Project Sunlight – It’s a Great Time to Make a Baby

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This video got my attention, along with the attention of eleven million other viewers since it was posted just over a week ago. It is the centerpiece of Unilever’s new Project Sunlight launch. What, exactly, Project Sunlight is, is the subject of some ongoing debate.

Is it little more than greenwash by a global corporation, many of whose actions are anything but green? Virginia Pelley makes a  compelling case for this in The Sun Shines Out of Our Behinds – Unilever’s Project Sunlight Greenwashing Campaign.

Is it a feelgood dose of soma for “consumers” to take so we can feel good about the possibilities for the world while we continue liquidating it?

Is it another example of people (whose jobs depend on it) believing the right products or technology can make 7, 9 or 11 billion people’s lives both prosperous and sustainable?

Or is it a genuine effort to make a difference by a global giant truly committed to creating a sustainable future – by changing the way it does business and changing the way “consumers” behave? And if that’s true, are we really so immature that we can only be inspired to inch in the direction of sustainability, and only then if it’s easy and presented to us via rainbows and unicorns?

Cynicism was my natural reaction to this statement from the news release announcing the project launch:

“Project Sunlight aims to galvanise and build momentum behind a movement that is already happening. We know people all over the world want to adopt more sustainable behaviours, but need these to be easy and to fit with the way they live their lives. As a global consumer goods company, we have the means to help people realise this ambition.”

My primary reason for putting this video on the Wall of Shame, however, has not been widely discussed. Look at the title:

Why Bring a Child Into This World?

This is the message implied by both the title and the content of the video (my words):

We face serious environmental and social challenges in this world. In spite of the evidence, there is plenty of hope. A combination of technology and holding hands singing Kumbaya will deliver a bright future. So it’s a great time to have a baby.

Unilever’s rationale for the campaign paints a picture of a very noble company with admirable goals. I want to believe the company really wants to make a huge difference in the world. Many skeptics, however, point out how many of the company’s actions are not consistent with all its sustainability talk.

I want to give Unilever the benefit of the doubt. We need companies like this to become committed to significantly changing the way we do business. If the company is as truly green as it portrays itself to be, then I want to bring to Unilever's attention two elements of the campaign that could bear improvement:

1. Remove “consumers” from the vocabulary. The word appears eight times in the company’s rationale and approach document, Project Sunlight: Inspiring Sustainable Living. If we as human beings are defined primarily as “consumers,” then the struggle to achieve sustainability is lost before it even begins.

2. Acknowledge the need to reduce fertility rates (everywhere). We have a problem if this genuinely represents the company’s position on population:

“For some people the idea that it is possible for 9 billion people to live sustainably by 2050 – what WWF describes as ‘one-planet living’ – may seem utopian, considering how far removed it appears from today’s realities and the social, economic and environmental challenges the world faces. 

However, we believe that achieving this vision is possible, providing leaders from governments, business, civil society and ordinary members of the public work together to take a proactive approach to addressing these issues over the coming decades.”

The video title, its content, and all the project’s messaging ignore half of the essential equation for sustainability. Continuing population growth is presented as a fait accompli, and its role in liquidating the planet’s resources and injuring its ecosystems is not acknowledged. In fact, the video implies it’s a great time to conceive a child. The video and other project messaging could easily address our desire for creating a healthy, sustainable world for our children, without suggesting we go out and make more. Ignoring the role of choosing small family size is unacceptable, knowing what we know about our state of overshoot and how difficult it is to get our culture to scale back economic throughput.

Please click on a star to reflect how shameful you feel this video to be. Scroll down to comment. What do you think? Did the video get it wrong?

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Dave is the director of the documentary GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave is also president of Citizen-Powered Media, a non-profit working to find the cure to our society's growth addiction. Growth Bias Busted is one of the projects of Citizen-Powered Media's ongoing GrowthBusters public education program.

Comments

  • Guest
    Misha Monday, 02 December 2013

    Project Sunlight rallies optimism but, as you point out, optimism is hardly consistent with the picture we are painting. It's a play on emotions and, notably, there is nothing of substance to this so-called "project." The project is to go gleefully on, as before, and rest assured that Unilever will work with all the other great people out there to make the world a better place.

    A psychological point worth noting among the many ways people are demotivated when it comes to global problems like climate change, it has been shown that emphaisis of the hopelessly dire outlook makes people less likely to act.

