Our health & hygiene strategy

Many Unilever brands offer hygiene-related benefits. But to make a lasting impact on health we need to encourage our consumers to make small changes to their everyday habits.

Poor sanitation & hygiene and lack of safe drinking water are huge issues

Poor hygiene, lack of safe drinking water and poor sanitation are the cause of millions of preventable deaths. Although infant mortality is declining around the world, over 2 million children under five still die each year as a result of diarrhoea and pneumonia. 780 million people do not have access to an improved drinking water source and 80% of diseases in the developing world are water-borne.

These issues are closely interconnected. Evidence shows that individuals will be healthier and communities more productive if they have access to clean water and better sanitation and if they adopt improved hygiene practices.

In addition, tooth decay is the world's most common disease and can lead to more serious health conditions as well as affecting people’s self-esteem and confidence.

Why does behaviour change matter?

Giving people access to good-quality, affordable products such as soap and toothpaste represents a crucial starting point in encouraging behaviour change. Our Lifebuoy soap is on sale in over 50 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In these countries, many people live on less than US$1 per day and basic hygiene is vital to good health. Yet products alone are not enough if people do not use them in the right way at the right time. Studies show that people often know they should brush twice a day or wash their hands with soap after going to the toilet and before food. Yet they have not translated this knowledge into a new habit.

What is our role?

Unilever brands can play an important role. Improved habits lie at the heart of making sustainable improvements to hygiene. As one of the world’s leading consumer goods companies, we understand the triggers that generate sustained behaviour shifts. We use this knowledge, coupled with our expertise in marketing and delivering campaigns, to reach large, diverse populations and achieve a lasting impact on everyday behaviours. One brand which demonstrates this is Lifebuoy soap.

Underpinning our approach is our model of behaviour change, Unilever’s Five Levers for Change – a set of principles which, if applied consistently, increases the likelihood of creating a lasting impact. See Handwashing behaviour change for more.

Bringing about widespread, sustainable behaviour change is not something we can do alone. We therefore work closely with governments, NGOs and other partners.

A knock-on effect of addressing social challenges through our brands is business growth for us, as more consumers buy and use more of our products to protect their health. Lifebuoy, for example, is one of Unilever’s fastest-growing brands – it has achieved double digit growth over 2010-12.

Our approach

Our approach is to:

  • make effective products that improve health, hygiene and well-being

  • change habits through behaviour change programmes

  • work with partners to develop joint campaigns and achieve broader reach

  • elevate advocacy and raise the profile of hygiene issues externally with governments, key opinion formers and wider communities.

As part of our Sustainable Living Plan, we have a commitment to help more than a billion people to improve their hygiene habits and we will bring safe drinking water to 500 million people. This will help reduce the incidence of life-threatening diseases like diarrhoea.

Because water, sanitation and hygiene issues are closely interconnected, we have started to explore how we can develop a more systematic approach to these issues by piloting a sanitation programme between our Domestos toilet cleaner brand and partners UNICEF and the World Toilet Organization. This will help us to take a more joined-up approach to improving health through a concerted effort around clean water, sanitation and hygiene in the future.

How do we measure success?

We have defined a metric to measure progress against our health and hygiene commitment. This is the number of people reached on a cumulative basis by an intervention which, based on past studies, can be expected to result in sustained, positive behaviour change.

At Unilever, we are anxious to provide as accurate a picture of our programme impacts as possible. Consequently, we conduct detailed evaluation studies. One effective way of doing this is through quantitative diary studies where mothers and children use the diaries to track everyday behaviours over a period of time. See Handwashing behaviour change for more.

We also draw on advanced technologies to assist us in our impact evaluation. A case in point is our use of smart sensors, which we place inside a soap bar. This enables researchers to unobtrusively gather data during handwashing trials in people’s homes. From this data, we can monitor the extent to which different types of awareness-raising initiatives lead to meaningful behavioural changes.

In addition, we monitor the business results of our health and hygiene interventions. Lifebuoy’s handwashing programme in Indonesia, for example, saw domestic soap sales increase by 19.7%. Likewise, in Vietnam, sales of Lifebuoy jumped by 29%. This tallied with an 11% increase in soap consumption among Vietnamese consumers.


Our partnerships help us to communicate health and hygiene messages effectively, to as wide an audience as possible. We will continue to reach people through strategic partnerships that help us develop approaches and monitor our progress.

Through the Unilever Foundation, launched in 2012, we are partnering with five leading global organisations – Oxfam, PSI, Save the Children, UNICEF and the World Food Programme.

With PSI (Population Services International), we are working to make a tangible contribution to improving the health of children and families. We seek to achieve this by delivering behaviour change interventions that focus on handwashing, clean drinking water and sanitation. In 2012, we worked together on the Lifebuoy handwashing programme in schools in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

With UNICEF, we are improving sanitation in developing countries through UNICEF’s Community Approaches to Total Sanitation (CATS) initiative. This aims to promote demand for sanitation at the community level.

By supporting Save the Children’s EVERY ONE campaign, we are improving access to health workers and life-saving vaccines. Furthermore, we are ensuring that high-impact health and nutrition programmes reach those children who are in need.


We recognise the need to do more to influence public policy around the world to accelerate progress against the more challenging targets in our Plan. Our Billion Better Lives campaign, which was introduced in September 2012, provides an opportunity to set the requests we are making of governments around the world against the background of a wider business context and communications campaign.

We also look to draw on our strategic engagement with global non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations. One example is the United Nations Secretary General’s campaign “Every Woman, Every Child” focusing on child and maternal health. Our participation allows us to locate our own billion better lives narrative within a context that external key opinion formers find highly relevant and credible.