15. 08. 2015

Unilever and Kodaikanal: Truth and Fiction

I’m an NGO-person through and through, but sometimes I do find conventional NGO tactics deeply aggravating.

Take the Kodaikanal story, and the current campaign against Unilever. A brilliant bit of in-your-face exposé on Youtube puts Unilever’s history on the Kodaikanal story front and centre of current campaigns.

Amongst others, 38 Degrees picked it up, and did a big thing about how wicked Unilever is, and how only 38 Degrees can get them sorted out.

To be honest, this is mostly tosh. As an advisor to Unilever, I’ve followed the Kodaikanal story for 15 years, rather than 15 days, and have come to understand just how massively complicated a story it is. Most of the claims made in the original video are either exaggerated or false; much of 38 Degrees’ follow-up has been a rather sad combination of bluster and egotistical trumpet-blowing that many of us in the NGO movement find pretty grubby.

But not all of it falls into that category. It’s good to ramp up the pressure on Unilever at this time. Their delay in finishing off the remediation of the site has been unacceptable, even though it’s perfectly understandable once you follow the full story.

So here’s the rub: Unilever is a Forum for the Future Partner. I’ve been an advisor to the company for nearly 20 years. So you can just dismiss this blog as a bit of self-interested propaganda on behalf of a company that we have a direct interest in.

Alternatively, you could check out Unilever’s side of the story. This is the full statement from their Senior Vice President, Sustainable Business Development and Communications, published immediately after their meeting with 38 Degrees.

And if you think there’s any merit in that response, then a really good idea would be to email David Babbsdavidb@38degrees.org.uk – directly at 38 Degrees, and ask him, politely, to post the Unilever side of the story on 38 Degrees’ website, just as I’ve posted the original video on my website.

That’s the only thing which will give people a rather more rounded view of where things really are. And organisations like 38 Degrees, which make a big thing about integrity and authenticity, owe it to their supporters to do precisely that.  

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17. 08. 2015
David Babbs

Thanks for this constructive criticism Jonathon.

I met with Unilever on Friday afternoon, when they put their side of the story to us. At that meeting they told me they'd provide a digital copy of their response for me to include on our website. They hadn't sent this through by the time I sent out an update email at 7pm on Friday evening. I explained this to our members in that email: "Unilever have promised to email us a document outlining everything they disagree with. Once they do, we’ll put it up on our website for everyone to see."

Thanks to your blog I now see that they posted up their response on their own website straight after the meeting. That's great, though if they'd told us we could have included it in Friday evening's email!

In any case, it's now linked from our website, here:


It will also be included as a link in any future 38 Degrees emails on this subject.

As I said in my email on Friday: 'Unilever accepted there was a mercury problem at the factory. They accepted that it’s taken too long to sort it all out. They disputed some of our facts, but they accepted the need to “reach a just settlement as soon as possible”'. We've put Unilever's responses to our allies in India and will update the website with any additional responses from them.

As you say (and Unilever accepted when we met them) the situation in Kodaikanal has taken too long to resolve. Let's hope that campaigning pressure now - both from 38 Degrees members and from all the Indian groups who are leading this campaign - helps push a speedier resolution.

Thanks and best wishes,
David Babbs
(Executive Director, 38 Degrees)

20. 08. 2015

David, I was travelling and felt sorry we could not meet.

To solve this long standing issue though it is important that we all work hard to openly, constructively and transparently look at the facts and solutions. We hopefully all have the same objective here and I have tried to solve this legacy issue from the moment i became CEO.

NGOs play a key role in helping us solve this urgently and so does the Indian government. We simply can not do this alone.

It does require transparency from NGOs as well though including yours. It's only with transparency that we build trust which will be key to solve many of the burning issues we all face and care about. Just serving self interest won't do it.

We actually would expect you at 38 Degrees to operate under the highest ethical standards as well just as we try to do. Misrepresenting a meeting to your membership base as one you called for whilst we actually had sought the meeting to explain the facts is outright silly.

Then agreeing not to tape but exchange thoughts and finding out that one of your female members actually secretly taped is unfortunately close to unethical.

I believe in activism but also in ethical behavior from the activists themselves. This is key if we want to solve the still too many issues we face in moving towards a more sustainable and equitable world. Hope you will work hard to drive these standards and codes of conduct into your organisation as well before you loose the trust of your members.

Warm regards . Paul Polman

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