Unilever plans to spend 1 billion euros changing what it puts into its washing and cleaning products to cut out fossil fuel components.
The FMCG has aimed to phase out chemicals based on fossil fuels from products such as Persil washing powder and Domestos bleach for a decade. It is the first initiative of this scale for cleaning products.
Peter Ter Kolff, head of Unilever’s € 11 billion home care unit, said the cleaning sector is facing a “diesel moment”, referring to the revelation that diesel cars are causing more pollution than previously thought.
“We have a diesel moment – I think everyone realizes it’s time the cleaning industry has to turn, and asks, ‘How do we clean cleaning? “
The initiative comes as CEO Alan Job seeks to cut emissions from Unilever’s products in half over its life cycle by 2030, while also driving slow sales growth.
Mr Ter Kolff said the changes will mean working with a wide range of suppliers, such as the American microbial technology group Ginkgo Bioworks, in addition to traditional ones like Dow Chemical.
Unilever’s home care division has been boosted during the pandemic due to the demand for cleaning products like Cif. But the bestselling laundry detergents, which include Surf, Radiant, Omo, and Persil. Unilever manufactures Persil in the UK and a few other places. Elsewhere, it was produced by the German Henkel Group.
Efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas impact on laundry previously focused on the energy consumed by washing machines.
But Unilever said one of the neglected sources of emissions was fossil fuel-based chemicals in products, such as surfactants and soda ash, that break down grease and soften water.
Terre Kulfi said these account for nearly half of the carbon impact on products. Replacing them, he said, would enable the company to cut 1 million tons per year of fossil fuels from its supply chain.
Unilever will replace some ingredients with vegan alternatives: For example, the UK-based company Persil has reformulated liquid detergents to use plant-based stain removers.
Quix dishwashing brand in Chile now uses rhamnolipid, a natural and biodegradable surfactant that bacteria can produce.
Unilever acquired Seventh Generation, a Vermont-based plant-based cleaning product manufacturer, four years ago, but Mr Ter Kulve said turning the mass market into entirely vegan products would use a very large amount of land.
Instead, for some ingredients, Unilever will be looking to change sources: for example, it examines surfactants made from plastic waste.
“We know that consumers want to make environmentally friendly choices as long as they are not more expensive and the products do not function well,” said Mr. Ter Kulff.
The changes will reduce the total emissions from its products by about a fifth, the company estimates. You will make more cuts by reducing plastic packaging.
Carol Ferguson, head of investor research at CPD – who manages the environmental disclosure system for investors – said the initiative was a sign of the increasing sophistication of companies’ initiatives to cut emissions.
“It is this type of project that will give investors the confidence that they are really trying to tackle the problem,” she said. “Projects like this move away from greenwashing.”
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