Reducing our environmental impact

How we harness the latest science to minimise our environmental footprint

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"Our scientists work to identify opportunities to minimise the potential environmental impacts of Unilever products or activities.”

We are passionate about the environment. That is why reducing our environmental impact is one of the three big goals of our strategy for sustainable business – the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). SEAC’s environmental sustainability science underpins our USLP commitment to halve the environmental footprint of sourcing, making and using our products.

Our scientists work to identify opportunities to minimise the potential environmental impacts of Unilever products or activities. To support the USLP, SEAC scientists ensure they are at the forefront of environmental sustainability science, sharing expertise and working in partnership. This allows us to keep abreast of external developments, harness the latest scientific evidence and create tools to assess current, and predict the future, environmental impacts of products.

Since the 1980s Unilever has been active in applying and further developing the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach for application to our products and brands. (LCA involves studying the environmental impacts of a product – from the sourcing of raw materials, such as via mining or agriculture, to product manufacture, distribution, consumer use and disposal.) We have proactively shared our LCA approach and knowledge through publications.

Pioneering thinking

The USLP drive for transformational change focuses on addressing the big issues that matter the most to our business and to the world. This has led us to concentrate more on predictive science, to help anticipate the potential future impacts of today’s decisions, and to also shift our emphasis from the impacts of specific products or regions to consideration of the global Unilever business.

SEAC scientists are focusing on pioneering methodologies that can inform attempts to tackle climate change, eliminate deforestation, reduce the impacts of agriculture, and deliver water, sanitation and hygiene solutions.

Q. What science is being used to support the USLP’s transformational change initiative?

A. To support the ‘eliminate deforestation’ challenge we are, for example, developing tools and approaches to assess the biodiversity and ecosystem services (BES) associated with different patterns of land use. Ecosystem services are the ‘life supporting’ functions of the Earth, that is, the benefits that ecosystems or nature contribute to humans. Examples include the ability of vegetation to purify water, of forests to provide firewood and of bees to pollinate crops.

SEAC is working with external partners to create ways of measuring the impacts on BES of large-scale agricultural expansion. We hope this will help achieve a deeper understanding of the trade-offs between the use of land and the impact of its use on water, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions.

The evolution of our life cycle approach

  • 1980s – We started using life cycle assessments for key products, tailoring existing approaches to our business, and developing impact assessment methodology.
  • 1990s – We expanded this capability to explore and publish an Overall Business Impact Assessment that considered economic and environmental impacts.
  • 2000s – We continued to develop our approaches and assessments through the development of our Brand Imprint tool. This assessed the social, economic and environmental impacts of our brands and was the framework for the environmental pillar of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP).
  • 2014 – SEAC’s scientific capability is a core underpinning of the new transformational change areas of the USLP, namely, eliminating deforestation from commodity supply chains, making sustainable agriculture mainstream, and working towards universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene.
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