Unilever pledges to free cleaning products from fossil fuels by 2030

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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When a company sets a goal of achieving zero emissions within a few decades, it must start cutting carbon on every possible front.

For Unilever, the British-Dutch consumer goods company, that means spending $1.2 billion to help its suppliers adopt technologies that will eliminate the use of fossil fuels in its cleaning product production by 2030.

Fossil fuels in cleaning products, you ask? Yes, it is difficult to associate the black gunk of crude oil with the pleasant-smelling detergents that wash your clothes, but that’s the magic of chemistry.

Through a series of chemical reactions, the long-chain carbon compounds found in crude oil can be converted into chemicals capable of removing oil stains from your garments.

It has been technically feasible to eliminate the use of fossil fuels to make these chemicals for decades, but the expense remained the prohibitive factor.

Unilever’s is the first large investment in a sector that has finally begun looking to replace oil in its production process with ingredients derived from wood or microbial fermentation, or even recycled carbon from other industries.

The consumer-goods giant set a goal in June to eliminate all pollutants from its activities and from its suppliers by 2039. With limited use of carbon offsets, which are inexpensive to purchase but don’t always do as they claim, the company aims to achieve this milestone.

It doesn’t always happen as planned because 30 percent of the company’s annual emissions come from suppliers and this can only be achieved by enabling suppliers to cut fossil fuel use.

Moreover, approximately 65 percent of Unilever’s emissions come from consumers using its goods and the business has not set a concrete goal for reducing them.

Research started in 2018 to remove fossil fuels from cleaning products, says Ian Howell, who heads Unilever’s research team examining advanced materials for home care products, including the Persil, Cif and Domestos brands.

Howell started collaborating with his team to identify all of the non-fossil carbon fuel sources that they could put to use. The result is what Unilever terms a “carbon rainbow.”

Purple is for air or industry-captured carbon dioxide, blue is derived from marine sources, green from plant sources, grey from plastic recycling and black from fossil fuels.

Unilever Carbon Rainbow Image
The Unilever team developed a ‘Carbon Rainbow’ based on research.

The goal for Howell’s team now is to adapt the factories of Unilever to be able to use such alternative sources. The $1.2 billion will go to study, execution and collaborate with suppliers. The “color” of the carbon used may differ depending on the local resource availability, but black carbon is expected to be eliminated within a decade.

These products could still be in plastic packaging which is derived from fossil fuels and Unilever is trying to clean up in a separate initiative. But Howell said Unilever’s fossil fuel usage associated with cleaning chemicals is higher today than its plastic volume, anyway.