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How One Enormous Corporation Is Working To Slash Its Environmental Impact

Checking in with Unilever, owner of 1,000 brands across the globe, at the half-way point of its aggressive sustainability goals.

How One Enormous Corporation Is Working To Slash Its Environmental Impact

In a single day, 2 billion people use something made by Unilever–Dove soap, Lipton tea, or a product from one of about 1,000 other brands the manufacturer owns. The company’s massive scale comes with a massive carbon footprint: across the full lifecycle, its products created around 67 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2013, according to data provided to the Carbon Disclosure Project.

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But the company is also trying to reduce the impact of that footprint. In 2010, Unilever pledged to spend the next decade cutting the environmental impacts of its products in half, while simultaneously doubling sales. This year marks the halfway point in the plan.

At its factories, the company has managed to bring carbon emissions down by 32% and water use down by 29%, compared to a 2008 baseline. In January, it announced that every factory at its 240 locations is now “zero waste.”


Unilever’s plan goes beyond its own operations. For every product, it has examined the entire lifecycle, from raw materials to landfill, and set goals for every stage, including consumer use.

For something like shampoo, almost all of the carbon footprint–93%–comes from the energy consumers use when they are in the shower. In other words, it’s largely outside Unilever’s control. But they’re trying to change it anyway.

“What they’ve done is look at where the impacts are in their value chain,” says Andrew Winston, a sustainability expert who serves on the company’s outside sustainability advisory board. “If you’re going to cut impacts in half, you have to address where the impacts are.”

Not surprisingly, it isn’t easy to change how people take a shower. Though the company says it is largely on target for its 2020 goals, the carbon footprint of each product (measured each time a consumer uses it–like a single shower) is actually up 5%.

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“We start at sourcing and we go all the way to disposal,” says Jonathan Atwood, the company’s vice president of sustainable living and corporate communications for North America. “But most importantly, and most difficult, is addressing the consumer usage of our products. That’s the place that we’re struggling the most.”

The company thinks marketing will be part of the answer. A 2010 ad for Axe that argued for “showerpooling,” or sharing your shower with a friend or “an attractive stranger,” was one attempt at an awareness campaign.

“It will require brands to be able to communicate to people in ways that excite and inspire consumers,” says Atwood. “It will not come through trying to impose ourselves with messages like ‘Take a cold shower, or a shorter shower,’ and everything will be okay. That has not worked, and that will probably not work.”

Products are also changing. Dry shampoo saves both water and energy, and Unilever is pushing several new dry shampoo options in its product lines. The company is also using sustainability goals as the inspiration for new design. “In order for this to work, innovation will play a large part,” says Atwood.

For a company of Unilever’s size, even small changes can make a difference. Redesigning a plastic bottle to add tiny bubbles into the plastic walls cut plastic use by 15%; once the bottle is in use throughout the company’s products, it will save an estimated 27,000 tons of plastic resin every year.

The company believes that the move to sustainability is driving new business. But it also sees the changes as a necessary response to a changing world.

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“We’d like to see the business case for the alternative,” says Rob Candelino, VP of marketing for Unilever’s hair care brands. “If there are extreme water shortages, what does that mean for our business when people can’t take showers?”


The company is also working deep into the supply chain to improve raw materials like palm oil, which is a major cause of deforestation. As one of the world’s largest buyers of palm oil, Unilever was the target of a Greenpeace campaign in 2008 for unsustainable practices. But the company changed course. Last year, all of its palm oil came from traceable sources–a big first step–and by 2020, all of it will be certified.

Other crops, like tea, will be certified by Rainforest Alliance, and Unilever has also introduced a “sustainable agriculture code” that they’re asking suppliers to meet. Crops won’t be 100% organic; the code isn’t perfect. But farmers will have to meet dozens of criteria, from soil management to measuring carbon emissions. By the end of 2013, 48% of agricultural raw materials met this “sustainable” criteria. By 2020, the company plans to use 100% sustainable raw materials.

Unilever’s plan also includes social goals, from helping smallholder farmers grow their businesses to improving health around the world. When the company started in the late 1800s, it went on a crusade to make London slums more hygienic by marketing soap. Today, it’s doing the same thing in places like Sub-Saharan Africa.

“In some places, children are not reaching the age of five because they’re dying of diarrhea–which is totally preventable if they just wash their hands,” says Atwood. “So as a soap manufacturer we’ve stepped into that conversation.”

That means new campaigns for soap, and also new products, like a children’s soap that changes color after ten seconds as an incentive to keep kids scrubbing long enough. Here’s an Indonesian ad plugging the soap:

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Despite the benefits of the color-changing soap, it may also have flaws. It’s antibacterial, even though many experts–like the FDA–say that plain soap and water is just as effective, and certain ingredients in antibacterial soaps can pose other health risks. (The color-changing soap appears to contain triclocarban.)

It’s one example of the fact that some of the products Unilever makes seem to pose challenges to its goals. The company is also trying to dramatically increase the nutritional value of its food products, at the same time that it’s the largest ice cream manufacturer in the world.

But despite challenges, it’s undeniable that the company is making major progress and thinking about sustainability in a comprehensive way. “What Unilever has done that’s unusual is the breadth of its goals,” says Winston.

Unilever is also helping push other companies to do more, as in a new collaboration with Walmart and competitors to figure out how to collect consumer waste, like plastic packaging, before it goes to landfill.

“We’ve started to see a number of companies start to join the conversation in very dramatic ways,” says Atwood. “And that to us is exciting. Because the story of Unilever and the promise that we’re making is not one that we’re doing alone.”

Will the company reach its 2020 goals? Despite the challenges of shifting consumer behavior–and the possibility that specific products, like shampoo, might not cut impacts as much as planned–Winston believes that the company will meet its overall targets. “It’s aggressive, and visionary, but I think they’re on track,” he says. “They’ve got five more years to get it done.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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