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Lessons learnt: new ways of measuring social impact


When we set our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan targets ten years ago, we knew we would have to work immensely hard on multiple fronts to meet them. And that’s what we have done. What we didn’t realise was how hard it would be to measure our progress.

A group of South Asian women in colourful clothes sit on the floor smiling and clapping

Over the last ten years, our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) has informed the decisions we take and the strategies we develop. It is no exaggeration to say it has been instrumental in making us the business we are today: more resilient, more agile and, most importantly, more sustainable.

Social goals: no business is an island

This isn’t just about us, however. At the heart of the USLP is a recognition that businesses do not operate in a vacuum. This is why the USLP includes a variety of highly ambitious social targets alongside its many environmental goals. One such commitment, for example, is to help more than 1 billion people to improve their health and hygiene. Another is to positively impact on the lives of 5.5 million people through inclusive business.

Our efforts to achieve these exacting social targets has led us to develop a host of community-focused programmes. Almost without exception, these are designed and rolled out with NGOs or other partner organisations. Some interventions have faced setbacks along the way, but the feedback has invariably been very positive.

Nyaruguru, one of the poorest districts of Rwanda, is the setting of one example. Back in 2017, alongside a new tea factory that we were building, we joined up with the Wood Foundation Africa and the UK’s Department for International Development to train around 6,000 smallholders in smart farming techniques as well as in health and safety.

Because tea fetches almost ten times the price of traditional crops, the intervention has helped reduce poverty in the area. Meanwhile, the sustainable techniques learned by the farmers – half of whom are women – also means their yields will be more resilient in the face of drought and climate change.

“Working for Unilever means I can support my family and afford medical insurance. Importantly, I work near my home, not far away in somewhere like Kigali," says Ester, one of the programme participants.

Measurement: harder than we anticipated

Welcome as anecdotal evidence like this is, we also require hard numbers so as to improve our effectiveness and to measure our progress. Finding robust and meaningful ways to measure our impact across all our various social programmes has proved harder than we initially anticipated. Indeed, even after ten years, we still don’t have all the answers.

The example of our ‘Opportunities for Women’ goal illustrates some of the problems we are regularly coming up against. Our target: to empower 5 million women. We define gender empowerment in a variety of ways – from promoting women’s safety to expanding their opportunities – and we have corresponding initiatives in place for each.

The first persistent problem is one of accounting. Female empowerment is a complex, multi-layered phenomenon. No single intervention can deliver everything that women need, which is why we often run a number of programmes simultaneously.

We remain confident that this is the most beneficial approach for those we are looking to impact. However, from a measurement perspective, it opens up a risk of double counting. As Anouk Heilen, Unilever’s Global Sustainability Director and gender expert, explains: “Many women may well benefit from two or more separate empowerment initiatives, but we choose not to count them twice”.

Picture a woman involved in our Shakti programme, an initiative designed to encourage rural residents to set up in business selling Unilever products door to door. In an effort to improve her language skills or advance her bookkeeping capabilities, for instance, this same woman could well be participating simultaneously in one of our remote training courses.

“In our overall impact numbers, this woman would appear in the beneficiaries of the first initiative but not the second, with the result that the second is left under-reported,” Anouk clarifies.

Digitally delivered programmes add an extra element of complexity as data protection rules prevent us from knowing for certain who is participating, which presents particular challenges in validating the reporting.

A woman in a headscarf and yellow hard hat stands in focus smiling with palm trees behind her

Defining impact: a multi-layered challenge

But a more profound problem revolves around the term ‘impact’. How do we define and identify it? And how do we best measure and describe it?

Unlike environmental targets, which typically have established metrics (think: cubic metres of water consumed or tonnes of waste to landfill), social indicators are less standardised and often less quantifiable.

Finding an impact indicator that works across all our initiatives has proved especially difficult. After considerable thought, we opted for the output metric of ‘total people reached’. This makes sense in light of our overall numerical targets.

By their very nature, however, catch-all indicators fail to capture the full picture. An attendee list will show us that one hundred young women attended a training session on self-confidence, for example, but it won’t reveal how these women used this information afterwards.

Sandra Fontano, Senior Global Sustainability Manager and a specialist on gender equality, gives the example of our work around combating female stereotypes in advertising. Through our #Unstereotype campaign, our brands have taken a high-profile stand on eliminating negative gender tropes from our advertising.

The response has been very positive, she notes. On the one hand, it has unleashed a wave of creativity among the advertising agencies that we work with. On the other, it has pushed some advertising authorities to clamp down on harmful stereotyping that previously went unquestioned.

“We know this work sparks considerable debate and that these discussions can be a catalyst for women and men to see themselves differently. But a powerful impact like this isn’t captured in the measurement models we habitually use,” she states.

Sustainability also throws up another dilemma: how can we be sure that our social impact endures over time and doesn’t peter out? As a general rule, we have always chosen to take a conservative approach. For example, we know that handwashing with soap can help save lives, yet we can’t know exactly how many of these lives might otherwise have been lost to illness. As such, we only report that we have helped people improve their handwashing habits.

Standardisation: new models emerging

We do not have all the answers. Indeed, we are not even sure if answers exist for some of these measurement dilemmas. That has not stopped us looking for solutions, however, and continually adapting our approach as our knowledge increases.

Back in 2018, for example, we kicked off a pilot (PDF - 7.59 MB) with the US impact investment group Acumen to test out a new measurement methodology in India, Kenya, Nigeria and Colombia. This Lean Data model differs from other approaches in that it prioritises the voices of the women whose lives we are trying to improve, while also bringing to light potential blind spots and hidden biases.

To enhance the quantitative data we already collect about our programmes, the methodology uses a survey-based approach to obtain qualitative insights. In particular, this helps us to better understand how and why a product, programme or service might impact women differently from men.

“Right now, however, we have to acknowledge that there’s no universally agreed way of measuring companies’ social impact. And the approaches that do exist are often very labour intensive and hard to implement,” says Sandra.

Impact measurement is a dynamic field, however, and new models are emerging all the time. We are watching these carefully and analysing alternative ways to better capture the full impact of our social initiatives.

As the data we have on our social programmes improves, so will our ability to enhance the areas where our impact is high and to modify those areas where they are less so. Having an impact is our primary goal, not measuring it. But to achieve the former, we need to get better at the latter.

Lessons for the future

  1. Consider additional or alternative metrics to ‘people reached’.
  2. Examine bespoke social indicators for specific interventions.
  3. Encourage the standardisation of measurement tools, indicators and benchmarks.
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