Reducing GHG in Consumer Use

Every year, billions of consumers worldwide use our shampoos, shower gels and laundry products in their homes. Almost a third of households worldwide use a Unilever laundry product, amounting to roughly 125 billion washes. This figure is growing and contributes to a large environmental footprint, but also presents a big opportunity to make a difference.


Our impact

Our skin cleansing products (soap and shower gel) and hair care products (shampoo and conditioner) account for more than half of our total greenhouse gas footprint. This is because of the heated water people need when they take a shower or bath. We are developing innovations that will make it easier for consumers to modify their shower habits, thereby reducing their environmental impact.

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from skin cleansing and hair washing Targets & performance

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from skin cleansing and hair washing

  • By 2015 we aim to reach 200 million consumers with products and tools that will help them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while washing and showering. Our plan is to reach 400 million people by 2020.
  • While we have made some limited progress, overall this target remains challenging.
  • achieved
  • on-plan
  • off-plan
  • %of target achieved

Our perspective

The greatest greenhouse gas impact of our shampoos, shower gels and soaps occurs when they are used by consumers with heated water. Although we are making good progress in the areas we control, such as manufacturing emissions, we are finding the consumer-use phase in the shower much harder to address. It is dependent on a wide range of external factors, for example the efficiency of domestic appliances such as hot water heaters and shower heads, and the carbon intensity of the energy supplied to the home, as well as consumer behaviour.

Three years into our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, we are increasingly clear that the consumer reduction in GHG emissions linked to heated water in the shower will need to come from system changes to domestic infrastructure and higher-efficiency appliances. Consumer education and innovation also have an important role but, as we know from anti-smoking or car seat belt campaigns, these take time and cannot drive the change on their own.

That’s why we are working with others to advocate for ambitious public policy to help tackle climate change and to incentivise the transition to a low carbon economy, such as through the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change.

Innovation and consumer education are important. But people need to be motivated to change their habits. The climate issue generally feels remote to people, especially when it comes to everyday rituals like showering. So during 2013 we continued to explore a range of approaches to help us understand consumer behaviour so that we can motivate new showering and bathing habits and develop new products that people want, while reducing energy at the same time.

Dry shampoos to reduce GHG impacts

Dry shampoos are one example. We estimate that compared to washing with heated water, using a dry shampoo reduces GHG emissions by around 90%.

Hair stylists often advise women to wait between washes to help extend their colour and maintain general hair health. Our dry shampoos allow women to refresh hair between washes, saving time and extending the period that their style lasts.

The dry shampoo market is still relatively new but is growing, particularly in the US. Quantitative consumer panel data from the US shows that for those who bought a dry shampoo, it replaced a wet wash in 60% of uses. This suggests dry shampoo is a way in which the amount of heated water used in the shower can be reduced: the beauty benefit that the consumer is offered is accompanied by more sustainable, energy-saving behaviour.

The increasing popularity of dry shampoos gives us confidence that they could be a productive way to encourage consumers to reduce their use of heated water.

Dry shampoo sales grow by over 25% in the US, the largest market

We sell our dry shampoos in ten countries under nine brands, including Dove, TRESemmé, Suave, TiGi and VO5. Sales continued to increase in 2013, growing by over 25% in the US as our products deliver a fresh, clean feel with low residue on the hair. We remain the market leader in the US with a 53% share.

Understanding shower habits

In 2011 we undertook a study to reveal what British people do in the shower. The aim of the research was to use the findings to encourage people to save energy, water and money. Using a shower sensor, our researchers were able to monitor actual showering behaviour. The study monitored 2,600 showers taken by 100 families over ten days. Results showed that the average shower is eight minutes long – three minutes longer than the received wisdom of the ‘five minute shower’. This costs the average UK family £416 a year (around €500).

In 2012 we conducted a similar study in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. The locations were chosen because some parts of the country, like Melbourne, have suffered from a decade-long drought. We installed sensors to measure the duration, water use and frequency of showers and gathered data on shower habits and the relationship between consumer behaviour and product use.

These small-scale studies showed that the average shower in Australia is slightly longer than in the UK, lasting nine minutes, 11 seconds. People in Melbourne take shorter showers (at eight minutes, eight seconds) than in Sydney (at ten minutes, five seconds). However, despite the longer shower times, the Australians in this study did not necessarily use more water than in the UK because on average the Australians had lower water flow showerheads.

In 2013 we conducted ethnographic studies in water-scarce cities in India, Indonesia, China and the US. These in-depth visits to people’s homes allowed us to observe behaviour related to managing both water and energy where resources are constrained.

These studies are helping us to understand the triggers for changing behaviour. They also inform the development of new products and collaborations with other organisations to enable people to enjoy showers, whilst using less energy and water.

Our laundry impacts

We have worked hard to reformulate our products by replacing ingredients that have a high greenhouse gas impact with those with lower impacts. These can reduce greenhouse gas impact by up to a third.

