Climate-friendly refrigeration

We are the largest producer of ice cream in the world and rely on around two million point-of-sale freezer cabinets to reach consumers. We are accelerating our efforts to roll out cabinets that use energy-efficient, climate-friendly refrigerants.

Our targets

USLP logoAs part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, we have set a target to reduce the greenhouse gases produced by refrigeration:

  • In addition to the 640 000 freezer units already purchased by the end of 2010, we will purchase a further 660 000 cabinets by 2015 that contain the climate-friendly hydrocarbon refrigerant.

What is a climate-friendly refrigerant?

Refrigerants traditionally used in cabinets and other storage facilities have a much higher global warming potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have GWP ranges from 1 200 to 8 500 whereas CO2 has, by definition, a GWP of one.

Finding environmentally friendly alternatives to refrigerants is important in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We have committed to using refrigerants which have a GWP of less than three, such as hydrocarbons (HC), CO2, ammonia, water and air, which can all be used as cooling agents in refrigerators and freezers. Almost all our production facilities and cold stores already use ammonia in their refrigeration systems. Ammonia has the added benefit of being very energy-efficient for large-scale use.

Our approach

Our primary focus is our point-of-sale ice cream freezer cabinets. 

Since 2004 we have been replacing these with climate-friendly alternatives, using a HC refrigerant which is also about 10% more energy-efficient. By the end of 2010, we had purchased 640 000 cabinets with HC refrigerants, up from 450 000 at the end of 2009. This number keeps us on track to meet our Sustainable Living Plan goal.

For technical and legislative reasons, we cannot replace all our cabinets with HC technology. Advocacy is an important part of influencing changes in technology. We are working with stakeholders, such as governments and NGOs, to bring about regulatory change so that new, greener technologies can be introduced.

See Related links for more information on the development of ice cream cabinets using HC refrigerants.

Advancing the case for change

In the US the introduction of new refrigerants is highly regulated, requiring formal application through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) programme.

Ben & Jerry’s has made a SNAP application for the use of the HC climate-friendly refrigerant in its ice cream cabinets. We anticipate the Final Ruling from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011. If we receive approval from the EPA, we will have paved the way for the introduction of hydrocarbon refrigeration not only for use in our own ice cream cabinets but also those used by other US companies.

Refrigerants, Naturally!

In 2004 Unilever was a founder member of a multi-stakeholder collaboration known as Refrigerants, Naturally! This initiative involves several companies in the food and drinks industry, and is supported by Greenpeace and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

It aims to promote a rapid shift away from the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) towards natural refrigerants such as ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons for refrigerated point-of-sale equipment such as ice cream freezers, bottle coolers, vending machines, and fast food restaurant equipment. Unilever, McDonald’s, The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo and Carlsberg continue to be members of Refrigerants, Naturally! At the end of 2010, Unilever took over as chair of Refrigerants, Naturally! We also participated with other members in further raising the profile of the issue at a sustainable refrigeration summit organised in Chicago for the members of the Consumer Goods Forum.

In March 2011 The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University announced Refrigerants, Naturally! as the recipient of the prestigious 2011 Roy Family Environmental Award for its work on persistent flourinated gases. The Roy Family Award celebrates an outstanding public-private partnership project that enhances environmental quality through the use of novel and creative approaches.

The Consumer Goods Forum

The Consumer Goods Forum is a network of consumer goods manufacturers and retailers from around the globe. It comprises more than 400 retailers, manufacturers and service providers spanning 70 countries.   

Unilever worked with The Coca-Cola Company and others to convene a refrigeration summit in Chicago in October 2010. Leading manufacturers and retailers gathered with suppliers, experts and NGOs to explore the issue of sustainable refrigeration. Participants shared knowledge about the barriers that are preventing the roll out of natural refrigerants in some countries. The summit resulted in a broad consensus that natural refrigerants are essential for a sustainable future for refrigeration equipment.

At the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico in December 2010, Unilever worked with Tesco as co-chair of the team charged with delivering the deforestation and refrigeration pledges of the Consumer Goods Forum. Participating companies agreed to begin phasing-out HFC refrigerants from 2015 and to replace them with non-HFC refrigerants. See consumer goods industry press release in Related links for more.

The Forum will work to achieve both goals using a combination of individual company initiatives and by working in partnership with NGOs. The Forum also pledged to work to overcome the barriers to the wide-scale adoption of more climate-friendly refrigerants and will use its collective influence to encourage suppliers to develop natural refrigerant technologies that are able to meet the growing demand for refrigeration and air conditioning worldwide.

Both the refrigeration and deforestation initiatives focus on aspects of the consumer goods sector with the greatest impact and opportunity to drive effective climate solutions. These are both highly significant. The combined influence and reach of the organisations involved means that there is huge potential to change behaviour.

New technologies

We have invested in and continue to investigate, develop and test potential new technologies such as magneto-caloric refrigeration concepts, where ice cream is kept cold by using magnetic fields, and solar-powered mobile cabinets for selling ice cream.

Although promising results have been achieved, these novel technologies are still far from mainstream use.

See Related links for more details on these innovative technologies.

External recognition

In its 2009 report 'HFCs: A growing threat to the climate', Greenpeace commended the progress we had made in introducing HC cabinets, noting that we were the first company to pilot this technology in the United States.