With record rainfall in Europe, extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest and devastating wildfires in Greece this year, we have been starkly reminded of the impact that climate change has on people and the planet.
As a principal partner of COP26, the world’s biggest climate change conference taking place in Glasgow, in November, we at Unilever are supporting the international effort, led this time by the UK government, to help accelerate climate leadership and ambition. Seen by many as the world’s last best chance to get runaway climate change under control, COP26 represents a pivotal moment in bringing world leaders together to commit to urgent global climate action.
Taking action in our business
At Unilever we have set very clear targets to drive climate action as part of our Compass strategy, to protect and regenerate nature, and build a waste-free world. We are committed to achieving Net Zero by 2039 covering our value chain, from the origin of the raw materials and ingredients through to when people buy our products.
As Unilever UK & Ireland, we’re continuing to look at all aspects of our business and operations, with our focus on reducing the carbon impact of our factories and offices, tackling plastic waste, and helping people transition towards healthier diets, whilst reducing the environmental impact of the food we produce.
Progress in our own operations
We’ve made some good progress, reducing our manufacturing carbon footprint by two-thirds since 2008, using 100% renewable grid electricity across all our sites and with four of our sites now carbon neutral.
In Port Sunlight, the home of Persil, Comfort and Tresemme, we’re taking part in a world-first project testing the feasibility of using hydrogen to fuel our factories as an alternative to natural gas.
At our Burton factory, where we use brewer’s yeast as a by-product of local beer production to make Marmite, the waste generated from the making process goes into an on-site anaerobic digester to produce bio-gas to fuel the boilers, which in turn produce steam to run the factory. A truly circular process!
Taking action through our brands
With our brands at the heart of our business we will use their reach to action progress towards a net zero future and make it easier for shoppers to make sustainable choices with the products they buy.
For more than a decade, we’ve been measuring the carbon footprint of our products across the lifecycle and working to significantly reduce this. It’s not easy. A product’s carbon footprint includes everything from the ingredients we use, how we make and transport the product, through to the packaging and the impact of disposal.
Our aim is to make sustainable, affordable products, which taste great and perform brilliantly, so people don’t have to make compromises when making more sustainable choices, with our ambition to communicate the carbon footprint of the products we sell.
Reducing Plastic Waste
Unilever has committed to using 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging, halving our use of virgin plastic and increasing our use of recycled plastic, all by 2025, and we’ve been working hard in our UK and Ireland business to accelerate our progress towards these targets.
A refill and reuse revolution…
Refill and reuse could be a real gamechanger for our ambition to halve our use of virgin plastic. In our biggest refill trial in Europe, in Asda’s sustainability store in Leeds, we’ve been testing seven of our brands, including Persil, Cif, Simple, Alberto Balsam and Radox. And shoppers looking for a quick ‘grab and go’ purchase can now pick up one of our pre-filled bottles in-aisle in Asda’s first refill store in Scotland, in Glasgow, and return them when they’ve used the product for the bottles to be cleaned and re-filled.
At the same time, we’re partnering with Tesco and Loop, with reusable stainless steel bottles for Persil, Simple, Alberto Balsam and Radox now available in ten of Tesco’s stores.
There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ for reuse and refill. I see this very much as a learning journey, using our well-known brands to test different models, store formats and locations to see how shoppers respond, what works best, and what we need to adapt and change.
Bringing flexi back
Currently in the UK flexible or ‘soft’ plastics, like pouches, packets, sleeves and sachets, are not commonly collected or recycled and typically end up in general household waste, with only 16% of councils currently collecting this material
As a founding member of the Flexible Plastic Fund we’re working to tackle this, in collaboration with other businesses, retailers and recyclers, to ensure this type of plastic packaging can be collected, sorted and recycled. The new £1 million Fund aims to boost flexible plastic recycling and create a long-term and sustainable solution.
A force for good in foods
Through our Future Food ambition, we want to help people to transition towards healthier diets and reduce the environmental impact of the food we produce.
We’re working hard to increase the number of our products delivering positive nutrition and continuing to reduce calories and salt, fat and sugar in our range, offering lighter and lower salt versions of our products, such as Hellmann’s Light and Marmite Reduced Salt.
With the lifestyle benefits that come with more plant-based nutrition, our Vegetarian Butcher range offers products for meat lovers, flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans alike, replicating the taste and texture of meat, whilst being better for the planet and kinder to animals.
And, whilst we continue to work hard to halve food waste in our own operations, our Hellmann’s brand is helping people waste less food at home. With 70% of all food waste in the UK coming from households, and the equivalent of one in every six bags of food bought being thrown away, Hellmann’s is on a mission to create a nation of food lovers who are saying ‘Yes to taste and No to waste’, providing hacks and inspiration for using up food leftovers. That’s not only good for our pockets but for the planet too.
Underpinning the action we’re taking through our brands, we’re also working to reduce the carbon impact of our advertising. Through the Ad Net Zero initiative, the advertising industry has committed to being net zero by 2030.As a founding member, we are working on what actions we can take that will have the most impact in helping to curb carbon emissions in the production of our advertising, including travel, energy and waste.
So, we’re making some good progress but there’s still much more to do. In the lead-up to, during and after COP26, we’ll continue with our aims to accelerate climate action and leadership. I’m really energized by the challenges we are working on for our brands in the UK and Ireland to achieve net zero emissions by 2039, because businesses like ours can play a key role in taking decisive action to address climate change on a global scale.
Sebastian Munden - Unilever | LinkedIn
Sebastian is the Executive Vice President and General Manager for Unilever UK & Ireland and has worked at Unilever since 1990, when he joined as a Marketing Graduate Trainee at what was then Lever Brothers in the UK.