Unilever spends close to a million dollars every year in the US in political contributions and legislative lobbying. They are a member of the World Economic Forum, a global lobbying organization that pushes economic liberalization and deregulation. Unilever is a member of several European, and international political organizations, such as the Bilderberg Group, and has significant ties to the British government, both influencing, and indeed, participating in the crafting of policy.
The point here is that Unilever is a political entity. They are actively involved in political advocacy and lobbying. And with annual revenues higher than the budget of the United Nations, Unilever has enormous economic and political influence, and they use it.
The selection of Unilever by the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign was not random. We are reaching out to CEO Paul Polman only partially because of Unilever’s considerable investments in Myanmar, which total more than half a billion dollars. We selected Unilever because, under Polman’s leadership, the company has become increasingly concerned with social responsibility, adopted a philosophy of ‘responsible capitalism’, and seems to believe that the promotion of peace, equality, and human rights are essential for long term market stability and business growth; all of which we applaud. And, of course, we decided to reach out to Unilever because, yes, they are a company with great political power.
As a consumer goods company, we understand, and surely Polman and the Unilever board of directors understands, that their power is ultimately dependent upon the public. At the end of the day, Unilever’s fortunes are determined by the choices regular consumers make in the supermarket. All of the millions of dollars they spend on advertising, all that they spend on production, transportation, distribution, research and development, all of the money they spend on political lobbying; all of the money they spend in coordination with NGOs to create vehicles for the delivery of their goods via humanitarian projects; all of that can be wiped away when consumers opt to buy someone else’s brand.
The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow Campaign chose to reach out to Unilever because we support their vision of the positive role corporations can have in improving people’s lives. We believe in Paul Polman’s ideas, and we believe that Unilever is pioneering an important new approach to ethical investment; and we want them to continue to advance and prosper. The genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar is an issue that can literally make or break Unilever’s credibility, and indeed, their future as a socially responsible company. We want Unilever to take a stand that is consistent with their stated vision.
In Myanmar, we are not talking about chemical spills or pollution, we are talking about the slaughter of innocents, systematic gang-rape by security forces, and we are talking about the dehumanization and disenfranchisement of an entire people. There is simply nothing controversial about unequivocally condemning crimes against humanity; and Unilever cannot remain silently on the fence without doing irreparable damage to their reputation, and consequently to their market share in Southeast Asia, and indeed, around the world.
Unilever, and other major corporations, cannot take a “wait and see” approach, preferring to wait for the United Nations to take action, or for the Myanmar government to halt the genocide. Both the UN and the government in Yangon take their cue from businesses like Unilever; when Unilever defers to them, they take that as a signal that it is not an urgent matter. If Unilever takes a stand, the international diplomatic community will follow.
#WeAreAllRohingyaNow has written an Open Letter to Paul Polman, and we, and a growing number of people around the world, are still awaiting his response. The future of Unilever is now inextricably tied to the future of the Rohingya. We hope, and expect Unilever to take a decisive stand. From both a moral and a business standpoint, condemning genocide is the only option.