Beyond Optics: How a Consumer Giant Is Powering a Green Future

Unilever set an exemplary standard by opting to show carbon footprint labels in their product packaging. We also look at many more of their efforts for a green future.

Representational Photo by Victor on Unsplash

The article was originally published on WeNaturalists. For similar stories, head to our Explore section.

With 400+ brands and over 2.5 Billion people using their products daily, Unilever easily is a giant and has a huge impact on almost everyone’s lives. They produce consumer products for 190 countries worldwide.

Axe, Breyers, Cif, Comfort, Cornetto, Dove, Hellmann’s, Ben & Jerry’s and Vaseline are some of the names we’re all familiar with. With such a huge portfolio of products, the scale of sourcing, production and distribution is mammoth. And so is the impact they have on the environment of the planet.

Every process, big or small, has a certain amount of carbon footprint associated with it. In simple terms, it is the amount of carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere due to any process. And for Unilever, every brand adds an unimaginable number of processes that contribute towards it.

This is why Unilever announced in 2020 that they will be adding carbon footprint labels to the packaging of their products. It was a huge gesture. One which was applauded by conservationists all over the world. Adding labels to the products will allow the user to know the direct effect their consumption has on their carbon footprint.

Unilever had earlier announced its plan to go carbon-neutral by 2039 across all its brands. This is a huge commitment by any standard, considering the sheer size of the conglomerate. If Unilever achieves the target, they would be 11 years ahead of the Paris Agreement deadline of 2050.

Alan Jope, Unilever CEO, explains: “While the world is dealing with the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and grappling with serious issues of inequality, we can’t let ourselves forget that the climate crisis is still a threat to all of us. Climate change, nature degradation, biodiversity decline, water scarcity — all these issues are interconnected, and we must address them all simultaneously. In doing so, we must also recognize that the climate crisis is not only an environmental emergency; it also has a terrible impact on lives and livelihoods. We, therefore, have a responsibility to help tackle the crisis: as a business, and through direct action by our brands.”

Huge Initiative Is Required To Reach The Target

Unilever is a member of an exclusive club of corporations that have pledged towards carbon-neutrality including Microsoft, Google, Apple, Coca-cola, among others. Of course, going carbon-neutral entails a huge effort on the part of Unilever.

Here are some of the initiatives and pledges they’ve made:

  • Unilever’s brands will collectively invest €1 billion in a new dedicated Climate & Nature Fund. This amount will be used in the next 10 years in various initiatives like landscape restoration, reforestation, carbon sequestration, wildlife protection and water preservation.
  • They aim to achieve a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023. It’s a part of their plans for protecting and regenerating nature.
  • They’re also introducing a pioneering Regenerative Agriculture Code for all their suppliers. This is expected to build on the existing Sustainable Agriculture Code, which is considered to be best-in-class in the industry already. They will make the Code available for any organization which finds it useful.
  • They are introducing water stewardship programs for local communities in 100 locations by 2030. This program will be based on the Prabhat program in India which tackles water supply risks and quality around their factories while taking a community approach to water management.
  • To further protect the water resources Unilever aims to make their product formulations biodegradable by 2030. This is to reduce the impact on water and aquatic ecosystems. This is especially tough as some of their existing formulations don’t have a viable biodegradable alternative.

Attaining carbon neutrality involves making sure the sourcing is done correctly and from suppliers who maintain carbon emission best practices to reduce their carbon footprint. Efficiency in transportation is required with reduced use of fossil fuel consumption while doing it.

Representational Photo by Douglas on Unsplash

Packaging options for the products have to be chosen correctly while keeping in mind the disposability of the packaging post-consumption. Production processes have to be optimized to reduce inefficiencies. The sourcing of power for the production and operations need to be from renewable sources as energy from fossil fuels add to the problem

And the list of steps to be taken goes on and on.

The efforts for a sustainable future have been an ongoing process

Unilever has already started making massive shifts in its operations to tackle climate impact on an organizational level. Here are some of the key steps they have already been working on for years now to show the sheer magnitude of change required.

Unilever had earlier pledged to source 100% of the energy needs across all the manufacturing through renewable sources by 2030. Nearly half of their global energy needs come from renewable energy sources right now. They had aimed at reducing the carbon dioxide emissions by 40% by 2020 in their production processes, which they achieved four years ahead of schedule. And by 2019 they had cut down their emissions by energy usage by 65% from their 2008 baselines. This has also helped them in avoiding costs of around €733 million since 2008 for energy.

Achieving targets like these across their brands is a testimony and an assurance that they would stand by their word when they announced their intent to go carbon neutral.

Unilever was the founding signatory of the RE100 global campaign for leading businesses to commit to using 100% renewable electricity. They are fast approaching their target of going 100% on renewable energy grid for operations globally. By 2019 they reached this target in 5 major continents.

Moreover, Unilever has a carbon pricing model that allocates a price to every ton of carbon emissions they’re responsible for. This allows them to factor in carbon emissions while making financial decisions. Internally, since 2016 their carbon emission price was set at €30 per ton which was increased to €40 by 2018 and to €50 by 2020. They aim to keep increasing this price to ensure they reach carbon neutrality earlier.

Delivering transport emissions reductions is another area where they are working tirelessly for cleaner distribution of their products. Ensuring route efficiencies, packaging optimization and correct selection of vehicles for every delivery operation are some of the key areas of focus to cut down on emissions caused due to transportation.

By the end of 2019, they had cut their logistics CO2 emissions (from road, rail and warehouse storage per tonne of products sold) by 41% since 2010 — achieving their Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) target a year ahead of schedule. Considering that their distribution network travels over 1.5 Billion kilometers annually to deliver their finished goods, this feat is no small deal by any yardstick.

Finally, Unilever understands that their efforts can only improve factors under their control and once their products are shipped and reach their destination there are additional carbon footprints associated with their existence. And because of this, they understand that collaboration with different stakeholders is important for a low-carbon future. One small part of this effort is to call for increased government and private investment in renewable energy infrastructure to enable lower-carbon energy markets worldwide, which they’ve been doing for years now.

These initiatives are expected to lower operational costs, improve resilience in energy supply, and attract investors who are increasingly considering carbon risk as a major deciding factor before making decisions. An overall win-win.

Unilever’s initiatives have set a perfect example for organizations that are operations heavy to go carbon-efficient in the long run. The contributions and the processes built by them will definitely help organizations throughout the time to come.

If you’re a manufacturer or if you own a brand, it’s time to rethink how your organization contributes to carbon emissions.

Controlling, optimizing and pledging to reduce carbon emissions is a viable strategy not only to give back to society but also to ensure sustainability and cost optimizations that convert to money saved in the end.

Let’s create a green future for everyone. And it requires your contribution, now more than ever.

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