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The Dirt on Soap: Soap as an Agent of Political, Social, and Economic Agendas

In the context of day-to-day life, soap warrants minimal consideration. It is merely a material component involved in a greater process – an integral, yet largely undervalued element of a daily hygiene regimen. It is with seeming unawareness that Americans live within a culture of “compulsive over-cleanliness,” rooted in an irrational hyper-obsession with expunging germs and malodorous smells. The perplexing reality is that we derive, to some degree, a certain sense of security in the artificiality of tropically-scented shampoos and minty-fresh hand-soaps, as these olfactory cues reinforce notions of cleanliness. Hygiene is so deeply enmeshed in the fabric of Western convention that cleanliness as both an ideal and a protocol has come to be seen as a fact of life. The product of this socialization is a normalized and unthinking subscription to hygiene habits. What’s more, by eliminating odors and preventing disease, the very function of soap contributes, at its most fundamental level, to its own taken-for-grantedness. In this sense, soap is foregrounded in routine and regarded in entirely neutral terms. From the Western perspective, soap is purely a material good associated with perfunctory measures of hygiene, and little reflection is devoted to its socio-politico-economic ramifications. And while it has the potentiality to advance public health measures in developing countries whilst simultaneously benefiting the corporate sphere, soap must be treated through its various socio-economic, politico-historical and ethical lenses to understand how well-intentioned development projects frequently exacerbate the very problems they aim to ameliorate.

The World Health Organization estimates that in 2015, a staggering 2.4 billion people lacked basic sanitation, contributing to a host of misfortunes: “lost lives, missed schooling, disease, malnutrition, and poverty.” Inadequate sanitation is responsible for 280,000 diarrheal deaths annually and 50% of malnutrition conditions worldwide. The Public Library of Science corroborates these findings and gauges that a “lack of sanitation contributes to about 10% of the global disease burden, causing mainly diarrheal diseases.” A 2010 World Bank study reveals that in India alone, inadequate sanitation accounted for the equivalent of US$53.8 billion worth of losses – an astounding 6.4% of the nation’s GDP in 2006 – due to the resulting forfeitures in education, productivity, and tourism. Certainly, these dismal statistics create a compelling argument for concerted public health campaigns in developing countries, particularly for agencies like the United Nations and UNICEF, which consider sanitation a basic human right. In this climate, soap offers an immediate, convenient, and – most importantly – effective solution: “In a series of randomized, controlled studies of intensive handwashing promotion in Pakistan, researchers [at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] found about 50% fewer diarrheal and respiratory infections among young children in low-income households that received weekly handwashing promotion and a supply of soap for about a year, compared with households that did not receive these interventions.” Clearly, soap works. As an agent of public health, it thus becomes embroiled in a web of social, political, and economic entanglements.

With nearly one-third of the world population suffering from diseases and conditions associated with poor sanitation, the need for enhanced public health presents an auspicious avenue for market-based solutions. In his renowned book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, C.K. Prahalad argues precisely this. His particular insight is that “the creation of new markets around the needs and aspirations of the poor can be both an efficient technical solution to problems of poverty and an engine for corporate profit.” Namely, he disproves the assumption that poverty must be remediated by nonprofit agencies with humanitarian agendas. Rather, he flips the idea of ‘social work’ on its head, arguing that solutions to poverty can and should be viewed through the pragmatic lens of corporate profit. In a business-minded sense of the word, then, ‘social work’ comes to signify concrete economic opportunity in a promising (and expanding) market that is still largely untapped. This capitalist approach to poverty alleviation generates a win-win situation in which corporate profit drives public health measures, job creation, and female empowerment in the public sphere.

Hindustan Unilever Limited, the Indian subsidiary of  Unilever (a multinational corporation  based in London that also owns Dove and Axe), embraces this business model, with an emphasis on making “social and economic issues integral to business.”  Within the brief span of 16 years, its product, Lifebuoy soap, reached 538 million people, contributing to reduced diarrheal and respiratory disease through the introduction of handwashing habits. With the mission of “bringing better health and hygiene to a wide and often disadvantaged market,” Lifebuoy’s success is a testament to the merits of bottom-of-the-pyramid investment, which in India has “created a new alignment between the commercial value of washing and cleanliness and the goals of international public health policy.” Additionally, Hindustan Unilever challenges gender barriers by involving women in its distribution process. Project Shakti (literally, Project Power) is perhaps the largest and most successful female-empowerment project, recruiting nearly 72,000 women in rural, low-income Indian villages in door-to-door sales. Soap, then, becomes a ‘social good’ aimed at addressing public-health concerns, poverty alleviation, and gender barriers through remunerative corporate enterprise.

"Yet, solutions comes with their blemishes, and soap is no different."

Yet, solutions comes with their blemishes, and soap is no different.

