Chatting with Unilever’s customer service
When was the last time you called customer service? I don’t mean for your phone or internet provider, but the customer service of your favorite sprinkle or yogurt company. For instance Unilever’s customer service.
It seems they aren’t called or contacted very often at all. Yes, maybe when a new allergy hype is on the rise, or if an online discount has a bug, then we’ll contact them. But customer services aren’t exactly contacted by people who want to know where their food really comes from and how exactly it’s made.
Actually, it’s crazy how little we, as consumers, care to know about the products we buy. Our clothing will often say ‘Made in Bangladesh’ or ‘Made in China,’ but look at a pack of rice milk or canned beans. More often than not, it is not clear which country the main ingredient comes from, let alone how that product was processed or how much the farmer was paid for it. For the diehards: you can often find a two-digit code by the expiration date which refers to the country of origin.
I think that the company’s box labeled ‘critical consumer who wants to know more about product origin’ is in any case ticked off in the daily report.
Recently I have been contacting customer services via mail and social media. I am often struck by how little many of these companies know about the country of origin and production steps of their products.
A standard conversation goes something like this:
Me: “Dear customer service from XX, I am wondering how much the coconut farmers are paid for your product X. I cannot find anything about that on your website.
Customer service: ‘Dear Lonneke, Thank you for your interest in our product X. We pay the farmers a fair wage, according to international standard Y.
Me: ‘How do you know for sure that the farmers can get by on the wage they’re receiving?’
Customer service: ‘We know that because we are also affiliated with international standard Y that monitors international standard X.’
I don’t find out much more than that, but I think that the company’s box labeled ‘critical consumer who wants to know more about product origin’ is in any case ticked off in the daily report.
I don’t know if these companies were contacted by Unilever regarding the origin of the palm oil in the Calvé peanut butter, or Bertolli for their bread, but they have already taken a step forward. They have listed all of their 312 palm oil suppliers online. There is also a map with names and locations of the 1,400 mills where the palm oil fruits are processed.
Unilever hopes for an industry-wide movement towards transparent production chains.
According to Unilever’s press release, they are the first consumer products company to do this. Unilever hopes for an industry-wide movement towards transparent production chains. While this is nice management language, what do you—as the consumer— stop putting in your shopping cart?
Very handy: you can check whether manufacturers do business with seedy types. In the beginning of 2017 Unilever was still featured negatively in the news because it continued to do business with Sawit Subermas Sarana, a palm oil company in Kalimantan whose owner had previously been linked to kidnapping and illegal logging.
Usually these things quickly become yesterday’s news, and you stop hearing about it, but I was curious to see if the company was still on Unilever’s list of suppliers. No, it wasn’t. The only mention of this palm oil company was in the footnote at the bottom of a list of ‘suppliers we have stopped issuing orders to in 2017.’
Unilever now expressly appeals to the public: “By bringing this data to the attention of the outside world, we made it easier for others to bring challenges and insights to our attention,” their website states. “This helps us to conduct research and search for solutions.”
Let’s hope that Unilever’s customer service phone will ring very often.
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