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Disasters and emergencies

Average read time: 11 minutes

We’re using our resources, expertise, products and networks to help communities better prepare for natural and man-made disasters and pandemics, and to support people forced from their homes.

UNHCR volunteer sorting through pallet of Rexona deodorants

From man-made disasters to natural emergencies

Covid-19 means that the year 2020 will forever be synonymous with heartbreak and disaster for millions of people throughout the world. And Covid-19 comes on top of the devastating disasters and emergencies we see every year – some natural, others man-made, all involving a huge human cost for those affected.

According to the World Bank, 26 million people are pushed into poverty every single year because of more frequent and severe natural disasters. And as the impacts of climate change are felt, this figure is expected to rise.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says that currently over 79.5 million people have been forced from their homes, destroying livelihoods, tearing families apart and devastating communities. And over half of refugee children are thought to be out of school.

The economic costs are also significant, with the level of humanitarian assistance required by the UN at an all-time high. Covid-19 alone is estimated to have cost the global economy up to $8.8 trillion (almost 10% of GDP) (ADB, 2020).

These crises have a direct impact on people’s lives and businesses, and also cause disruption and instability to supply chains and logistics. And yet, despite all the tragedy and suffering, we’ve also seen glimmers of hope, with communities often coming together to support their most vulnerable.

How do we help?

When disaster strikes, we provide support such as hygiene and business expertise, product donations, financial assistance and employee contributions. These all help with emergency relief efforts, assisting people to address the immediate challenges that they face.

Unilever responds to disasters with:

  • resilience: building preparedness before an emergency strikes
  • relief: during the crisis
  • rehabilitation: helping to rebuild communities, economies and value chains.

We also advocate for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and businesses to work together on disaster planning. Businesses can bring important knowledge, infrastructure, resources and networks to help reduce the impact of emergencies. As well as being good for society, disaster planning helps to make businesses and supply chains resilient.

Our response to Covid-19

In response to Covid-19, we’re donating €100 million worth of soap, sanitiser, bleach and food. We’re also giving approximately €50 million to the Covid Action Platform of the World Economic Forum, supporting organisations including UNICEF and UNHCR.

We’ve donated 32 million bars of soap to UNHCR, which were distributed through 55 operations – this is one of the largest in-kind donations received by UNHCR from the private sector. We’ve also launched the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition to teach a billion people about practical steps to help avoid infection (see below).

To support suppliers, we offered €500 million of cash flow relief across our extended value chain, and early payment for our most vulnerable SME suppliers, to help them with financial liquidity. And we extended credit to selected small-scale retail customers whose business relies on Unilever, to help them manage and protect jobs.

We protected our own workforce from sudden drops in pay – as a result of market disruption or being unable to perform their role – for up to three months. This included our employees, contractors and those who manage or work on our sites.

The pandemic has changed the way we live our lives

Woman with baby in Africa being handed bars of soap by volunteer

As lockdowns were eased, we saw widespread feelings of apprehension as people tried to do ‘normal things’ with the threat of infection continuing to loom. So we created the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition with the UK government to give practical advice and peace of mind to help people move forward with their lives, while protecting health.

Together, we’re aiming to make sure up to a billion people across the world are washing their hands with soap regularly, practising distancing and mask wearing in public places, and disinfecting surfaces with bleach.

To achieve this, we’re using our scale (including in low- and middle-income countries) and our experience of rapid, mass-reach campaigns and programmes, as well as our ecosystem of partners. We began by adapting our evidence-based behaviour change programmes specifically for Covid-19, using our consumer insights through hygiene brands Lifebuoy and Domestos.

Working with 21 partners across 37 countries in Africa, Asia and South America, we’re reaching the most vulnerable communities. We will also advocate for increased investment in behaviour change programmes and infrastructure – especially in schools – to promote Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH).

Building resilience in local communities

We help build resilience in local communities and supply chains by leveraging our business expertise, supporting economies. For example, we’re helping smallholder farmers in our supply chain to improve their yields, and increase the quality and consistency of the crops they grow.

In the Philippines, we created an innovative programme with the Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA) to help SME businesses in our value chain prepare for emergencies. Rather than waiting until a disaster impacts, we trained over 1,000 businesses in creating business continuity plans. This helps to ensure not only their business resilience but also people’s ability to access essential goods in times of need.

Relief where it counts

We’ve been responding to global disasters and humanitarian crises for years. We know that we can maximise our assistance by working through partnerships.

In response to the devastating Australian wildfires in 2020, for instance, we distributed hygiene and food products to those affected via our partner Foodbank. And we supported relief efforts by offering extra paid leave to brave employees volunteering as first responders.

Following the Beirut explosion in 2020, we donated to the Lebanese Red Cross and to NGOs Beit el Baraka and Live Love Beirut. And we donated Lifebuoy hygiene products to Our Lady of Hope, Save the Children and Ajialouna.

We also partner with humanitarian aid organisation Direct Relief to help people across the world get the products they need as fast as possible in times of crisis. Our soaps, body washes and shampoos are part of the emergency kits distributed through Direct Relief’s networks. So far, Direct Relief has distributed over 800,000 kits in response to a number of emergencies in over 35 countries. And since the onset of Covid-19, Direct Relief has been providing PPE, ventilators and medical essentials to health workers worldwide.

