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Reducing our environmental impact

How we harness the latest science to manage environmental impacts and improve the health of the planet

An illustration of a man holding a plant in his hands

Improving the health of the planet is one of the fundamental objectives of the Unilever Compass; our strategy for a sustainable business that drives superior performance and enables Brands with Purpose to grow. Our Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre’s (SEAC) environmental sustainability science underpins the ambitions of the Compass in areas such as addressing climate change, regenerative nature and conserving resources for future generations.

SEAC scientists work to identify opportunities to minimise the potential environmental impacts of Unilever products or activities and ensure that they are at the forefront of environmental sustainability science, sharing expertise and working in partnership. This allows us to keep up to date with external developments, harness the latest scientific evidence and create tools to assess current, and predict the future, environmental impacts of products.

Since the 1980s Unilever has been active in applying and further developing the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach for application to our products and brands (LCA involves studying the environmental impacts of a product – from the sourcing of raw materials, such as via mining or agriculture, to product manufacture, distribution, consumer use and disposal). We have proactively shared our LCA approach and knowledge through publications.

Pioneering thinking

The drive for transformational change focuses on addressing the big issues that matter the most to our business and to the world. This has led us to concentrate more on predictive science, to help anticipate the potential future impacts of today’s decisions, and to also shift our emphasis from the impacts of specific products or regions to consideration of the global Unilever business.

SEAC scientists are focusing on pioneering methodologies that can inform attempts to tackle climate change, eliminate deforestation, reduce the impacts of agriculture, and deliver water, sanitation and hygiene solutions.

Supporting transformational change

To support the regenerative nature and the elimination of deforestation ambitions we are, for example, developing tools and approaches to assess the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BES) associated with different patterns of land use. Ecosystem services are the ‘life supporting’ functions of the Earth, that is, the benefits that ecosystems or nature contribute to humans. Examples include the ability of vegetation to purify water, of forests to provide firewood and of bees to pollinate crops.

SEAC is working with external partners to create ways of measuring the impacts on BES of large-scale agricultural expansion. We hope that this will help achieve a deeper understanding of the trade-offs between the use of land and the impact of its use on water, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions.

The evolution of our life cycle approach

  • 1980s – We started using life cycle assessments for key products, tailoring existing approaches to our business, and developing impact assessment methodology.
  • 1990s – We expanded this capability to explore and publish an Overall Business Impact Assessment that considered economic and environmental impacts.
  • 2000s – We continued to develop our approaches and assessments through the development of our Brand Imprint tool. This assessed the social, economic and environmental impacts of our brands and was the framework for the environmental pillar of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP).
  • 2010s – We focused on pioneering footprinting methodologies to support implementation of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and, in particular, annual greenhouse gas footprinting of over 3000 products and quantifying the benefits of sustainable agriculture and deforestation policies. We also enabled integration of sustainability thinking into innovation through sustainable design insights and ecodesign tools.
  • 2020s – We are continuing to support life cycle informed decision making in our business and to develop new approaches that cover biodiversity and ecosystem services as well as the development of absolute sustainability assessment based on the Planetary Boundary concept. We will leverage our science and capabilities to help our brands improve the health of the planet with a focus on regenerative nature, climate action and the conservation of resources.
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