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Partnering with suppliers to deliver net zero

Average read time: 14 minutes

We’re working with our suppliers to reduce the carbon footprint of our products, through radical product innovation and deep partnerships.

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When someone puts one of our products into their shopping basket in the year 2039, they’ll know we’ve done everything possible to reduce its climate impact.

Most of our carbon footprint lies in our value chain: from raw materials and the emissions from transporting ingredients to factories and then getting finished products to our customers. Every decision we take about what goes into our products, and how they’re made, is an opportunity to reduce our climate impact. Working with our suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint is at the heart of our approach.

Our goal is to reach net zero emissions covering Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions by 2039.(a) That means we’ll radically reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) impact of our products – from raw materials, manufacturing, logistics and distribution – including the freezers that keep our ice creams cold in store. We’re also targeting emissions from aerosols and the disposal of waste products and packaging.

In the 2020s and 2030s, our primary focus will be to eliminate emissions in our operations and reduce emissions across our value chain rather than purchasing carbon credits. We will not meet our net zero target through carbon offsetting before 2039. From then onwards, we’ll ensure that any residual emissions are balanced with high-quality, third-party verified carbon removals.

We fully expect our approach to delivering our commitments to evolve as science progresses and the societal debate on net zero matures. For example, we’re currently considering the recently issued guidance from the Science Based Targets initiative on net zero targets.

More information about our climate targets and the role of carbon credits, removals and offsetting can be found in our Climate Transition Action Plan (PDF 10.15 MB).

Collaborating with climate progressive suppliers

We can’t achieve our climate goals alone. It will require new levels of collaboration with suppliers who are as ambitious as we are. We’re asking existing suppliers to adopt carbon reduction targets to cut their emissions. And we’re prioritising partnerships with new suppliers who already have science-based emissions targets in place.

Supporting suppliers in taking climate action

We want our suppliers to come on our climate action journey with us – and we’re supporting them to grow, develop new solutions, scale proven technologies and achieve carbon reductions. That’s why we launched the Unilever Climate Promise(b) and the Unilever Climate Programme.

The Climate Promise is an opportunity for suppliers to publicly demonstrate that they share our values and are ready to help tackle the climate crisis. Suppliers set a Science Based Targets initiative (STBi) aligned target, publicly report on their progress towards meeting this target, and share their product level GHG emissions footprint data with Unilever.

Through the Climate Programme, we are helping a subset of companies to achieve the Climate Promise asks, by providing guidance, tools and resources, for the 300 suppliers whose products have highest climate impact. During 2022, we ran a pilot with 35 suppliers who were able to build their climate knowledge and develop expert capabilities to calculate and share their GHG emissions data. The feedback from this pilot is informing the roll out and scaleup of this important Programme in 2023.

We’re also encouraging other companies to work with their suppliers, for example through the 1.5°C Supplier Engagement Guide, launched by the 1.5°C Supply Chain Leaders initiative at COP26.

Through our membership of the 1.5°C Supply Chain Leaders initiative, led by the Exponential Roadmap Initiative, we’re collaborating to drive climate action across supply chains with other climate leaders including BT, IKEA and Ericsson. We’ve also joined up with other multinational companies including Maersk, Microsoft and Nike and in the Transform to Net Zero initiative to explore innovative ideas for climate action.

We’re supporting small and medium-sized suppliers through the SME Climate Hub, which offers tools, knowledge and best practice guidance for reducing emissions. The platform aims to reach millions of suppliers as they race towards net zero emissions by 2050.

Our suppliers are also crucial to our ambition to communicate the carbon footprint of our products to consumers. Together we're striving to collect better data and increase our understanding of the GHG impact of our products.

Working with our innovation partners to scale up solutions

Innovating with suppliers and partners is key to cutting the carbon emissions of our products. We’ve spent years reformulating products to reduce GHG-intensive raw materials such as phosphates in our laundry products – a change that reduced CO2 emissions by up to 50% per single use by consumers.

Our focus now is on using fewer and different ingredients by concentrating our formulas for products such as laundry liquids and fabric conditioners. We’re also rethinking packaging to create more compact products that reach customers in smaller, lighter or dilutable formats – such as Cif ecorefill. We’re aiming to reduce emissions from our Home Care products by 60% through concentration and compaction.

Our Home Care division’s groundbreaking ‘Clean Future’ programme aims to eliminate fossil fuels from cleaning and laundry products by 2030, shifting away from fossil-fuel-derived carbon (such as petrochemicals) to renewable or recycled carbon (such as carbon from recycled plastics).

Our Foods & Refreshment brands are developing lower carbon food products through an ambitious Future Foods strategy, aiming to achieve €1.5 billion in sales per annum from plant-based products in categories whose products are traditionally using animal-derived ingredients by 2025 – through brands such as The Vegetarian Butcher, Wall’s, Magnum and Hellmann’s.

Reducing the impact of raw materials

It takes a lot of energy to grow, extract and process the ingredients and materials that go into our products and packaging. Raw materials make up more than half of our value chain GHG emissions today.

