Unilever plans to spend € 1 billion changing what it puts into laundry and cleaning products to cut out fossil fuel components.
The Consumer Goods Group aims to eliminate fossil-based chemicals 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 Kulve, president of Unilever’s € 11 billion homecare unit, said the cleaning industry was facing a “diesel moment”, citing revelations that diesel cars caused more pollution than previously thought.
“We have our diesel moment – I think everyone realizes that the time has come for the cleaning industry to turn around and ask, ‘How do we clean the cleaning?’ »»
The initiative comes as CEO Alan Jope seeks to halve emissions from Unilever products throughout their life cycle by 2030, while boosting slow sales growth.
Mr Ter Kulve said the changes would mean working with a wider range of suppliers, such as US microbial technology group Ginkgo Bioworks, in addition to traditional ones such as Dow Chemical.
Unilever’s homecare division was intensified during the pandemic from demand for cleaning products such as Cif. But its biggest sellers are laundry detergents, which include Surf, Radiant, Omo and Persil. Unilever makes Persil in the UK and a few other locations. Elsewhere, it is produced by the German group Henkel.
Efforts to reduce the impact of washing machines on greenhouse gases have previously focused on the energy consumed by washing machines.
However, Unilever said a neglected source of emissions was fossil-based chemicals in products, such as surfactants and carbonate ash, which dissolve fat and soften water.
These represent almost half of the carbon impact on products, said Ter Kulve. Replacing them will allow the company to cut 1 million tonnes a year from fossil fuels from its supply chain, he said.
Unilever will replace some ingredients with plant-based alternatives: for example, Persil in the UK has remodeled its liquid detergent to use plant stain removers.
The Chix dishwasher brand in Chile now uses rhamnolipid, a natural and biodegradable surfactant that can be produced by bacteria.
Unilever acquired Seventh Generation, a Vermont-based cleaning company, four years ago, but Ter Kulve said turning the mass market into all-vegetable products would use too much land.
Instead, for some ingredients, Unilever will try to change the origin: for example, it is investigating surfactants made from plastic waste.
Mr Kulve said: “We know consumers want to make green choices if they are not more expensive and the products do not work less well.”
The changes will reduce total emissions from its products by about one-fifth, the company estimates. It will make further cuts by reducing the plastic packaging.
Carole Ferguson, head of investor research at CPD – which runs an environmental disclosure system for investors – said the initiative was a sign of the growing complexity of corporate emission reduction initiatives.
“These are projects that will give investors the confidence that they are really trying to tackle the problem,” he said. “Works like this go beyond the green wash.”