On June 15, 2020, Unilever set out a new range of measures and commitments designed to restore the health of the planet by mitigating climate change while regenerating nature.
Unilever says they will achieve net-zero emissions from all products by 2039. Granted, this is what companies should have done over three decades ago, when the climate alarm was raised: what’s needed now isn’t net-zero: it’s net-negative: only that will restore our climate.
Fortunately, their net-zero strategy includes carbon-negative activities. They say they will empower, and work with, a new generation of farmers and smallholders, driving programs to protect and restore forests, regenerate soil and biodiversity; and improve access to water for communities in water-stressed areas. And it should be pointed out that Unilever’s efforts are far ahead those of it’s major rivals, Kraft Heinz and Procter & Gamble.
Marc Engel, Unilever Chief Supply Chain Officer, explained, “Our collective responsibility in tackling the climate crisis is to drive an absolute reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, not simply focus on offsetting – and we have the scale and determination to make it happen. But this is not enough. If we want to have a healthy planet long into the future, we must also look after nature: forests, soil biodiversity and water ecosystems.”
“In most parts of the world, the economic and social inclusion of farmers and smallholders in sustainable agricultural production is the single most important driver of change for halting deforestation, restoring forests and helping regenerate nature. In the end, they are the stewards of the land. We must, therefore, empower and work with a new generation of farmers and smallholders in order to make a step change in regenerating nature,” he added.
Alan Jope, Unilever CEO, said “While the world is dealing with the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and grappling with serious issues of inequality, we can’t let ourselves forget that the climate crisis is still a threat to all of us. Climate change, nature degradation, biodiversity decline, water scarcity – all these issues are interconnected, and we must address them all simultaneously. In doing so, we must also recognise that the climate crisis is not only an environmental emergency; it also has a terrible impact on lives and livelihoods. We, therefore, have a responsibility to help tackle the crisis: as a business, and through direct action by our brands.”
Jope concluded, “The planet is in crisis, and we must take decisive action to stop the damage, and to restore its health. Last year, we set out a plan to tackle perhaps the most visible environmental issue we have in the consumer goods industry: plastic packaging. We set ourselves new and stretching targets that include halving our use of virgin plastic, and helping collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell. While it’s critical to address the impact that our products have at the end of their life, it’s just as important to continue to look at the impact they have on the planet at the start of their life – in the sourcing of materials – as well as in their manufacture and transport. We will reduce the impact that our products and our operations have on the environment, and we will do our part to bring the planet back to health.”
Here’s how Unilever described their initiative in a statement:
Hands holding a seedling
To accelerate action, Unilever’s brands will collectively invest €1 billion in a new dedicated Climate & Nature Fund. This will be used over the next ten years to take meaningful and decisive action, with projects likely to include landscape restoration, reforestation, carbon sequestration, wildlife protection and water preservation.
The new initiatives will build on the great work that is already underway, such as Ben & Jerry’s initiative to reduce GHG emissions from dairy farms; Seventh Generation advocating for clean energy for all; and Knorr supporting farmers to grow food more sustainably.
Fighting the climate crisis
Our existing science-based targets are: to have no carbon emissions from our own operations, and to halve the GHG footprint of our products across the value chain, by 2030. In response to the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, we are today additionally committing to net zero emissions from all our products by 2039 – from the sourcing of the materials we use, up to the point of sale of our products in the store.
To achieve this goal 11 years ahead of the 2050 Paris Agreement deadline, we must work jointly with our partners across our value chain, to collectively drive lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions. We will, therefore, prioritise building partnerships with our suppliers who have set and committed to their own science-based targets.
We believe that transparency about carbon footprint will be an accelerator in the global race to zero emissions, and it is our ambition to communicate the carbon footprint of every product we sell. To do this, we will set up a system for our suppliers to declare, on each invoice, the carbon footprint of the goods and services provided; and we will create partnerships with other businesses and organisations to standardise data collection, sharing and communication.
The race to zero must be a collective effort, and business alone cannot drive the transition at the speed that is required. We call on all governments to set ambitious net-zero targets, as well as short term emissions reduction targets, supported with enabling policy frameworks such as carbon pricing.
Protecting and regenerating nature
Unilever has been leading the industry on sustainable sourcing practices for over a decade, and we are proud that 89% of our forest-related commodities are certified as sustainably sourced to globally recognised standards. However, to end deforestation, we must challenge ourselves to even higher standards. This means that we need to have visibility on exact sourcing locations, and no longer rely on the mass balance system, which does not allow for accurate verification of deforestation-free when sourcing derivatives of our commodities.
We will achieve a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023. To do this, we will increase traceability and transparency by using emerging digital technologies – such as satellite monitoring, geolocation tracking and blockchain – accelerating smallholder inclusion and changing our approach to derivates sourcing.
We are also committed to working with the industry, NGOs and governments, to look beyond forests, peatlands and tropical rainforests, and to protect other important areas of high conservation value and high carbon stock which are under threat of conversion to arable land, with potentially devastating impact on the natural habitats.
In addition to continuing to drive sustainable sourcing and an end to deforestation, Unilever is setting out to help regenerate nature: increasing local biodiversity, restoring soil health, and preserving water conservation and access. To do this, we will empower a new generation of farmers and smallholders who are committed to protecting and regenerating their farm environment. Initiatives that we will drive include securing legal land rights, access to finance and financial inclusion, and development of restorative practices. This integrated approach will improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and give them leverage to drive the regeneration of nature.
Unilever is also introducing a pioneering Regenerative Agriculture Code for all our suppliers. The new code will build on our existing Sustainable Agriculture Code, which is widely recognized as being best-in-class in the industry, and it will include details on farming practices that help rebuild critical resources. As we have done in the past, we will make the Regenerative Agriculture Code available to any organisation that may find it useful – with the goal of driving change throughout the industry.
Unilever will also step up direct efforts to preserve water. Already, 40% of the world’s population is affected by water scarcity, and more than 2.1 billion people consume unsafe drinking water.1 We will implement water stewardship programs for local communities in 100 locations by 2030. To do this, we will take the learnings from our Prabhat program in India, which tackles water quality and supply risks around our factories. This program takes a community approach to water management, and not only helps farmers across cropping seasons, but also addresses the basic human need for adequate and easy access to water. We will build a model for this water stewardship program, and partner with key suppliers for them to also run similar programs.
Unilever will also join the 2030 Water Resources Group, a multi-stakeholder platform hosted by the World Bank, to contribute to transformative change and building resilience in water management in key water-stressed markets, such as India, Brazil, South Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia.
To further protect water resources, we also aim to make our product formulations biodegradable by 2030, to minimize their impact on water and the aquatic ecosystems. Although some of the ingredients that we currently use have no viable biodegradable alternatives, we will work with partners to drive innovation and find solutions to help us reach our ambition.
Featured photo of New Zealand farm via Pixabay.