The science is clear: to safely limit a global temperature rise to 1.5°C, the world needs to reach net zero by mid-century and at least halve greenhouse gas emissions this decade.
Businesses need to play their part in making this happen – faster than ever before. At Unilever, we’ve already taken strides in our operations, lowering emissions by 68% since 2015. But as this only accounts for a small proportion of our total footprint, we know we need to act well beyond our factory walls.
That’s why we are working with our partners and using technology and innovation to address emissions across our wider value chain. We’re supporting key suppliers to measure and cut carbon, collaborating with our brands to invest in nature and developing innovative ways to reduce the footprint of our products before they reach shops and consumers.
We know we’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re committed to reaching net zero by 2039 and as we work towards our climate targets, we want to celebrate some of the many experts at Unilever who are driving change across our business.
Read on to learn ten ways we’re tackling emissions, from the people making it happen.
1. Investing in climate and nature
In 2020, Unilever established our Climate & Nature Fund, with the goal of investing €1 billion this decade in projects that will accelerate decarbonisation and support nature solutions globally. Eric Soubeiran, Vice President of Business Operations, Sustainability, and Managing Director of the fund, is ensuring our brands are investing in projects that have positive impact. For example, Dove’s partnership with the Rimba Collective will help protect and restore 50,000 hectares of rainforest – an area eight times the size of Manhattan – in South-East Asia over five years.
“We want the €1 billion to be used in projects that drive change and will attract partners to help us to co-finance and scale solutions. That way, we can achieve at least double the contribution we’ve made.”
2. Scaling up our climate collaboration with suppliers
More than 70% of our emissions come from the raw materials, ingredients and packaging that we buy. Giulia Saladino, a Climate Specialist in our Business Operations Sustainability team, is working with the suppliers who contribute most significantly to our upstream emissions, supporting them to monitor and reduce their product carbon footprint, so we can reduce ours too.
“We have around 52,000 suppliers. Of these, 300 contribute significantly to our upstream emissions. When we began researching how to work with them on emissions reduction, we discovered that two-thirds of this group didn’t have a climate target yet. This presented a huge opportunity for Unilever to offer support.”
3. Delivering dairy that doesn’t cost the earth
We’re reducing cow burps by using red seaweed as cattle feed and heating homes with their manure. Our Sustainable Sourcing Manager for Dairy, Klaas Jan van Calker, highlights some of the more unusual ways Unilever projects are reducing emissions in the dairy sector.
“If you look into the ingredients that contribute to Unilever’s overall footprint, then dairy is significant, especially in ice cream. We know reducing those emissions must be a key part of Unilever’s solution for tackling climate change.”
4. Using innovation to cut carbon in cleaning products
Jon Hague, Head of Clean Future, Science and Technology for Home Care, explains how we’re using chemical innovation to reduce the carbon footprint of our cleaning products, from developing nature-based foaming agents to creating ingredients that can even help trap carbon in the soil.
“As materials biodegrade, they release carbon dioxide into the air. We can tackle that by working with suppliers to drive down a material’s initial carbon footprint, using biodegradable and renewable carbon, and through ‘weight efficiency’ or eco-design.”
5. Decarbonising our factories
We’ve committed to sourcing 100% renewable electricity in our operations and we’ve made strong progress. All the grid electricity used by our factories is already drawn from renewable sources. Lewis Rae, our Safety, Health and Environment Capabilities Manager for Air Emissions, reveals the steps we’re taking next to optimise our factories to use cleaner, smarter energy.
"We need to focus on energy efficiency because the most sustainable energy is the energy that we don’t use at all. Doing so also makes sense for our business – we estimate that since 2008, energy efficiency has saved Unilever well over €1 billion."
6. Harnessing heat pumps
As well as providing heat and hot water in our factories, thermal energy sources can be used during production processes, like pasteurisation for our ice cream, and for cleaning processing equipment in our machinery. Vivek Nesarikar, Global Engineering Manager, explains how heat pumps are changing the way we source thermal energy, allowing us to repurpose waste heat and cutting costs and emissions.
“In total, over a third of our thermal energy use is currently drawn from renewable sources. To meet our target of achieving 100% renewable heat by 2030, we will be looking to significantly increase our use of heat pumps across our operations.”
7. Turning the tide towards more sustainable shipping
We move around 150,000 shipping containers a year, so at any point in time there are in the region of 10,000 Unilever containers in the sea. Director of International Logistics and Decarbonisation, Sundarrajan Bhyravan, helps manage this. From a virtual control tower that allows us to monitor shipping emissions in real time to our work to effect wider system change, he explains how we’re making our shipping more sustainable.
“For Unilever, ocean shipments account for a very small share of our logistics emissions, which in turn account for just 3% of our overall emissions. But climate change is a problem for everyone and if big companies like us, as cargo owners and shippers, don’t take a lead, then who will?”
8. Driving down logistics emissions
Using a mix of increased efficiency, electric vehicles and sustainably sourced biofuels, we’re cutting emissions across our distribution network. Our Sustainability Logistics Manager, Laura Realpe, explains how only a mix of new technology, better infrastructure and strong partnerships will make decarbonisation of our fleet possible.
“I love the innovation in my role. We are testing things that, at times, are being done for the first time in the world.”
9. Warming up the cold chain
The ‘cold chain’ for ice cream requires refrigerated trucks, chilled sales cabinets and home freezers. Unilever has around 3 million sales freezers globally, so reducing their footprint would be a big win. Roy Horne, Head of Climate Action in our Ice Cream business group, explains how, alongside introducing plant-based ingredients and reducing emissions from dairy, we’re exploring ways to change the way ice cream is stored.
“Our 3 million sales freezers contribute a lot to our footprint. We think you can change the design temperature of ice cream and still give the consumer the same experience, translating to a 20–30% energy saving in the cold chain.”
10. Building sustainability into the business
Making significant and meaningful emissions reductions while still driving growth requires businesses to think holistically. As Chief Business Operations and Supply Chain Officer, Reginaldo Ecclissato is guiding our use of technology in our journey towards net zero and working to ensure that every link in our supply chain is strong, sustainable and optimised for growth.
“We’re seeing time and time again that investing in technology not only increases efficiency but also helps us deliver on climate and nature... I would say our long-term partnerships continue to be a key part of our success too.”