Tuesday, May 27, 2008

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

This is a story of how ethical marketing can become a lightning rod for critics.

Unilever has scored at the top of global ethical and sustainability indexes in the past year, but because activists believe that they get the most traction (and news coverage) by aiming at the biggest name, the company is being attacked because of the public stances it’s taken on environmental and social issues.

Case in point: Greenpeace named Unilever -- along with its global Dove agency, Ogilvy & Mather, and some U.K. PR firms -- as killers of Indonesian orangutans because the company buys palm oil from palms grown where rain forests have been destroyed. (Palm oil is supposed to be a healthful alternative to transfats in food as well as a cheaper alternative to other grain-based oils, as the U.S. government drives up grain prices as a result of its biofuel initiatives.)

Greenpeace sent people in orangutan suits to scale the company's London headquarters last month and unleashed sophisticated parodies of Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" on the London Underground and YouTube. I just saw a really scary YouTube video produced by Greenpeace about the Unilever’s responsibility for the deforestation of Indonesia.

I thought about what counsel I’d give to Unilever under these circumstance. I saw that the company responded swiftly on its website, with a video outlining its major new commitment to ensure that all its supplies of palm oil come from sustainable and certified sources. Unilever could also:

  1. Meet with representatives from Greenpeace — invite them for coffee — to find out what actions they think are necessary.

  2. Bring in an expert on the Indonesian rainforest expert to explain sustainability and describe how economic benefits can be delivered without endangering the environment.

  3. Start a reforestation program to make up for what has been lost (if this is really true!) to support orangutan survival.

  4. Promote the company’s standing on the GE+S Index — and all of its support activities to keep that standing.

  5. Build and train an army of third-party advocates to counter the attacks by Greenpeace.

Technorati Tags: Unilever, Greenpeace, Dove, Ogilvy & Mather, Indonesian orangutans, palm oil, Campaign for Real Beauty, business, communications, public relations


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