Removing the stain of climate change from washing products

Unilever is on a mission to eliminate fossil-derived carbon from all of its cleaning products by 2030. Russell Brown learns how the company is cleaning the carbon out of its cleaning products.

There’s a train coming and we’re all on the tracks. We know it’s coming, everybody’s talking about the train and how much it’s going to hurt when it arrives. But no one’s actually doing anything to stop it, or even slow it down. That’s how facing down climate change can often feel.

Governments convene, agree there’s a problem and that it’s increasingly urgent – and then, most of the time, shy away from the short-term economic and political costs of acting. But what if someone did take a big, bold stride off the track we’re all on?

That’s how Unilever sees its new Clean Future project. The global food and home products giant (2019 revenue: 50 billion Euros) has undertaken to eliminate fossil-derived carbon from all of its cleaning products by 2030.

The story Unilever wants to write into its next decade actually began a decade ago in 2010, when it launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. That was an undertaking to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals by taking action on health and wellbeing (including by sponsoring handwashing and oral health programmes), enhancing livelihoods (introducing new employment practices and creating more opportunities for women) – and halving the company’s environmental impact. Clean Future is easily the largest stride so far towards that third commitment.

The role of carbon in cleaning products is bigger than you might think. Stain removers in laundry products, for example, have long been petrochemical derived. 

Like many homecare manufacturers around the world, the ingredients in Unilever’s cleaning products account for a significant proportion of its carbon footprint – 40%, in fact. And yet those ingredients are currently key to the products’ effectiveness. No one wants cleaning products that don’t clean. 

The solution, as Unilever’s president of home care products Peter ter Kulve put it recently, is to “stop pumping carbon from under the ground when there is ample carbon on and above the ground if we can learn to utilise it at scale.” It’s a significant shift for an industry that needs to clean up its act.

Ingredients key to cleaning products’ effectiveness also carry the biggest carbon footprint (Photo: Getty Images)

At the centre of the Clean Future initiative is the “Carbon Rainbow”, a schematic designed to guide the company’s move away from non-renewable fossil sources of carbon (black carbon) towards carbon from plant and biological sources (green carbon), marine sources such as algae (blue), captured Co2 (purple) and carbon recovered from waste materials (grey). The science for making some of those substitutions at scale doesn’t exist yet, which is why Unilever has put up a NZD$1.77 billion research fund to make it work.

The first of the reformulation is already on the shelves in New Zealand. Clean Future-compliant Persil laundry products use additional plant-based polymers and biodegradable enzymes to reduce the reliance on fossil-fuel derived equivalents.

A refresh of the package design rolls out over the next few months, but that doesn’t mean Persil and other Unilever products will suddenly become “eco-brands”. It’s about providing consumers with products that are continually more sustainable as technology advances without sacrificing efficacy or suddenly becoming really expensive. 

“We’re trying to make sustainability commonplace,” says Alex McDonald, head of sustainability and communications for Unilever’s home, beauty and person care divisions in Australia and New Zealand. “We see our role as mainstreaming sustainability – and just having it accessible to everyone.”

“We definitely know from consumer research that about two thirds of people would say that they want to be more sustainable,” says her colleague, Lorna Ash, head of homecare for Unilever  Australia and New Zealand. “Consumers want to buy in an environmentally responsible way. But the sales don’t necessarily reflect that. Partly that’s because the products on the market that delivered the sustainability message perhaps don’t deliver on the cleaning benefits.

“I’m a big believer that everyone wants to do the right thing for the planet and the right thing for future generations. But the reality is that we’re all leading very busy lives and we need it to be easy. We need a product that’s still going to deliver the same cleaning benefits for the same price.”

Holding the price point isn’t the only challenge in getting the reformulated products to market. New Zealanders are used to doing their laundry in cold water, which reduces energy use, which is good – but it also means Unilever has had to create a Persil formulation for cold-water markets that works as well as Persil and its brand siblings do in countries that hot-wash.

The new Clean Future-compliant Persil (Image: supplied)

It gets more complicated. The plant-based polymers that act as stain removers in the new laundry products are sustainably sourced and biodegradable, but when they break down in soil they do release some carbon, along with water and minerals. So from next year, Unilever will include that minimal release in its company-wide carbon accounting.

That in turn feeds into a longer-term goal: to make the global business end-to-end carbon neutral by 2039.

“Clean Future is about trying to transition an entire industry – the cleaning chemical industry,” says McDonald. “So we’ve got an overarching ambition, which is ensuring that we have net zero carbon emissions from all of our products from cradle to shelf, across the entire spectrum, our whole value chain.

“We’ve been able to tick off some things. We’ve already reached 100% renewable electricity across all of our manufacturing operations globally.”

McDonald has also been involved on another Clean Future front: packaging. All packaging for Unilever’s cleaning products in Australia and New Zealand is now 100% recyclable and its plastic containers are made with 25-35% post-consumer recycled plastic. Making recycling work has meant forging partnerships – most notably in Australia with retailers Coles and Woolworths, and not-for-profit organisations such as WWF and Planet Ark .

