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A young schoolboy outside a toilet in India holds up a poster about keeping toilets clean

Sanitation and hygiene for better health

Average read time: 11 minutes

We’re fighting the dangers of unsafe sanitation and poor hygiene by helping millions of people get access to clean, safe toilets and helping them keep their homes clean.

Hand in yellow rubber glove showing-thumb-up-sign above a white toilet bowl

Sanitation should be a basic human right for all

50% Of people in the world risk disease as they don’t have access to a clean, safe toilet

According to the World Health Organization, around half the people in the world are in danger of disease because they don’t have access to a clean, safe toilet.

Close to 494 million people are still forced to defecate in the open. WaterAid’s research shows that every two minutes, a child under five dies from a disease linked to unsafe water and sanitation. And the global Covid pandemic underlined what we already knew – that access to good hygiene and safe sanitation are essential for maintaining health.

We believe access to good hygiene and sanitation should be a basic human right for everyone. So what are we doing about it?

Our portfolio of hygiene brands, and their programmes and partnerships, are contributing to UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 on ‘achieving adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all’. Taking the lead is our toilet hygiene brand, Domestos. It’s the world’s number one disinfectant designed to kill germs and bacteria in high traffic areas such as the kitchen and bathroom.

Domestos: keeping communities healthy through better sanitation

An illustration of two Domestos bottles on a pink background

Domestos’ mission is simple – to help communities stay healthy through access to better, safer sanitation and hygiene.

We know that where germs thrive, so does illness – and inequality. So we’ve made it our purpose to win the war against unsafe sanitation and poor hygiene. Because when people enjoy good health, they have a much better chance of getting an education, finding work and breaking out of poverty. And it’s good for our business too – as we’ve activated our purpose across key markets such as the UK, Turkey, Vietnam and South Africa, we’ve seen an increase in brand power, the measure we use to assess consumers’ attraction for brands.

We’ve been working for more than a decade to improve sanitation and hygiene standards. As part of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (PDF 8.02 MB), we set out to help 25 million people gain improved access to a toilet by 2020. We exceeded that target, helping 29 million people to access cleaner, safer toilets. In 2021, we set out new health and wellbeing goals as part of the Unilever Compass.

Take action through our brands to improve health and wellbeing and advance equity and inclusion, reaching 1 billion people per year by 2030.

We will focus on: gender equity; race and ethnicity equity; body confidence and self-esteem; mental wellbeing; hand hygiene; sanitation; oral health; skin health and healing.

We’re continuing our work, setting an ambitious new goal for Domestos too in 2021. It means we’ll help even more people towards better sanitation and hygiene as we pursue our mission to help communities stay healthy.

The impact of poor toilets

Using unclean toilets isn’t a pleasant experience, but what impact does it have? We’ve studied how dirty school toilets affect children.

9 out of 10 Children say they face issues with their school facilities

On World Toilet Day 2021, we published The School Toilet Report by Domestos – our research into the impact of poor toilet facilities on kids. We surveyed 4,000 children and parents in four countries (India, South Africa, Poland and the UK), on how they felt about school toilets. Nine out of ten kids said that they face issues with their school toilets, leading to illness, anxiety and absence. One in three reported a negative physical response as a result of avoiding a school toilet, suffering from discomfort because they’re ‘holding it in’. And more than one in ten children said they don’t eat or drink at school to avoid using the school toilet.

Shining a light on this hidden issue

With only one in six children telling an adult about the poor state of their school toilets, the report highlighted a disconnect between parental expectations and the realities children are facing. Almost all parents state that clean and private toilets are as important as other aspects of education, but are seemingly unaware of the issue as 80% of parents rate their child's school toilets as good.

So we’re encouraging parents to talk to their kids about the state of their school toilets using Domestos’ Let’s Talk School Toilets conversation tips. We teamed up with parenting expert and author, Clemmie Telford, to create this guide, helping to shine a light on this hidden issue.

Alan Jope, our CEO

Dirty school toilets aren't just unpleasant; they're failing our kids, creating a hidden problem that's blocking education around the world.

Alan Jope, our CEO

Maximising our impact with our partners

By working with others, we know we can have an even bigger impact on school sanitation.

We’re supporting our work in schools through the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition. And our partnership with development agency GIZ has enabled us to scale up our school sanitation programme.

Domestos also supports children’s charity UNICEF to help communities in India access safe toilets. Through this partnership, we’re focusing on ensuring people are using, cleaning and keeping toilets safe for the long term. By using sanitation toolkits and behaviour-change messaging, we’re aiming to improve the use and maintenance of school toilet facilities across 15 states, benefiting almost 9 million children.

Initiatives like the UN’s World Toilet Day also raise awareness of sanitation issues. And by getting people to care about these issues, good sanitation will become more of a priority in communities.

Cleaner toilets mean a brighter future

Every year, 443 million school days are lost around the world because of unsafe sanitation and waterborne illnesses, and this is limiting young people’s potential to thrive.

1 in 3 Schools lack a usable toilet

Through our Cleaner Toilets, Brighter Futures programme, we’re helping schools maintain their facilities so that they’re safe and accessible. Alongside this, we provide materials to teach children how appropriate toilet manners and the proper use of handwashing facilities at school can help maintain cleanliness and hygiene. And because schools act as community hubs, learnings can be shared with the wider community too.

