their potential. Next year at Davos, I hope to see even more social entrepreneurs taking the stage to explain how they are innovating to create sustainable impact, and with large businesses at their side to support.


Richard Wright is Behavioural Science Director at Unilever and sits on the Management Team of TRANSFORM.

[1] Liu L, Johnson HL, Cousens S, Perin J, Scott S, Lawn JE, Rudan I, Campbell H, Cibulskis R, Li M, Mathers C, Black RE; Child Health Epidemiology Reference Group of WHO and UNICEF. Global, regional, and national causes of child mortality: an updated systematic analysis for 2010 with time trends since 2000.External Lancet. 2012;379(9832):2151-61.

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