Musings from the carpark: a not-so-normal’ Saturday

Nicky Sparshott, Unilever Australia and New Zealand CEO shares her reflections on our recent Positive Beauty commitments and the intricacies of the word "normal".

Cartoon image of woman thinking

It’s 7:30 on a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in the carpark of an indoor sports centre, penning my thoughts on a laptop. I want to go in and watch my daughter play netball (somewhat lamenting the time when I too could run up and down a court for 60 minutes without feeling like a heart attack was a real possibility) - but the latest temporary COVID-19 precautions preclude this. It’s a small price to pay when we consider the relative freedom we have had as a country compared to so many around the world. In fact, our little bubble at times makes it difficult to fully appreciate just how lucky we are.

As COVID-19 deaths pass the three million mark globally, we are reminded of the fragility of life and the ongoing precariousness of this situation. We are a nation blessed with multicultural diversity, which also means that we all know someone who has lost something - or someone - to this virus, locally and abroad. At Unilever ANZ, we have a melting pot of people from different walks of life, many with homes in Australia and connections in other, equally special places. Some team members are abroad and trying to get home; some families are torn apart with one parent overseas looking after vulnerable grandparents whilst the other is in Australia with the children. Others have lost family members and have had to grieve from afar – a reality that is hard to fathom. It’s a sobering reminder of what is really valuable and important in life, and a nudge to be sensitive to the unique lived experiences of those around you at this time.

For while we may be entering some versions of ‘normal’ in parts of our lives, it is a thin veil - with many challenges and complexities underneath, if you take the time to pull back the curtain.

Let’s put ‘normal’ under the spotlight. Apart from the top entry for workplace jargon bingo in 2020/21(!), ‘normal’ can be used as description for a time which felt more familiar (i.e. ‘go back to normal’). In more recent times, it’s also become the label for a reinvention of what we used to know (the ‘new normal’), and the inevitability of further change (the ‘next normal’) – something that comes with its own complications of expectation and potential pressure. For me, ‘normal for now’ feels a little more achievable at the moment. Striving for simplicity and familiarity, but leaving room for resetting, re-evaluation and reinvention where you can. I know I am missing a time when things felt a little simpler, a little more predictable - maybe a little less curve balls and a little more slam dunks.

The intricacies of ‘normal’ continue when you open the dictionary. It’s defined as: an adjective for conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected. But what is usual, typical, expected in the eyes of many beholders? On a planet blessed with the unique perspectives and backgrounds of nearly 8 billion people, who/what has the power to decide on what is normal and what is not? The fact is, no one does, and frankly, no one should.

It’s the reason why Unilever is removing the word normal as a descriptor from all of our packaging and advertising. In a poll of 10,000 people from around the world, Unilever found that more than half the respondents feel that using ‘normal’ to describe hair or skin makes people feel excluded, while 70 per cent said using the word in advertising has a negative impact. So, in addition to removing the word, we are also going to stop digitally altering the body shape, size, proportion and skin tones of models we use in our advertisements, including those of our paid influencers across all our brands. As a mother, a business leader, and a woman with my own insecurities and strengths, I am proud of this decision. It’s a small step in the right direction - a resetting, re-evaluation and reinvention – and the reception of the possibility of many, many different types of normal.

I am inspired by the words of award-winning author, Richie Norton: “Creativity is at the heart of every stupid idea...creativity and stupid are interchangeable...because everything inherent to that kind of creativity requires breaking away from the norm, going against the grain, and leaning into risk and fear.” Creativity and courage are critical to enabling us to challenge the status quo constructively, optimistically and courageously.

It’s only then that aspiring for normal will feel more comfortable...more worthy. When we’ve created a place where it is normal for people and nature to live in harmony; where it is normal for everyone, irrespective of gender, race, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation or ability, to feel equally able to take up opportunities and feel like they belong. Where it is normal for any person to feel safe in their own homes or when walking out at night. Where we can celebrate differences to make a difference and be unified in our diversity. That’s a normal I could aspire to – in the ‘now’, in the ‘next’ and everywhere else in between.

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