Global consumer goods company Unilever is committing €1 billion ($1,168 billion) to investigate how to transition away from fossil fuel-derived chemicals for its cleaning and laundry products by 2030.
A panel discussion to launch the South African leg of the company’s Clean Future campaign saw sustainability experts question just how the company would transform the chemical composition of its cleaning and laundry brands.
Most cleaning and laundry products today contain chemicals made from fossil fuel feedstock, which is a non-renewable source of carbon. The Clean Future campaign is a strategy to encourage the use of renewable or recycled carbon sources above ground to end the company’s dependence on non-replaceable fossil fuels sourced from under the ground.
Dr Andrew Venter, director for the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s operations in South Africa: “There is simply no disputing that the world is getting warmer, driven by our addiction to fossil fuels. That is why it’s so encouraging to see a business of Unilever’s scale make this dramatic commitment, one that amounts to an irrevocable business shift.”
Lethephu Mathaba, Unilever Homecare vice president for Africa, said the company’s move to sourcing renewable sources of carbon to create their products is a deliberate shift away from the fossil fuel economy and a critical step towards its pledge of net zero emissions from its products by 2030. She pointed out this shift would be particularly impactful given the scale and reach of Unilever’s homecare value chain: “We work with 6,200 employees across 150 factories. Homecare has a turnover of $12,6billion (€10.8billion), or 21% of total Unilever turnover. Over 1 billion people enjoy the benefit of our product every day.”
Using technology to ditch fossil fuels
Jennifer Cromie, Unilever’s Research & Development director Africa, said the programme would entail ring-fencing $1,168 billion (€1 billion) to finance biotechnology research, CO2 utilisation, low carbon chemistry, biodegradable and water-efficient product formulation. It will halve the use of virgin plastic by 2025. This investment will also support the development of brand communication to make the technologies appealing to consumers.
Central to the Clean Future programme is Unilever’s carbon rainbow, an approach to diversity the carbon used in its product formulations. Non-renewable, fossil sources of carbon (identified in the carbon rainbow as black carbon) will be replaced by using captured CO2 (purple carbon), plants and biological sources (green carbon), marine sources such as algae (blue carbon) and carbon from plastic waste (grey carbon).
Kirsten Barnes, Lead for the SA Plastic Pact, said she was encouraged to see the Clean Future programme did not just focus on the sustainability of the packaging but also the product inside which “too often just wash away, out of sight, out of mind.”
Matlou Setati, executive for food safety form the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa said partnerships were key to the success of the initiative, especially when it came to waste collection and recycling. “Industry bears a huge responsibility to develop products with the environment at heart, use less harmful ingredients and produce less packaging,” she said.
Company commits to zero damage to environment for a clean future
Nick Tandi, senior water resources management specialist from the Water Resources Group at the World Bank said he was excited by the water saving implications of Uniliver’s Clean Future goals, including its intention to introduce products that use less water. “In addition, biodegradable products will significantly reduce the cost of treating the wastewater, costs that would otherwise be passed on to consumers in their bills or added to the municipal debt,” said Tandi.
In response to a question about how Uniliver intended to be held accountable to its Clean Future campaign promises, the company’s Homecare director for Southern Africa, Nathan Palmer, said it was important to note the programme, though ambitious in scope, was part of a wider commitment by Unilever to work towards a goal of zero harm to the environment.
“We’ve made an extremely public commitment here. We’re confident we’ve got the internal commitment and external partners to make this happen. But, we ask you to hold us accountable if we fall short,” said Palmer.