How ethical is Unilever?
Our research highlights several ethical issues with Unilever, including pollution and toxics, animal testing, factory farming, animal rights, human rights, workers’ rights, irresponsible marketing, political activities, anti-social finance, and tax conduct.
Below we outline some of these issues. To see the full detailed stories, and Unilever's overall ethical rating, please sign in or subscribe.
Unilever faces major criticism for its ongoing relationship with Russia. The Ukraine Solidarity Project (USP) accused the company of being an “international sponsor” of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Evidence emerged that Unilever paid Moscow $331m in taxes last year. Unilever says exiting Russia is "not straightforward" as its operations would be taken over by the Russian state if it abandoned them (though many other major brands have exited the country).
Unilever paid £3m to one of its directors in total compensation in 2020 – which meant it lost a whole mark for Excessive Director Remuneration in our ratings system.
Lobbying is also a key issue: Open Secrets stated that the company had spent $11,460,000 lobbying in 2020. It’s a member of lobby groups such as the World Economic Forum.
Unilever also has lots of subsidiaries located in tax havens, and it doesn't provide adequate explanations for why they are situated there. Many of these are high risk company types when it comes to tax avoidance, for example holding companies.
Unilever also faced criticism for undermining its subsidiary Ben & Jerry’s decision to withdraw from working with Israeli settlements.
Unilever received Ethical Consumer’s best rating for its Supply Chain Management policies, but despite this it faces several criticisms when it comes to worker and human rights.
Oppressive Regimes is a category in which Unilever scored our worst rating. Unilever has operations in several countries on Ethical Consumer’s list of countries considered to have oppressive regimes, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Turkey.
Human rights allegations also come from Kenyan tea workers, who in 2020 filed a UN complaint over alleged human rights violations by a Unilever subsidiary. They stated that the company failed to offer adequate support or protection for workers who were attacked when ethnic violence broke out in Kenya following a disputed election in 2007. Workers say that they were not paid when the plantations were closed following the unrest. At the time, more than 10% of Unilever’s global workforce was employed on the plantation. They say that Unilever has avoided redress ever since.
In 2019, the company was also accused by the Food and Allied Workers Union of hiring private security guards who attacked striking workers. The workers claimed to have been attacked with rubber bullets and pepper spray while peacefully picketing.
Chocolate is key to some Unilever products such as Magnum, and a broad range of its brands use varying amounts of cocoa. However, not all of the cocoa it uses it certified by reputable bodies, despite issues of child labour being prevalent and known about in the cocoa supply chain for many years.
Unilever's subsidiary Ben & Jerry's was also criticised by the Advertising Standard Authorities for advertising ice cream within 100 metres of schools, when products high in fat or sugar are not supposed to be targeted at people aged under 16.
Unilever received our worst ratings under the animal rights, factory farming and animal testing categories.
Unilever received our worst rating for Animal Testing because it said the following: “Occasionally, across Unilever’s broader portfolio of brands, ingredients that we use still have to be tested by suppliers to comply with legal and regulatory requirements in some markets; and some government authorities test certain products on animals as part of their regulations." Most animal testing happens at the ingredients stage, and brands are expected to have a Fixed Cut Off date (a date after which none of the ingredients are permitted to have been tested on animals), but Unilever didn’t have one of these.
Unilever also doesn’t appear to prohibit zero-grazing for cows, despite being heavily involved in the dairy sector. No company-wide policies that also applied to subsidiaries like Ben & Jerry’s that ensured access to pasture for a significant proportion of the year were identified.
Egg production is another area of concern. Some of its brands such as Hellman’s use only eggs from cage-free hens, but it only plans to roll out 100% cage-free policies across its whole company group in 2025, so for the time being it’s still sourcing from caged hens.
Climate and environment
Unilever received Ethical Consumer’s best rating for Carbon Management, and middle ratings for Environmental Reporting and Palm Oil Sourcing. It has carbon reduction targets in line with international agreements, and has good discussion of key polluting areas in its sector, for example refrigerants.
Greenpeace however named Unilever, alongside other major brands, in a 2021 report that said it was playing a key role in driving demand for plastic (and therefore fossil fuels) because of its vast use of single-use plastic packaging in its products.
Unilever lost marks under our Controversial Technologies column for its support of genetic modification. It stated on its website: “Our commitment to safety and quality includes all of our food ingredients, whether produced from conventional crops or from GM crops authorised by regulatory bodies.”
Overall it received our worst rating for pollution and toxics. It also doesn’t have a clear commitment to phasing out the harmful chemicals parabens and phthalates from its product range.
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The text above was written on 20 July 2023.