School maintenance teams are vital

We’ve learned that school cleaners are crucial if our Cleaner Toilets, Brighter Futures programme is to succeed. Domestos works with janitors, teachers and others to provide training programmes to keep services well maintained and operational.

In South Africa, for example, hygiene and sanitation-related illnesses are a major cause of absenteeism in schools. So we’ve worked with the Department of Basic Education to distribute a training video and manual to the maintenance teams, empowering them with new knowledge and resources. We started this initiative in 2010, and since then, we’ve helped 5 million learners in South Africa. Today, we’re focusing on scaling up this programme to reach more primary schools.

As part of our multi-brand Clean Green Healthy Schools initiative with the Ministry of Education and Training in Vietnam, in 2021 we introduced our janitor programme, reaching 100 schools. In Turkey, we’re celebrating ten years of our school hygiene programme, in coordination with the Ministry of National Education. We’ve also piloted Cleaner Toilets, Brighter Futures in eight schools in Poland.

Better sanitation; better economies

We know that investment in water and sanitation boosts the economy. And as UN-Water notes, a toilet is not just a toilet, it’s also an opportunity-maker, a dignity-provider and a lifesaver.

We co-founded and currently chair the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC) to help build the ‘sanitation economy’. The Coalition supports enterprises that increase and improve access to safe toilets. Our employees also get involved, mentoring sanitation entrepreneurs to help them strengthen their businesses so they can attract investment.

Bringing together businesses, NGOs, sanitation experts and social entrepreneurs in developed and developing countries, today the TBC benefits more than 2.2 million people. In 2021, we organised a virtual Toilet Board Coalition round table, bringing together perspectives from social entrepreneurs, economists, corporate leaders and development agencies to discuss how better public–private partnerships for school sanitation may prove one of the greatest global opportunities for impact.

Illustration on a blue background of a smiling man sitting on a toilet

WASH in the workplace

Nine out of ten jobs in developing countries are created by private enterprises. So business clearly has a big role to play in tackling water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in the workplace.

We support the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Pledge for Access to WASH in the Workplace. And we’re part of WASH4Work, a group of businesses and public organisations mobilising efforts to improve access to WASH for employees, as well as in our supply chains and surrounding communities.

Hygiene at home and beyond

As well as keeping toilets clean and practising thorough handwashing that maintains good health, we also need to keep our homes, offices and community spaces hygienic.

A pair of hands wearing yellow rubber gloves cleaning a white kitchen worktop with a cleaning product

Unilever has some of the world’s most recognisable home care brands including Domestos, Cif, Comfort, OMO, Seventh Generation and Sunlight that provide products such as bleach, surface cleaner and laundry detergent. Along with our suppliers and partners around the world, we worked at a record pace to provide essential products to help people maintain hygiene during the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the onset of the pandemic, people more than doubled how often they cleaned their homes, and hygiene became a core concern for people returning to the workplace. But there was also confusion – and potentially dangerous misinformation – about how people could best protect themselves from Covid-19.

Our brands responded quickly by issuing public health messages showing what was effective, and designing creative initiatives to promote hygienic practices. These not only targeted people at home but those in the hospitality industry too: through our professional products, we helped the industry to ramp up cleaning standards to reassure their customers, reaching over 40 countries.

Fighting Covid-19

At the onset of Covid-19, we announced that we would provide free bleach, as well as soap, sanitiser and food worth €100 million to help people during the pandemic. We also set up the Hygiene & Behaviour Change Coalition.

Use bleach to clean smarter, not harder

In the face of the pandemic, Domestos launched a new public service campaign across TV and social media to educate people on the importance of safe, effective and targeted cleaning with bleach. In just four weeks, it reached more than 20 countries. Its message was simple – deep cleaning doesn’t always mean getting a safer result. The key is cleaning smarter – such as cleaning the top ten frequently touched items in the home like door handles and taps.

Cif’s Cleaning Challenge

5 million People reached through Cif’s Cleaning Challenge

In Turkey, another of our hygiene brands, Cif, set 14 influencers a challenge – to use Cif products to clean their homes and invite their friends to join the Cleaning Challenge. It reached over 5 million people. Cif also teamed up with Domestos to initiate a ‘Hygiene Movement’ in partnership with major online retailer Hepsiburada to donate products to those in need. The initiative was announced on the popular TV programme Survivor, and picked up over 50 million impressions on digital.

Meeting new consumer needs

Man reaching inside a washing machine to load it

As people stayed in to avoid infection and workplace hygiene became essential to employees returning to work, we stepped up our efforts to provide the products people need to keep their homes and communities clean, from new antibacterial detergents in Brazil, sanitising Comfort fabric conditioners in South East Asia, to new antibacterial Cif and Domestos cleaners in the UK.

We’re continuing to make the lives of the people who buy our products easier, cleaner and safer. We know people want to clean their homes and clothes without damaging the planet. Driven by our Clean Future strategy, we’re making good progress in transforming some of the world’s most well-known household brands to disinfect, clean, freshen up and remove stains better than ever – while lowering their carbon emissions and waste.

From OMO detergent with plant-based stain removers, and Lifebuoy’s home cleaners that deliver 24 hours of disinfection with 100% natural cleaning ingredients, to Sunlight’s new antibacterial washing-up liquid that can be used without water and rinsing, we’re leading the industry towards a cleaner future through the power of science and innovation.

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