She’s also on the marketing advisory committee for the Australasian Recycling Label, which aims to provide simple, standardised instructions for people using kerbside recycling. Despite the name, it’s not active in New Zealand yet, but the Office of the Chief Science Advisor said last year that it could be – if only we could get councils and everyone else on the same page.

Alex McDonald, head of sustainability and communications for Unilever’s home, beauty and person care divisions in Australia and New Zealand (Photo: supplied)

“The circular economy won’t be achieved by one company alone,” says McDonald. “It relies on an entire ecosystem of industry, policy-makers, nonprofits and consumers to get there. 

“We can play our role by making sure that our products are recyclable and contain recycled content. But whether they’re actually recycled or not isn’t in our direct control. We can control the product design, but it requires that broader ecosystem to ensure that they actually are recycled at the end of the day.”

There’s work to be done upstream too, in working with existing suppliers and, where necessary, finding new sources.

“Our R&D teams have excelled themselves and we have a really good partnership with our suppliers,” says Ash. “Because the reality is, it isn’t just what we’re going to be doing in our factory, it’s also the ingredients that we source, it’s the way our supply partners work. It’s testament to the relationships we have that people have not only been willing to help, but want to know how they can do more.”

This all fits with the goal of not only changing Unilever’s product lines, but changing the broader sectors in which they exist – and thereby, the world.

That will, says McDonald, involve “new ways of working and new technologies that don’t currently exist. One thing that makes that process easier is making a sound business case. We always make it clear that we’re not just doing this out of the goodness of our own hearts, there’s a business case.

“Yes we have a conviction that now more than ever is the time for action on climate change – the pressures on the planet are getting worse. But we still have shareholders and we’re still a business, what’s our business case for it? That helps drive the decision-making”

Creating recyclable packaging isn’t just good for the earth, it’s good for business (Photo: Getty Images)

The case is framed in four main ways. The first is cost – the changes are intended to create cost savings, with the caveat that those savings might not be immediate. The second is risk – taking into account the material impacts that climate change will have on the business as it exists, including the likelihood that water scarcity will have bearing on crop growth and potentially increase the cost of raw materials. The third is trust – and specifically addressing consumer distrust of chemical constituents. And the fourth is growth.

Unilever believes that businesses that thrive in the future will be those that serve society today. Indeed growth – and the scale it creates – is envisioned as a key element of making Clean Future work. The idea is that the necessary research and development – encompassing  biotechnology research, CO2 and waste utilisation, low carbon chemistry, biodegradable and water-efficient product formulations, and alternatives to single-use plastic – will play a major part in  driving more profitable growth for Unilever’s brands, save costs, mitigate risk and build trust among its stakeholders.

McDonald has some form there, having worked with the London and San Francisco-based NGO Spring Impact, which focuses on scaling up environmental and social initiatives to increase their impact.

“We see scale as more of an opportunity than a challenge,” she says. “How can we harness our scale as a force for good and actually go against this perception that big business is bad?

“With our scale, in terms of how many countries we operate in and how many people use our products in their homes every day, that’s actually a really unique opportunity to drive positive environmental and social change. We’re really energised by that.”

That’s another potential benefit of declaring a clear corporate mission the way Unilever has: 160,000 employees feel good about coming into work in the morning. For Ash, who began her career with Unilever in Britain (in the ice cream division), it was “the fact that Unilever is a company that puts purpose at the heart of how they do business” that brought her back.

Lorna Ash, head of homecare for Unilever  Australia and New Zealand (Photo: supplied)

That feeling resonates all the more for her as a mother of two girls.

“My eldest is 10 and her knowledge around sustainability and what’s good and bad is amazing – she’s a bit of an eco-warrior. I joked the other day that she should be doing the interviews and not me!

“It’s actually satisfying for me as a mum that we’re delivering something that makes this easier for mums and dads. It’s not that people don’t want to do the right thing, but we’re all really busy and we’ve got homes to run and budgets to think about. We need this to be easy and we need the choices.

“We can all make a difference. Small changes can have a big impact. We’re not really asking you to do anything differently – you can still wash your laundry in the way you always have. We’re just asking you to choose a product that’s made the change for you.”

For McDonald, the call of building a sustainable business has led, literally, to broad new horizons. A friend spied an ad seeking crew members for eXXpedition Round the World, the all-woman sailing venture that has been highlighting the problem of ocean plastics by visiting and conducting research around the five giant gyres where waste plastics have accumulated. McDonald applied.

“I went through the interview process and got accepted. I thought it was a good way to re-energise myself and to get out into the field versus driving change from behind a computer screen. I was really drawn to the adventure of it, getting out into wild, untouched nature. That’s when I’m at my happiest. It really inspires me to do what I do. I also liked the idea of learning from all the women on board.”

Right now, the voyage she’s focused on is the one her company has begun. It’s a big ship to steer – Unilever has set its course on parts normally reached only by boutique eco-businesses. If it can do it, it will mean real change.

“Ultimately what we’re trying to do with our business is prove that sustainable business models and long-term financial success aren’t mutually exclusive. They go hand in hand. When we can prove that, it becomes a model that others can replicate. And then we can redefine what success in business means.”




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