Unilever, one of the largest consumer goods companies in the world, had a carbon footprint equivalent to about 60 million metric tons of CO2 in 2019. But by 2039, the company plans to shrink the carbon footprint of its products to net zero, 11 years before the deadline set by the Paris Climate Agreement.
The company wanted to move more quickly than 2050, a year that many countries and other businesses are targeting to reach “net zero” emissions, meaning that any remaining human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are balanced out by nature’s ability to suck carbon from the atmosphere (or new technology that can also suck carbon from the air.) “2050 is a long time away and therefore has the risk of not being prioritized correctly,” says Marc Engel, supply chain officer at Unilever. “We need to act sooner rather than later. We are concerned that if the journey is not significantly accelerated right now, 2050 will be far too late to act. The intervention needs to be now; otherwise it might be impossible.”
“Second of all, we are concerned that if the ‘net’ in net zero gets too big, there will be no systems change, and there won’t be enough opportunities to create that ‘net,'” he says. “It’s a big and uncertain bet to count on offsetting.” Unilever has slashed its own footprint by 70% since 2008 and plans to keep cutting emissions further.
The company plans to eventually label packages with carbon footprints, and will begin asking suppliers to declare the carbon footprint of products on each invoice. It also will lobby governments to set their own ambitious climate targets and new policies such as carbon pricing, arguing that businesses can’t drive the transition quickly enough on their own.
The goal is incredibly ambitious—and a similarly ambitious goal in the past didn’t happen. (Greenpeace criticized this new announcement as “kicking the can down the road.”) In 2010, Unilever pledged to cut its environmental footprint in half by 2020, including the impact from consumer use. But the carbon footprint of its products has slightly increased. Engel says that the company realized how difficult it is to change consumer behavior and that it had also made assumptions about renewable power growing more quickly in consumer homes than it actually did. Now, it aims to cut the carbon per consumer use in half by 2030, giving itself an extra decade. For the new net zero target by 2039, it will focus on the “cradle to gate” footprint—meaning from resource extraction to when it leaves the factory—that is more under its control.
Deforestation is another challenge. The company buys more than a million metric tons of palm oil each year for use in products from shampoo and toothpaste to ice cream, and palm oil production drives deforestation—a major source of carbon emissions—as farmers expand plantations in places such as Indonesia. Cocoa, soy, paper, and tea production also cause deforestation.
While Unilever has worked on the problem for years, shifting to suppliers that are certified as sustainable, Engel says they have to do more. New technology is helping. “Through new digital technology, which is only now emerging, and by combining satellite images, anonymized geolocation tracking, and advanced analytics, it is possible to have a close to real-time link to so-called ‘first-mile sourcing’—something that has always been missing through certification,” he says. “We have been partnering with tech companies and NGOs in this space and will now roll this out over the next three years to ensure palm, soy, paper, tea, and cocoa—our deforestation-linked commodities—are free from deforestation.”
Unilever’s 400 brands, like Dove and Ben & Jerry’s, will also collectively invest 1 billion euros in a new climate and nature fund. The fund will support projects such as reforestation of tropical rainforests and restoration of mangroves and peatlands, all of which can help sequester carbon. “We will also look at startups and tech companies for new technologies looking at carbon sequestration,” says Marc Engel, supply chain officer at Unilever. The fund will also ramp up projects that are already underway, such as a program at Ben & Jerry’s that pays dairy farmers a premium to invest in regenerative agriculture techniques that can help store more carbon in the soil.