Laundry products and their use account for around 11% of our total greenhouse gas footprint. Our aim is to reduce the impact of laundry on the environment by designing innovative products, manufacturing them efficiently and motivating consumers to improve their laundry habits.

Targets & Performance

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from washing clothes

Reduce the greenhouse gas impact of the laundry process by:

  • Concentrating our liquids and compacting our powders.
  • Reformulating our products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15% by 2012.

  • Encouraging our consumers to wash at lower temperatures and at the correct dosage in 70% of machine washes by 2020.

  • 14% of our portfolio in our top 14 countries was made up of concentrated and compacted products in 2012, compared to our baseline of 4% in 2008.1
  • Over 95% (by volume) of our laundry powders in our top 14 countries have been reformulated, achieving a reduction of 15% in greenhouse gas emissions by the end 2012.2
  • We communicate the benefits of low-temperature washing on our packs and online and are encouraging our consumers to use the right dosage. In Europe we became gold partners in the AISE 'I prefer 30o' campaign.
  • achieved
  • on-plan
  • off-plan
  • %of target achieved

† Independently assured by PwC

‡ Independently assured by PwC in 2013

1 As we have adjusted our reporting period from January to December 2012 to July 2012 to June 2013, we have not recalculated the % of concentrates in our top 14 countries as the calculation would show only a six month period and would not therefore be an accurate reflection of our progress.

2 In PwC’s assurance of this target they are able to assure that we have reduced GHG by 7% in our laundry products, based on data from our automated 2010 baseline. However PwC has not reviewed the 2008-2009 data when a substantial part of this reformulation took place to enable us to reach 15%.

Our perspective

Liquid laundry detergents are popular with consumers and have a lower greenhouse gas footprint than powders. In 2013 we were the market leader in emerging markets, with a market share of over 25%. Similarly our Persil brand was the leading liquid brand in the UK with over a quarter of the liquids market. The majority of our liquid detergents are now sold in concentrated form.

Concentrating or compacting our laundry products helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even further and is good for our business – great performance combined with lower material and transport costs.

However, it can take time for consumers to switch to concentrated or compacted products and use the right dosage. Some consumers continue to use larger doses than needed, while others under-dose. For some people, it can be hard to move directly from a big bag of powder to a small bottle of liquid. To ease this transition, we have introduced semi-concentrated products in some markets as this encourages consumers to make the change. In Europe, unit dose capsules are proving to be a successful means to guide dosage of product.

As well as reducing GHGs via compaction and concentration, we have been reformulating our products to remove phosphates - as the mining and transport of phosphates can have a higher CO2 impact than their alternatives.

We are also improving our packaging to reduce GHGs. Examples include lightweighting, reducing secondary packaging, maximising pack sizes and using pouches where appropriate.

Reducing GHG impact by redesigning our powders

Since 2008, we have been redesigning and concentrating the formulation of our powders across Europe. We have reduced our recommended dosage from 100g of product per wash in 2008 to 75g in 2013.

Less product also means less raw and packaging material used, less energy used in production, and fewer lorries needed to deliver it – which leads to lower carbon emissions.

Reducing GHG by removing phosphates

Phosphates improve washing performance by softening the water, enabling the detergent to get to work quicker. They are safe, effective and sustainable in the majority of cases. However, they can contribute to water eutrophication in areas where they are not removed by wastewater treatment. Moreover, the CO2 contribution of phosphates can be higher than alternatives, due to associated mining and transport.

This is why we have actively reformulated our portfolio towards more sustainable alternatives with better CO2 profiles than phosphates.   Over 2011-2013, we have taken significant steps to accomplish this. We have now reached a 90% reduction in the global use of phosphates across our laundry powders and machine dishwash products. This reduction has resulted in a lower CO2-emission of up to 50% per single consumer use.

By 2012, 95% of our laundry powders had been reformulated in our top 14 countries to achieve our target of reducing GHG by 15%.

In 2008, we were the first company to launch a phosphate-free machine dishwash formulation in Europe, and since 2011, phosphates have been eliminated from 95% of our machine dishwash products.

We now only use phosphates where we do not have alternatives in place that deliver the same benefits to consumers, or where regulations require us to use them. We will continue to search for alternatives and to investigate technologies that may lead to zero-phosphate products in the future.

Quick Wash - saving energy, water and time

Most front-loading washing machines in Europe and Turkey now offer a quicker wash option. The quicker wash option reduces washing time so is more convenient for consumers and generally has a lower GHG impact. This is because there is generally less energy required in a shorter- or lower-temperature heating phase and less agitation in the wash. Quick cycles are also more likely to save water as they may require fewer rinses. While washing machines vary, quick wash cycles on a full load, where possible, can reduce environmental impact.

If all 26 billion washes done by consumers in Europe each year moved from a two-hour standard cycle to a 30-minute wash, this would save 40 billion of hours of machine time and reduce energy by around 30%.