Vaseline lends a healing hand

Millions of people affected by crises or poverty suffer from extreme physical discomfort and infection. This can leave them unable to work or function properly. The cause? Common skin conditions that could be treated – or even prevented altogether – with a simple jar of Vaseline® Jelly.

Our Vaseline® Healing Project, in partnership with Direct Relief, has helped to heal the skin of over 5 million people across 79 countries through product donations, dermatological care and training for healthcare professionals.

Our presence on the medical frontlines meant that when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we were ready to double down on our commitment. Globally, we’ve donated more than €5 million in funds, products and PPE to frontline workers and communities in need.

And due to overwhelming consumer demand for protection, we’ve introduced a new range of germ-killing Vaseline products in record time in over ten markets. We’re introducing these in over 20 countries, helping millions of people to keep their hands moisturised and germ-free.

Displaced but not forgotten

Those impacted by disasters and emergencies often need long-term support to rebuild their lives. So we help displaced families access everyday essentials, develop their skills and settle into their new homes. In Bangladesh, for example, we’re mobilising our Lifebuoy and Vaseline programmes to improve the health and wellbeing of 100,000 Myanmar refugees.

In January 2020, Lifebuoy carried out its first public fundraising campaign, supporting Syrian refugees. More than a quarter of this community lacks access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, making them particularly vulnerable to disease. We introduced a special Lifebuoy purpose pack in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia to support the health of Syrian refugee children.

In Turkey, we developed a reverse mentoring scheme with ideas platform Xynteo. The Embark partnership connects talented young Syrians in Istanbul with business leaders across Unilever Turkey to build refugees’ personal and professional networks. In return, we benefit from insights into where young people see culture, technology and business heading. We’re now running this in collaboration with Mastercard.

Through Ben & Jerry’s, we partnered with The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network (TERN) to create the Ice Cream Entrepreneurs (ICE) Academy. This helps refugees better integrate into society and access economic opportunities. Refugees are given training to develop their own business, alongside short-term jobs with our Ben & Jerry’s brand. And we didn’t let Covid-19 stop us – we moved the programme online, with a greater emphasis on entrepreneur development.

Mum’s magic hands guide the way in emergency settings

Hands washing under tap provided by Lifebuoy in a less economically developed country

Refugee communities and those affected by disasters are among the most vulnerable to disease, often living in crowded conditions. So we partnered with Oxfam to create the world’s first handwashing behaviour change programme for emergency settings, to help reduce infections.

At the heart of our Mum’s Magic Hands programme is a story about a mum and her magic hands, told through the eyes of a little girl. Mothers nurture their children against all odds. Their magic hands put their children to sleep, clean them, help them learn to walk and soothe away their pain. And washing those magic hands can prevent their children from getting ill. The story is brought to life through a series of sessions, with activities and stickers to promote and reinforce the practice of handwashing with soap at home and in the community.

Our pilot among mums in earthquake-affected areas of Nepal showed that the programme increased handwashing with soap after going to the toilet by 45%. We’ve created a repeatable model and Mum’s Magic Hands has now been used in over 17 emergencies.

Lifebuoy and UNHCR, for example, jointly ran the programme in Syrian settlements in Lebanon.

The programme is being used by a number of HBCC partners to encourage handwashing behaviour change.

Advocating for refugees’ rights

We believe it’s important that refugees are given the right support and opportunities to rebuild their lives. Central to this is the right to work, enabling them to fully contribute to society.

Unilever was one of the first businesses to join the Tent Partnership for Refugees. This works to help businesses hire refugees and use their voice to advocate for refugees’ right to work. In Malaysia, for example, we’re working with Tent, UNHCR and other business leaders to call on the government to give refugees the right to work.

We also sit on the Centre for Global Development’s ‘Expanding Refugee Labour Market Access’ Advisory Group alongside government, UN and civil society representatives. This is aimed at creating a stronger policy evidence base to drive policy change in this area.

Ben & Jerry’s – fighting for the rights of refugees

line of people dressed as silver living statues on a bridge in london carrying various signs.

Ice cream activists Ben & Jerry’s have long campaigned for refugee rights in Europe, and 2020 was no different.

At the end of 2019, the first-ever Global Refugee Forum was hosted by the UNHCR in Geneva, bringing together governments, civil society groups and businesses to help protect and advance the rights of people on the move. At the GRF, Ben & Jerry’s launched their awareness-raising flavour Cone Together, and with it committed to mobilise 250,000 Ben & Jerry’s fans to take action to support refugee rights, and to grow our Ice Academy to 400 graduates by 2022. Portions of the proceeds of the flavour were donated to Ben & Jerry’s partners across Europe, including Refugee Action, Red Acoge and Sea-Watch.

As the pandemic has progressed, Ben & Jerry’s has stepped up its activism across Europe, highlighting how Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting people seeking safety. This includes people in detention centres, stuck in camps at EU borders, families separated by immigration policies and those for whom access to healthcare is not guaranteed due to their immigration status.

Ben & Jerry’s has an ongoing partnership with Refugee Action as part of the Lift the Ban coalition. This involves more than 200 organisations, including grassroots groups, NGOs, think tanks and social enterprises, who are calling on the UK government to give people seeking asylum the right to work.