Ten years ago we launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), a set of goals for our global business designed to help make sustainable living commonplace around the world. Our Lifebuoy soap brand set itself the ambitious target of improving the handwashing behaviours of more than 1 billion people by 2020.

By significantly scaling up its education programmes to highlight the importance of handwashing with soap, it passed that milestone back in 2019 and it’s not stopping there. Here’s the story behind the numbers.

Explaining the impact of soap

According to UNICEF, a child dies from pneumonia or diarrhoea every 23 seconds somewhere in the world. Handwashing with soap is one of the most effective ways of helping to reduce the spread of such diseases, and teaching consumers about this life-saving fact has been Lifebuoy’s mission for more than 100 years.

Outreach education programmes have long been part of this process, with Lifebuoy campaigns visiting schools and villages across its markets to remind communities to wash their hands at key points during the day. Before eating, for example, or after using the toilet.

The approach worked well, but things would have to change to bring those vital handwashing messages to vast new audiences.

Three Lifebuoy soap bars lathered up

Changing habits for a lifetime

In 2011, Lifebuoy teams from all over the world came together to re-think the strategy. Over the years that followed, they focused on bringing the brand’s educational approach to consumers in new ways to drive lasting behaviour change, and forging partnerships to take outreach programmes to new frontiers.

Reflecting on how the strategy took shape, Global Sustainability Director Sarah McDonald explains: “We started seeing enormous scaling up happening every year, and unlocking some enormous strategic key partnerships with ministries of health and education through governments, and with NGO partners, to deliver the programme.”

Innovation has played a part in extending Lifebuoy’s impact in recent years too, with Lifebuoy’s Mobile Doctorni programme delivering easily accessible health advice to parents straight through their mobile phones – sometimes the only technology available in remote rural locations. Lifebuoy also launched specific TV ads to share handwashing education with a mass audience, again designed to remind viewers of soap’s ability to help remove germs. These commercials have been independently proven to drive behaviour change too.

“Humbled by the responsibility”

“I feel humbled by the responsibility,” says Global Brand Vice President Kartik Chandrasekhar, of Lifebuoy’s work so far. “But I feel optimistic about the fact that we will take our behaviour-change programme and take our brand’s purpose and social mission, and deliver them with even more scale than in the last ten years. This year, and for years to come.”

With the world now in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, making handwashing with soap a lifelong habit is as important than ever. Until a vaccine is created, the humble bar of soap remains one of humanity’s best hopes.

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