BBA 2021 Winner Profile: DEI – Unilever Japan

Written by Sanae Samata
November 26, 2021


Written by Sanae Samata
November 26, 2021

Unilever Japan has scooped the newest British Business Award—Diversity, Equity and Inclusion—(updated from Diversity and Inclusion) at the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s annual gala celebrating UK–Japan business relations on November 5.

At the hybrid event, designed to showcase British creativity, culture and commerce, the consumer goods giant fought off stiff competition from six organisations. Independent judges hailing from government, media, business and sports commended Unilever Japan for its leading initiatives in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the past 12 months. These efforts include improving the balance of gender and nationality at senior levels, supporting LGBTQ+ people in the workplace and combating stereotypes and social norms.

Sanjay Sachdeva, general manager of Unilever Japan, said he is honoured to receive the prestigious award on behalf of everyone at the company.

“I take this opportunity to appreciate the continuous work by our employees and partners in the direction of making the world fairer and more inclusive,” he said. “We know we can’t do it alone and this award gives us the opportunity to talk to others who believe in the same thing and really want to make a difference.”

Interconnected approach 

Sachdeva said his team has been “extremely delighted” with the company’s DEI work in the past few years but pointed out that it is far from new. DEI has been a core element of Unilever’s business since its foundation.

“At every stage, our objective has been to bring brands of high quality to people, so their quality of life improves. Our products are used by 2.5bn people on a daily basis, so we make sure that they make a difference to their lives, he said, adding that Unilever’s products can have a positive impact on people’s health, confidence and wellbeing, as well as communities.

Unilever’s DEI initiatives are part of ongoing, long-term plans related to growth and sustainability, too. “We believe DEI leads to growth that, in turn, helps sustainability, which helps further promote DEI—they are all connected,” he said.


Company-wide diversity 

In Japan, one focus area in recent years has been improving the balance of gender and nationality at the senior management level. Today, half of the eight-person leadership team is female and two are non-Japanese while 38% of managers are women.

“[A successful approach to] DEI is not only about junior staff being diverse while the rest of the organisation is not. We ensure that, at every level, we are promoting DEI,” he said. “We believe that if we are really to change a big organisation like ours, it has to come from the top.”

Sachdeva pointed out that DEI requires continuous change to gain progress. “We are changing things every year so that [DEI] becomes part of our culture and decision-making, part of how we develop our brands and part of how we promote a fairer, more inclusive society and opportunities that allow people to improve their lives,” he said.

The company has also made significant strides in inclusion in the workplace, for LGBTQ+ people. Unilever’s LGBTQ+ support programme, Unilever PRIDE Japan, has achieved the highest rating of Gold in the PRIDE Index for many years. Most recently, Unilever Japan has sponsored one of the largest career forums focused on DEI.


Changing social norms

With so many influential global brands, Unilever has also been leveraging them to change hearts and minds: to eliminate stereotypes and unfair social practices or norms that it believes should be changed.

For beauty and personal care brand Dove, efforts focus on self-esteem, particularly of girls and young women. Unilever no longer uses any digital retouching to manipulate any advertising of Dove. According to Sachdeva, the move reflects the need to combat “the unrealistic expectations of beauty” that can cause real damage to individuals. Staff go to schools and talk to pupils about “real beauty—the totality of what matters beyond physical looks,” he said, adding that the concept is to “give them confidence that what we each have is something we should be proud of.”

The programme has been awarded by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and is part of a global scheme that aims to reach 0.25bn people by 2030.

Unilever also launched the Lux Social Damage Care Project, using the Lux brand to promote the idea of enabling “every woman to shine.” The initiative calls for the creation of gender-neutral recruitment processes, such as not requiring photographs or first names on job application forms and CVs. By doing so, Sachdeva said Japan could take further steps toward its goal of gender equality.


Good for society, business 

The key motivator for Unilever in delivering DEI initiatives is the public good. Sachdeva described the work as “the right thing” for society and business, pointing out that they can both help people and perform better as a company by embracing DEI.

Equity has recently been added to Unilever’s strategy and vision, reflecting its importance alongside diversity and inclusion, he added. As the company works to drive DEI in a much larger scale in the coming years, it plans to continue to use brands as ambassadors of the message because of the sheer number of people they can touch.

“We want the world to be more equitable—for everyone to have opportunities and access to information and resources and for everyone to be treated fairly,” he said, adding that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the inequalities in the world, with more than 100mn people falling below the poverty line.

Facing such challenges, Unilever plans to collaborate with the consumers of its brands to “promote ideas together” for continued positive change in the coming years.

“Winning this award gives us not only recognition but also the energy to do more [in DEI],” said Sachdeva.