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  • Jennifer Scales

What if the "Bad Guys" Aren’t Actually That Bad After All?

The first blog post I wrote for askBelynda was called “Are smaller companies more sustainable?”. We love to include small, sustainable companies in our product recommendations, and there are many reasons why they can act more sustainably and ethically than multinational corporations.


However, sustainability is a complex subject, and it requires us to think twice about “obvious” facts. Sometimes buying produce in recyclable glass jars is worse than buying in plastic, because the heavy glass increases transport emissions. Biofuels seem like a really good idea to get more independent from fossil fuels, but they contribute to food shortages around the globe…


So today, I invite you to come along as I reexamine my belief that “the big players” are inherently the bad guys, caring only about share value and profit, destroying nature, and exploiting workers left and right.


 

Sustainable Shopping Made Simple

 


Let’s start with a company that shows its purpose in the brand name:



THE RIGHT TO SHOWER


Right now, more than half a million people are experiencing homelessness in the United States alone. Apart from the lack of shelter, they also have limited access to everyday necessities such as showers. Fortunately, there are several NGOs that work to change this.


It doesn’t only take passion and determination to provide these services, but also a lot of money. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a business model that allows consumers to support this cause with every purchase they make and every shower they take?


That was the idea that inspired Laura Fruitman to found “The Right To Shower” in 2019. This purpose brand sells body wash and soap bars to support initiatives that bring mobile showers to people living on the street. In their own words:


“We’ve crafted a range of products with the absolute best ingredients, sourced responsibly and formulated with care. And we’re using the profits to help ensure that everyone has access to a shower every day.”



I was thrilled the moment I read the mission statement on their website. But as I scrolled down, I came across a red flag: “The Right To Shower” is a start-up within the Unilever corporation.


This British multinational consumer goods company with well-known brands such as Dove, Ben and Jerry’s, and Knorr is the world’s largest purchaser of palm oil. I mainly know them from signing petitions with sad images of cut-down rainforests in Indonesia and starving orangutans. How does that fit together with this cool social enterprise?



CAN THE BIG PLAYERS CONTRIBUTE TO A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY?


So, I decided to look at the facts first. At askBelynda, we have an extensive list of criteria we use to determine if a product should be included in the recommendations or not.


There are some obvious criteria at the product level like organic ingredients, fair production, recyclable packaging, and a multitude of certifications. But we also look at the company itself: Is there active waste, water, and energy management? Is there a commitment to a diverse workforce and living wages? Smaller companies often don’t have the capacity to implement formal policies, so they either don’t have it, or we don’t find out about it.


This time, I looked up those criteria for the parent company Unilever, and I was really surprised. They have an ambitious sustainability strategy that goes far beyond the greenwashing I expected.

For example, they reached their goal of “zero waste to landfill across global factory network” in 2015. Unilever aims for net-zero carbon emissions and has already reduced its global manufacturing carbon footprint by two-thirds since 2008. They have policies and initiatives to increase representation at the management level and currently work to secure living wages beyond their own productions in the complete supply chain.


All this collided with my assumptions so much, that I looked up the palm oil controversy again. Without going into too much detail, the main criticism is that the standards Unilever requires to call palm oil “sustainably sourced” don’t go far enough and aren’t independently audited. With plantations certifying their own operations, the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) of which Unilever was a founding member, is often cited as the textbook example of greenwashing.


So where does that leave us? As much as I would like to live in a world with simple answers, I guess it’s time to accept this: In a system where business interests often compete with sustainability, with complex global supply chains and increasingly eco-conscious consumers, it’s hard to find “the good guys” or “the bad guys”. If a huge corporation moves in the right direction, this has an enormous impact – even if it’s not far enough in the right direction, or they neglect another area.

A billion-dollar empire has the capacity to launch a start-up such as “The Right to Shower” and bring positive change to marginalized communities.





As consumers, I guess all we can do is to try and make better decisions, knowing that sometimes, there is no perfect choice. However, you don’t have to do all the research alone. The free askBelynda Plugin helps you buy sustainably when shopping on Amazon. Behind every product suggestion, there is a real person like me, who shares your passion for sustainability – and sometimes your frustration with the complexity of it all.





PS: After all the research and writing most of this blog post, I got curious why there are no social media links on the website of “The Right To Shower”. I looked them up on Instagram and found that their last post was from August 30th, 2022. It informs the friends and followers that the brand is discontinued without further explanation. I did some more research and couldn’t find any communication from the brand itself or from Unilever. I guess another thing to accept is that we’ll never really know what goes on inside the corporate world.


 

Jennifer Scales is a photo artist and train travel enthusiast. When she is not vetting companies for askBelynda, she spreads her love for sustainable travel by capturing the beauty of nature seen through the train window.

Check out her website Landscape in Motion and follow Jennifer Scales | Fine Art on Instagram to see her artwork.

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