  • Judith Ann Johnson
    Judith Ann Johnson Tuesday, 03 December 2013

    Misha pretty well hits on all the points I would make. The film lacks any substantive information to support its message. It's basically, "There's a new world somewhere they call the promised land, and we'll be there someday if you will hold my hand."
    I do like to hope there's some kind of optimistic message to offer about the future, but to get to a good future we have some real serious problems to overcome that amount to paradoxes. We can control our population growth and eventually reduce human population to a sustainable level ourselves, and proceed with a rational and comfortable future on this planet ; or I'm pretty sure human population reduction will eventually come about the hard way, with unknown ultimate consequences to all the knowledge, technology and culture we have accumulated. I would hate to think all that would be lost. Our choices are kind of like a grossly obese person faced with a choice between a lifelong diet to gradually take off the weight; or dying. It doesn't seem like it would be worth dying to keep doing what you've been doing when you're so miserable anyway. But people do that all the time.

    It's really hard to get the entire mass of humanity moving in the same direction about anything. Except, demonstrably, about expanding the population and using up the resources. As a group, we don't have a good long-term memory. We don't hang on to an idea very long at all. There are cycles in everything we do. But reducing human population to get in balance with the planet won't work as a cyclical thing. The idea would have to become part of us. And not just some of us. Can we do that?

  • Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner Tuesday, 03 December 2013

    Thank you both for your thoughtful comments, totally on point! It's interesting I hear time and again that people don't respond to dire news. But the unicorns and rainbows approach has a poor track record, too. I think it may be a case of us expecting so little of ourselves for so long (thanks largely to economists), that few of us CAN handle the truth these days. Still, there is no evidence that tap-dancing around the truth is any more effective.

  • Guest
    piyush Tuesday, 03 December 2013

    One can imagine that Uniliver and many other corporations who have no real vision but to grow their businesses would be scared of their future without growth or a future of degrowth if "consumers" realize that consumption of unnecessary goods is bad for everyone and in particular their children and also start to realize it is a good idea to have smaller families, which will produce fewer consumers in future. This campaign by uniliver which is probably based on a lot of market research and projections, seems to be a good indicator that there is a growing consciousness of civilization's unsustainability, it is growing so fast in the educated population that is increasingly able to connect the dots that companies like Uniliver are scared and going to these lengths. I would not be surprised to see more of these kind of campaigns.

  • Guest
    Guest Thursday, 05 December 2013

    I think what Unilever put forward in the film and Project Sunlight is interesting and i can see that some can react cynically to what they say, but reading more on the background gives a fuller picture. I think there is an interesting point that gets missed in this that is worth acknowledging - Unilever are a business, whether we like it or not, they are, and as a business their reason for existing is to make products that people use that returns profit for their shareholders. It's how the world turns, for good or for bad. A leopard can't change its spots. But, the twist is they have realised that by nature of doing what they do, they have an opportunity to make a difference and 'do business sustainably' - apparently about 2bn people a day use a Unilever product of some description, and if each of those products had less negative impact and a greater positive impact on the environment/society, then think about the scale of impact that could have on the issues we face as a planet. If those 2bn packs were all recyclable, if they were all made with sustainable materials, if they all used less water/energy/oil, etc. It's an admirable vision, and a different angle from the Green approach taken by most companies to ease their conscience and make themselves feel better. Check out the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (google it) to see how serious they are about all this. This doesn't look like just another bit of Greenwash and 'aren't we a good company because we're going to recycle our paper at Head Office, tick the green box, move on', it looks like a serious, measurable commitment to trying to make their impact on the world less negative and more positive. OK, so the film is a bit of creative emotional nonsense, and doesn't do their vision justice, but you can't have everything! My logic is to say 'ok, if you're serious about this, show me your moves', rather than the approach a lot of people seem to be taking which is 'yeh, we don't believe you, here's 20 bad things i can say about you, so eff off'. The reason the world is in a mess is because of that exact attitude, the negative, what's the point, you're wrong, etc. But then again maybe I'm just willing to give them a chance.

  • Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner Thursday, 05 December 2013

    Guest, maybe I didn't do a good job of raising these same questions; I thought that was what I was doing. Though I'm not going to bless any unsustainable part of our modern culture "just because" that's the way it is, I do want to give Unilever the benefit of the doubt. That's why I offer some advice for improving their messaging. Still, it is difficult to reconcile the "talk" we're getting from Unilever with the "walk," if Virginia Pelley's piece is accurate.

  • Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner Thursday, 10 April 2014

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Guest Friday, 18 April 2014


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