Our most carbon-intensive ingredients are inorganic chemicals such as soda ash (used in laundry products), organic chemicals such as surfactants (used in cleaning products), farmed ingredients like palm oil and dairy, and packaging materials like paper and plastic.

To reduce the carbon impact of our materials, we’ll need to change materials and product formulas, work with new suppliers and support all our suppliers to reduce their emissions, for instance, by switching to renewable energy. We’ll also have to work with other partners to tackle bigger challenges in the industrial and agricultural systems that our business depends on.

We’re focusing on finding lower carbon alternatives with our suppliers. We've developed GHG reduction roadmaps for key materials and ingredients which contribute to our upstream Scope 3 GHG emissions, including dairy. Our roadmaps identify how we can reduce emissions through product reformulations, different raw materials and supplier innovation partnerships. We’ve piloted this approach for laundry ingredients and believe we could halve the GHG footprint of the product portfolio over a ten-year timeframe.

Reducing emissions from aerosols propellants

We typically use hydrocarbon propellant gases in hairsprays, body sprays and deodorants. In the US, our largest deodorant and hair market, Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) regulations restrict the use of formulations used elsewhere. Our primary focus has been to find regulatory solutions in the US to enable the use of alternative propellant systems which have a lower GHG footprint compared to hydrocarbon and hydrofluorocarbon propellants and help improve air quality. Provisions have been added to the US VOC regulations to allow the use of compressed gas propellants. We’re now exploring alternative formulations and formats in key markets.

Working towards a deforestation-free supply chain

Another way the raw materials in our products can have a negative climate impact is by being associated with deforestation. Forests are a hugely important global store of carbon and deforestation contributes 15% of global GHG emissions.

As one of the world’s largest buyers of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy and tea, we want to ensure that the raw materials we buy are not linked to the damaging climate impacts of deforestation. By sourcing traceable and certified sustainable commodities and by working with governments, NGOs and other partners, we aim to achieve a deforestation-free supply chain by the end of 2023. Our long-standing work on forest commodities means that since 2010 we’ve already achieved an estimated 35% reduction in the GHG footprint of the palm oil that we buy.

Clean Future. Clean home.

We’re reimagining the future of cleaning through our Clean Future strategy to become lower carbon and lower waste, with the same or even better performance, for our global cleaning and laundry brands including OMO (Persil), Sunlight, Cif and Domestos.

We will remove all fossil-fuel-derived carbon from our cleaning and laundry brands, and move to 100% renewable or recycled ingredients by 2030. We expect this shift to reduce the carbon footprint of product formulations by up to 20%, an important step in our journey to achieving net zero by 2039.

We’ve already launched an OMO liquid laundry capsule made from captured industrial emissions (grey carbon). Lifebuoy has launched a cleaning range with plant-based (green carbon) ingredients in five countries. And OMO/Persil launched a new laundry liquid in 16 countries with plant-based stain removers (green carbon).

We have ring-fenced €1 billion for Clean Future to finance biotechnology research, CO2 and waste utilisation, and low-carbon chemistry – which will drive the transition away from fossil-fuel-derived chemicals. We’ll also invest in biodegradable and water-efficient product formulations, halve the use of virgin plastic by 2025, and develop brand communications that make these technologies appealing to consumers. This investment is in addition to the €1 billion Climate & Nature Fund.

Plant-based foods for the future

Our Future Foods strategy aims to help people transition towards healthier plant-based diets and reduce the environmental impact of the global food chain.

We’ve set an ambitious global sales target of €1.5 billion in sales per annum from plant-based products in categories whose products are traditionally using animal-derived ingredients by 2025. This means we’ll need to grow sales of plant-based products, delivered principally through:

  1. Meat replacement: vegan or vegetarian alternative proteins like The Vegetarian Butcher, which is now available in over 55 countries.
  2. Vegan mayonnaise: tasty plant-based alternatives to our classic Hellmann’s mayonnaise.
  3. Vegan ice cream: plant-based ice creams from some of our best-loved ice cream brands including Ben & Jerry’s, Magnum and Wall’s that use non-dairy fats and proteins.

We're also encouraging people to eat more – and more diverse – vegetables. Together with WWF-UK, Knorr’s global Future 50 Foods report highlights lots of alternative foods like lentils, wild rice and kale that don’t typically make it into the list of the most-commonly eaten crops worldwide. Knorr’s recipe inspiration and innovation pipeline aims to promote more diverse plant-based eating and biodiversity.

We’re collaborating with farmers, NGOs, universities and communities in our journey to support sustainable change that the world’s food system so desperately needs. We invested €85 million in ‘The Hive’, a foods innovation centre at Wageningen University in the Netherlands to support research into plant-based ingredients and meat alternatives, efficient crops, sustainable food packaging and nutritious food. We have over 500 experts based at the centre.

Tackling emissions from logistics and transport

Our logistics and distribution network transports our products billions of kilometres each year from our suppliers, to our factories, to where they’re sold, and ultimately to our customers’ stores. Transport and logistics makes up around 3% of our value chain GHG footprint.

