Implementing human rights at Unilever

Marcela Manubens (Global VP for Social Impact at Unilever):

“I joined Unilever because I wanted to be part of a company that believes in working on human rights. Unilever has an incredibly big footprint, that is why we want to improve sustainable development while also striving to double the size of our business.

This is why we expanded our ambition and offered opportunities for women in particular, and worked on improving our human rights performance in particular. Unilever wants to have a positive social impact and is the first adopter of the UNGP Reporting Framework. For us, transparency is key. Because if we don’t report, we cannot prove that we are social engaged. Transparency is always the first step to improvement.

We need to take action when human rights are not respected. We need to think about the message to our employees. When we ask directors what human rights mean to them personally, stories of specific persons in dire conditions are told. When we talk about human rights, it is always about someone else, it is never about us. That is an attitude that needs to change: we want to make human rights personal. If you want change, you should start with yourself, you are the one who can make the change; but also remember: change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. Particularly in large companies – society often expect a big shift in only a short amount of time. We have to be ambitious but realistic at the same time.”

foto door Herre Vermeer Fotografie -


Q: Are there issues with which Unilever deals to improve its human rights performance, that are actually hurting the business? In other words, does the response to the issue go against the business model?

A: Some may argue that the impact of our decision is disadvantageous for Unilever when looking at our financial Profit & Loss accounts, but that is looking only to short-term gains. For us, it does not pay to have people working in poor conditions. That goes against our sustainable business model.

Q: At the moment Unilever is praised by almost everyone. Are there still organisations that critise you? Who are your main critics?

A: Naming and Shaming is still okay, because is often has an impact: it starts the discussion, issues are recognized, business listens to civil society organisations. However, now we know we can do more, we need to work together instead of opposing each other. Where there is only criticism, there is no incentive for cooperation. We need the critical mass, but we also need people to ‘cross the streets’ and work with us in a constructive way.

Q: Do you promote human rights in difficult countries?

A: Yes, we do. And we will continue to do so. But it is difficult indeed, particularly concerning the role of business in an area of conflict. If we stay we have more leverage and impact to change the situation. If we divest we lose that possibility, but on the other hand we have a better security situation. It is a though question.

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