How our hand sanitizer business adapted to meet global demand
From two factories in January to 61 in May: scaling up production through the pandemic.
Last year Unilever’s hand sanitizer business represented an important but small part of our global Beauty & Personal Care portfolio.
One popular product came from our Lifebuoy brand: a range of gels designed to appeal to young children and their hygiene-conscious parents, adorned with cartoon characters and fitted with schoolbag-friendly clips. Sales and market share were stable and there was clear potential for growth – but no one could have foreseen quite what 2020 would bring.
In the weeks since Covid-19 took hold, we’ve moved at a pace that was previously almost unimaginable to help prevent the spread of infections. Since January, we’ve gone from producing about 700,000 items a month to around 100 million items, and increased production capacity worldwide by more than 600 times in tonnage as hand hygiene became a vital way to fight the virus.
We’ve mobilized people, partners, retailers and resources to scale up our hand sanitizer production capabilities significantly. And we’ve delivered on the demands of retailers and governments across the globe who have been eager to secure supplies of this increasingly essential item.
We caught up with Vice President of Supply Chain for Skin Cleansing and Skin Care, Ampy Aswin, to find out more.
Ampy, what were some of the early actions Unilever took to begin addressing the increase in demand for hand sanitizers?
When news of the Covid-19 outbreak first came out, towards the end of Chinese New Year in late January, it felt like we were responding to an emergency call. We knew that as a business we could do something to help, and that speed was of the essence.
Within 24 hours a fully empowered squad was set up from brand teams, Supply Chain, R&D and Unilever International.
We started working out how we could ramp up production of hand sanitizers immediately.
How did you get that process underway?
Our first priority was addressing the needs in China quickly, and within days we extended that remit globally so that we could do our very best to meet demand on a wider scale if the pandemic spread.
We contacted multiple third parties to see if they could support us. To say that we had a positive response is an understatement. We couldn’t travel to visit factories but through virtual reviews we assessed risk factors thoroughly from a distance, and rapidly added several sites to our list of production partners.
At the last count, we’ve increased from two to 57 third-party partners and they’re located all over the world from Mexico to Malaysia, Australia, Italy, Canada, South Africa and dozens more countries. We’ve also adapted some Unilever sites to produce sanitizers, and learned from the experts in our deodorants business who know about working with flammable liquids (like deos, hand sanitizer contains alcohol). Our factory in Vietnam was the first to make a major change, switching production to hand sanitizer in just 25 days.
How did you move so quickly?
It helped that we had a very clear purpose: increasing the supply of hand sanitizer to meet an enormous surge in demand. That galvanized everyone into action. And across the wider team, we agreed a framework that gave us freedom to make decisions fast and deploy expertise where needed.
We made some compromises too. As long as the products could meet the WHO standards of a minimum of 60% ethanol content in sanitizer, we decided we wouldn’t worry about bottle shapes or designs. When the priority is meeting demand during a pandemic, how the products look is much less important.
Tapping into Unilever International’s great network for distribution also enabled us to act quickly.
What have been some of your personal highlights so far?
In May we had a request from a major US retailer. They were keen to secure an extremely large order of sanitizer packs and because they didn’t believe one supplier would be able to provide that kind of volume, they had asked multiple businesses if they could help.
We contacted our network and partners to see what was feasible and worked closely with our colleagues in the US to see what we could do. The next day we confirmed that Unilever would be able to deliver the entire amount. The retailer was surprised but delighted.
This entire program has been the most intense experience of my career but I’m so proud of what we’re doing.
It started with Lifebuoy, but several more Unilever brands have now introduced hand sanitizers and entered new markets. How has that evolved?
It’s been exciting to see that happen – and so fast. We know we can deliver to meet the demand so now it’s about differentiating our products, remaining relevant to brand identities, and launching lines that consumers will enjoy using. We now produce more than 50 different packs of hand sanitizer across the business.
Lifebuoy has introduced aerosol sprays in addition to its gels. Lux’s range has fantastic fragrances. And brands such as Rexona in Latin America and Suave in US, which until now didn’t offer hand hygiene products, have launched sanitizers which meet WHO’s standards.
So with Covid-19 still spreading, do you think hand sanitizers will continue to increase in popularity?
Lifebuoy first launched hand sanitizers during the SARS pandemic. Demand during that time still remained quite low. With Covid-19 it’s different. This is global, and the scale that we’re seeing is unprecedented.
We are very likely to see long-term changes in people’s behavior around using hygiene products in a variety of situations. While the small travel-size packs are very popular for using on the go, larger sanitation stations may prove essential for hotels, restaurants and office buildings in the future too. We’ll continue doing all we can to ensure people can access these products whenever and however they need them.