Most of our transport emissions come from transport companies we work with as we don’t usually own the trucks, trains and ships that move our products. We’re working with our logistics suppliers to cut emissions through reducing the total distance trucks travel, filling them more efficiently and using lower carbon alternative fuels.

We improved the CO2 efficiency of our global logistics network by 40% between 2010 and 2020. Now we’ve set our sights on a further 40–50% reduction in logistics and distribution emissions over the next decade.

To achieve this, we’ll work with our suppliers to:

  • Redesign transport routes to reduce the distance travelled and make more deliveries direct to customers to reduce unnecessary journeys.
  • Use a mix of road, rail and sea (intermodal solutions) for smarter transport – for example using railways to reduce demand for long-distance trucking.
  • Explore hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) technologies for long-haul, heavy-duty transport, and BEVs for short-haul transport.
  • Develop lower carbon alternate fuels, such as bio-liquified natural gas and renewable natural gas (biogas).
  • Use cleaner and newer technologies for our refrigerated and frozen deliveries.
  • Measure and reduce ‘last mile delivery’ emissions from our customers’ distribution centres to store shelves and to consumers’ homes.

We’re also involved in several cross-sector sustainable transport initiatives aimed at creating wider change, such as a new shipping coalition, Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels (coZEV) to help accelerate the decarbonisation of the shipping industry.

Using alternative fuels

Lower carbon alternative fuels help us cut CO2 emissions from our trucks and reduce costs.

We've begun using lower carbon alternative fuels such as liquified natural gas (LNG) or compressed natural gas (CNG) in 12 countries. It has many advantages compared with diesel: up to 11% less CO2, 95% less particulate matter, 50% less noise pollution from trucks – and it’s often cheaper too. But a lack of fuelling stations is a major obstacle to wider use, especially for long-distance journeys.

Several of our logistics partners have begun using LNG in parts of Europe and northern Asia. We’re also using compressed natural gas (CNG) as an alternative to diesel in India, Turkey and the US. In Sweden, we’ve successfully trialled the use of hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO100), a renewable diesel made from waste fats and vegetable oils.

We see CNG and LNG as transition fuels on our journey to low-carbon logistics. In the long term, we need fuels that will enable us to achieve even bigger cuts in our transport footprint, such as hydrogen and biogas.

Switching to electric vehicles

Switching to electric vehicles can reduce CO2 emissions and fuel costs. We’re a member of EV100 to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles worldwide and we’re taking steps in our own business.

We’re working towards 100% electric vehicles (EVs) or hybrids by 2030. In 2021, across six of the most EV-ready countries, EVs and hybrids made up 8% of the fleet. Our New Zealand business has already transitioned its entire fleet to EV. We’ve also piloted zero emission electric trucks to transport our products with partners in three countries, and plan to scale to more countries.

Reducing emissions from business travel, commuting and homeworking is another area of focus. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been supporting staff to work from home, and reducing the need for air travel wherever possible.

Keeping cool with climate-friendly freezers

Our ice cream brands – like Wall’s, Algida, Ben & Jerry’s and Kibon – are sold from more than 3 million freezer cabinets in over 45 countries. Freezers are typically set to a temperature below -18 degrees, which uses a lot of refrigerants and energy to keep them cold. This makes up 10% of our value chain GHG footprint so it’s an important area to take action.

Freezers are designed to keep refrigerants sealed inside. But if they leak, refrigerant gases such as hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) have a global warming impact thousands of times greater than CO2.

95% Of the 3 million freezers in our fleet now use lower carbon natural hydrocarbon refrigerants

We’ve pioneered the use of natural hydrocarbon refrigerants (HCs). Over 95% of the 3 million freezers we use now contain natural refrigerants and it’s mandatory that any new freezers we purchase use HCs rather than HFCs.

We collaborate with freezer manufacturers to improve the efficiency of the freezers we buy, which also helps reduce emissions and running costs for the retailers who sell our ice creams. We’re prioritising getting the most energy-efficient units to retailers in countries with the most carbon-intensive energy infrastructure. The average energy use per cabinet falling by 2.5% compared to 2021.

We’re exploring using renewable energy to power our freezers and have completed trials of mobile solar-powered ice cream cabinets in India and the US. And we’re developing solar-powered static freezers. Product innovation could help us find new ways to keep ice creams at warmer temperatures (known as ‘warming up’ the cold chain), while making sure customers still get the same great taste and experience.

(a) Our long-term net zero value chain target covers upstream Scope 3 emissions, Scope 1 and 2 emissions, and mandatory downstream Scope 3 emissions. Mandatory downstream emissions include direct emissions from aerosol propellants and the biodegradation of chemicals in the disposal phase, but excludes indirect consumer use-phase emissions, such as emissions associated with hot water used with our products. This approach is consistent with the Science Based Targets initiative’s approach to net zero targets. Our medium-term value chain emissions reduction target covers indirect consumer use-phase emissions.

(b) In March 2023 we changed the first ask of the Climate Promise to make the pledge more accessible to Small and medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) while ensuring it remains ambitious and drives emissions reduction aligned with climate science.

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