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Hellmann’s, humbug and chutzpah

Three cheers for hypocrisy in the Unilever boardroom

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Who will stand up for the red-blooded, blue-water capitalists who put the “Great” in Great Britain? I speak, of course, of those vigorous heirs to Walter Raleigh, Robert Clive and Messrs Jardine and Matheson — the board of Unilever plc.

In the gloomy post-pandemic City — its narrow streets scarred by boarded-up tailors and unread, wind-blown copies of the Evening Standard — this global consumer goods company, headquartered on Blackfriars Bridge, is a rare bright spot. 

Now fully British after its (albeit reluctant) decision in 2020 to abandon its historic Anglo-Dutch structure — Unilever refreshes billions with indulgent ice lollies and helps homemakers across the globe with trusted cleaning products. At the same time, the firm pays more than £4 billion a year in dividends, much of which flow into our anaemic pension funds.

Yet the leaders of this great company have been the subject of intemperate attacks from newspaper commentators, politicians and City pundits for their dogged refusal (at the time of writing) to follow the crowd and withdraw from Russia in protest against its invasion of Ukraine.

“Unilever’s bleach won’t clean its Russia stain” screamed the headline of a recent Sunday Times column by Dominic Lawson, whose father sat in a cabinet which endorsed trade with apartheid South Africa and Pinochet’s Chile. 

Bob Seeley, one of those never-knowingly-underquoted Tory MPs, said the company represented a “moral void”. Meanwhile media-conscious fund manager Terry Smith has attacked Unilever for its practice of imbuing its most humdrum brands with a higher moral purpose. “A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellman’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot,” he wrote. 

Unilever is far from the only British multinational to continue trading in Putin’s Russia. British American Tobacco still peddles its Lucky Strikes, while GSK has cited the “essential” role of its products to defend its decision not to exit the country. 

However, none of these other companies have been subjected to the snarky commentary and personal vitriol faced by Unilever’s leadership. What seems to rile the critics is the company’s supposed hypocrisy. 

Unilever has never wasted an opportunity to trumpet its environmental credentials and its top people have often sounded more like charity bosses — or even priests — than leaders of a packaged goods conglomerate. “We have to bring this world back to sanity and put the greater good ahead of self-interest,” is typical of the sort of quotes you find online from Paul Polman, the CEO from 2009 to 2019 and the architect of this distinctive approach. That decision to lead with a very long chin means critics have been queuing to give the company’s leaders a smack in the chops at the first sign of failure to live up to their own high moral standards.

I believe we shouldn’t criticise Unilever for hypocrisy, but instead applaud its sheer chutzpah. Saying one thing and doing another is not just a necessary feature of business life. Done with conviction, doublethink is an important competitive advantage.

We business folk are not philosophers or theologians with their tidy, internally consistent world views. Instead, we have a simple duty, which is to protect the licence to operate of our businesses by borrowing from the best ideas available at the time.

In the sixteenth century, our buccaneering forefathers transformed lucrative piracy into Protestant patriotism

In the sixteenth century, our buccaneering forefathers transformed lucrative piracy into Protestant patriotism. Eighteenth century directors of the East India Company sanitised tax farming through the bloodless idioms of double-entry book keeping. And most audaciously, in the nineteenth century, the founders of Hong Kong laundered their narco-terrorism with the clinical free market principles of Adam Smith.

We may not wish to admit this, but our reputation for duplicity continues. As native speakers of the world’s business language, we have an ability to manipulate meaning to get one over on those for whom English is a second tongue. Witness how — to the bafflement of foreigners — we can make the simple word “sorry” mean almost anything even although mostly, of course, it means nothing at all. As a German colleague once told me ruefully: “The world loves doing business in English. We just hate doing business with the English.” In this context, Unilever’s co-opting of fashionable green nostrums to make their plastic world of packaged goods more socially acceptable is merely the latest incarnation of a long and lucrative tradition.

Similarly, Terry Smith and the other haters should cut some slack to the Hellman’s marketing team. The whole point about brands is that they are a form of alchemy — in this case taking the base elements of vegetable oil and pasteurised eggs and turning them into tuna sandwich gold. If the guys behind this mayonnaise magic occasionally lurch into purple prose, so be it.

It will be understandable if Unilever’s new CEO, Hein Schumacher, were to decide belatedly to lower the flag in Moscow. Dealing simultaneously with volatile Russian goons and the pompous British media-City establishment has no doubt become a time-consuming distraction for senior management. But Hein, whatever you choose to do, don’t ever lose the Vim that’s put your business on the map.

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