Rooted in Western notions of hygiene, well-intentioned campaigns to improve public health can be viewed through an imperial lens. Indeed, corporate power has its roots in colonial enterprise. Throughout the nineteenth century, imperialists in Sub-Saharan Africa were attentive to matters of health and hygiene purely as a means of maximizing the economic efficiency of their colonies. Moreover, Western ideals of ‘purity’ and ‘whiteness’ associated with soap can create polarizing and racist dichotomies between ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’ peoples in need of reform and their ‘clean’ Western counterparts. In this sense, a historical approach to soap reveals its potential to be leveraged as a vehicle of oppression.

Historically, soap also actively contributed to women’s consignment to the sphere of domesticity. Hygiene became inextricably bound with social standards of femininity, reinforcing certain images of beauty while also defining a woman’s role in the world – the keeping of the house. As such, a woman was literally defined by her interactions with soap – in maintaining her appearance, in washing linens and dishes, in scrubbing floors and bathing dirty children… A woman’s duties and the social perceptions of what she ought to look like, smell like, and act like revolved around soap and her interactions with it in the private sphere. As early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, marketing campaigns specifically targeted women by constructing the ideal of ‘hygienic motherhood;’ appeals to standards of cleanliness and beauty were thus highly gendered. From a historical perspective, soap waltzes a hazy line of gender bias: hygiene may be leveraged as an agent of oppression under the guise of the ‘public good’– a reality that applies as much to race and gender as it does modern politics.

From a contemporary standpoint, soap also defines power dynamics between the state, corporation, and citizen consumers. Particularly in India, Lifebuoy soap has accomplished through private, market-based solutions what the government could not do on its own. Indeed, corporations are uniquely situated to provide efficient public health outcomes through their vast commercial marketing resources. Accordingly, Unilever negotiates and redefines public-private relationships in respect to the corporation’s connections to the state as well as to the citizens that benefit from the product in the public sphere. As such, questions emerge regarding corporate expansion: to what extent do corporations act in a quasi-state fashion as they expand beyond national borders? Where do we draw the line as the boundaries between state and business blur? To what extent are corporate ‘solutions’ accepted versus imposed upon groups of people?

In this vein, corporate advertisement of soap must also be examined through an ethical lens. Unilever’s website claims that “providing quality, affordable products is only part of the solution to improving health through hygiene – people need to change their habits too. Using our understanding of habits and expertise in delivering behaviour change campaigns at scale, we promote enduring change in the everyday behaviours that matter to health.” While this is certainly true, companies can harness their marketing resources to “socially engineer” their customer base, creating a ‘need’ where there was not one before: “Their campaigns created new consumer ‘needs’ that tapped into subconscious fears and desires to construct connections between cleanliness, hygiene, social mobility, and brands of manufactured soap,” creating a market for related products including perfume and dozens of household cleaning products. As humans ascribe meaning to objects through patterns of interaction, Unilever’s marketing and educational campaigns give soap a meaning and a purpose. This observation is by no means an attempt to discredit Unilever’s noble attempts to enhance public health; however, it does bring the corporation’s marketing methods into the limelight, unmasking ways in which Unilever engineers, and subsequently taps into, subconscious consumer values to sell other less necessary household products. As such, soap embodies the ethical trade-off between life-saving market campaigns aimed at habit-forming and campaigns targeting consumers’ subscription to the notion of a “total hygienic ideal.”

So while the ‘bottom-of-the-pyramid’ business strategies offer promising solutions to public health concerns in developing countries, it is imperative to understand the various contexts in which they are implemented. Anthropology is about showing how objects like soap are politically and socially charged in ways so fundamental and subconscious that we don’t even perceive them. Whenever we act in the name of the public good, we have to realize that we are often knowingly or unknowingly doing so at the cost of a certain group of people. More specifically, we fall into a trap of looking at problems through the lens of solutions. The consequence of this mindset is that we neglect to look deeper to “reason out the need for the need” – to delve beneath the surface to locate the underlying socio-politico-economic issues that contribute to the problem at hand. Solutions are analogous to ‘quick fixes’ — they’re kiddie band-aids for a gaping wound. Cultural, political, and technical factors erode these solutions overtime.

As an agent of public-private power dynamics, soap far transcends its cleansing function to unify a broad range of cultural narratives and economic ambitions. To think of soap merely in the context of hygiene is to define it all too narrowly, with little regard for the social psychology and corporate designs at play. While certainly a vehicle for addressing public health in developing countries like India, soap is also a mechanism for corporate profit. As businesses approach public health and poverty alleviation from the pragmatic angle of corporate profit, soap comes to mean and become more than the dispassionate practice of hand-washing to prevent bacterial illness. Instead, it channels corporate educational and advertising campaigns to construct a societal standard that associates soap with health and hygiene. In so doing, these corporations expand the market for hygiene products and alter consumption habits; soap becomes the physical manifestation of these newly-cemented social values.

The urgency of public health issues serves as the immediate entry point for corporations to capitalize on social and economic issues, and while it saves lives, it also spins a nuanced web of power-relations between citizens, government, and business. Soap is a social and economic good that acts on social values and public-private partnerships to capitalize on the “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.”



About the Author

Emily Skahill '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Emily can be reached at emily_skahill@brown.edu