Since 2009 Persil has been actively encouraging consumers to shorten their washing machine cycles, whilst guaranteeing faster stain removal and impeccable cleaning, even with a quicker wash. Since the launch of Persil Small & Mighty, the number of consumers using quick cycles is increasing fast, along with an understanding of the environmental benefits. In 2013, UK consumers claimed 1 in 5 loads were done on shorter cycles, a substantial increase from just 9% in 2003.

Communicating with consumers

Laundry habits vary in different markets. For example, in some countries people generally handwash their clothes; in others, using washing machines is the norm.

Based on these differences, between 25% and 68% of the total greenhouse gas footprint of our products occurs during consumer use.

Through our packs and campaigns we communicate with consumers on how they can adopt better laundry habits to reduce their own environmental impacts – habits such as correct dosing, lower-temperature washing, washing a full load and using shorter wash cycles. We also include the Washright logo on-pack to support more sustainable washing.

In Turkey, people tend to wash laundry, especially white laundry loads, at higher temperatures (above 60oC) and around 27% of households use pre-wash cycles (compared to a European average of 7%). This has big impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and water.

In 2012 and 2013, Omo worked in partnership with all local and international washing machine manufacturers, such as Arçelik. When consumers purchased a new machine, an Omo expert visited them at home to advise on optimal washing performance and which products to use. Consumers were briefed on the best way of using their machines as well as receiving a sample of Omo products.

In Latin America, our Home Care category partnered with leading retailers such as Carrefour in a new initiative ‘Sumate al EcoLavado’ (Join us at Ecowash) to promote good laundry habits. Brands including Surf and Skip worked together in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile to encourage washing at lower temperatures, saving energy through shorter wash cycles, and switching to concentrated detergents. Carrefour stores that participated in Argentina experienced sales growth three times higher than others while consumers were encouraged to make lasting changes to their behaviour.

Growing market share and enhancing our reputation

We have seen success in countries where we have implemented initiatives to improve the environmental impact of our laundry products. For example, in Turkey we became the market leader with the move to compacted powders by communicating the efficacy of Omo and also its environmental benefits in 2009. We remained the market leader in 2013.

Our company received the Water Footprint Award from the Turkish marketing and communications magazine, MediaCat, in its Open Air Advertising Awards for encouraging consumers to use water responsibly.

Working with industry bodies

We take a leadership role in industry bodies that can influence consumer behaviour. Within AISE (the International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products, the industry representative body in Europe), Unilever has been actively involved in sustainability campaigns such as Washright, which was launched in 1998 to encourage consumers to wash clothes at lower temperatures and use full washes. We also support AISE’s Charter for Sustainable Cleaning which certifies products that meet specific sustainability criteria across the industry.

In 2013 Unilever joined the ‘I prefer 30º’ consumer initiative led by AISE to drive down further the European average wash temperature. Throughout 2014, the campaign will be informing people and creating awareness around the different benefits of washing at 30° in stores, on websites, via Facebook and on-pack.

Promoting the importance of consumer behaviour change

Enabling and inspiring consumers to adopt more sustainable habits is fundamental to achieving many of our goals. Experience has taught us that marketing can be a powerful force for behaviour change. In 2011 we published Unilever’s Five Levers for Change, a set of principles to increase the effectiveness of our interventions. We are now looking to apply this expertise across the business. See Encouraging behaviour change for more.

We also work with a variety of organisations to address the role of the consumer in using and disposing of our products efficiently. For example, our Radox brand of shower gels in South Africa gave consumers a free aerator when they purchased two products at Pick and Pay stores. These can be fitted to shower heads to reduce water use and they can save people up to €450 a year.

Wider factors in reducing consumer GHGs from our products

Many other factors will affect the greenhouse gas footprint of the use of our products. These include the eco-efficiency of domestic appliances, such as boilers and water heaters, and the carbon intensity of the energy used to power these appliances.

Eco-efficiency of domestic appliances

Much of the environmental impact of household chores is determined by the design and manufacture of the appliances used.

Unilever believes consumers can be encouraged to buy newer, eco-efficient models, through a mixture of consumer information at the point of sale, financial incentives to upgrade inefficient appliances (such as the UK’s boiler scrappage scheme) and minimum product standards. Developing countries that are introducing appliances should move straight to eco-efficient appliances.

Carbon intensity of domestic energy use

Reducing the amount of energy consumed will reduce the associated carbon emissions. Increasing the use of low carbon or renewable energy sources is also important.

Investment should be accelerated in existing low-carbon energy production and the development and deployment of new low carbon energy technologies, such as wind and solar energy.

Unilever supports moves by governments to incentivise these technologies. This is essential because many are not economically viable without government support.

The deployment of solar thermal energy systems should also be accelerated. These use concentrated sunlight to heat water at the point of consumption. However, payback times from this investment are not sufficient to stimulate consumer demand. Unilever therefore supports government incentives for this technology.

We recognise the challenges faced by governments in setting ambitious frameworks for action on climate change. We support this action through membership of a number of progressive advocacy groups, such as the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change.