Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Ali Hart headshot

SB11 Follow-Up: Unilever Answers My Hanging Questions

By Ali Hart

Earlier this month at Sustainable Brands '11,I interviewed Eric Ostern, Unilever’s Senior Manager of Corporate Responsibility and Community Relations, about the company's Sustainable Living Plan. In my wrap-up, I noted that I had two questions left unanswered. Lucky for me -- and you -- the answers landed in my inbox yesterday. Here they are:

3P: Has Unilever considered converting some of its liquid products to powder to reduce water use, packaging materials and GHG emissions associated with transport?

EO: Unilever is exploring a number of different technology solutions to reduce GHG emissions, water and waste in our products and packaging across their lifecycle. 

We are guided by the major foot printing analysis we have conducted for GHG emissions, water and waste.  We analyzed 1,600 representative products in 14 countries covering 70% of our volume sales using a lifecycle approach.  From this we can see that our largest impacts are in the sourcing of raw materials and the way consumers cook, clean and wash with our products.  Over two-thirds of our greenhouse gas emissions are tied-up in consumer use, and of the water we can measure, less than 1% is in the water contained  in the product; the rest is in consumer use (this excludes water used in agriculture).  So we are putting our resources behind tackling the biggest impacts, such as providing laundry detergents which give a great performance at low temperatures, reducing the resin in our Suave shampoo bottles which has saved the equivalent of 100 million plastic bottles over four years, and reducing the amount of water consumers need to use when rinsing by hand from three buckets to one with Comfort One rinse fabric conditioner and Surf Excel laundry detergent in India.

Manufacturing and transport make up less than 6% of our GHG emissions across the lifecycle, and we continue to work on these areas.  Over the last 16 years we have cut GHG by 44%, water by two-thirds and waste by three-quarters in our network of 250 factories. We have also set new and ambitious targets on both manufacturing and transport, such as doubling our use of renewable energy in our factories by 2020.
3P:  What kind of materials is Unilever considering for its refill sachets?

EO: Unilever markets refill sachets for some of our hair and body wash products in several countries around the world.

We select our materials according to the functional needs of the formulation contained therein, and according to the distribution infrastructure in any given country where our products are sold. This enables us to ensure that the end-user, the consumer, receives the best product possible without compromising safety and quality.

Refills help us reduce our demand on packaging materials. Our research has shown that refill packaging reduces the amount of packaging material ending up in landfills as they can be up to 10x lighter than rigid containers. Refill packages also have the added benefit of allowing the consumer to use virtually all of the product, thereby reducing product wastage.

I appreciate the follow-up and I hope you all do, too.
***Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.

Ali Hart headshot

Ali Hart is a media strategist and content producer helping change agents harness the power of humor. From developing creative TV and web concepts to managing comedians to strategizing grassroots campaigns, she has devoted herself to exploring which messages and messengers inspire behavior change for good. Ali holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, where she currently laughs.

Read more stories by Ali Hart