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Putting the chemicals industry on a pathway to net zero

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The source and impact of chemicals

Most greenhouse gases from the chemical value chain are released at two points: the manufacturing process and during degradation of petrochemicals at the end of life.

To reduce manufacturing emissions, the chemicals industry must shift towards renewable energy and electrification. But the real challenge lies with the fossil-fuel- based petrochemicals that most chemicals are made from. Just as burning petrol in a car engine releases greenhouse gases, the chemicals used in cleaning products release carbon when they go down the drain and degrade.

These emissions can only be reduced by switching to chemicals made from renewable and recycled raw materials, instead of petrochemicals. While greenhouse gases are still released when renewable ingredients degrade, they go back to where they came from in the first place – the atmosphere – making the process circular.

Moving to chemicals with a lower footprint

The shift to lower-emission chemicals is not without its barriers. The two main ones are cost, and the land needed to grow renewable carbon raw materials.

Due to the chemical industry’s efficiency and scale, it’s still far more cost-effective to make chemicals from fossil-fuel-based raw materials, such as oil, than from renewable sources such as plants. It will take significant capital investment to start manufacturing renewable chemicals cost-effectively.

And in many parts of the world, because consumers cannot pay more for their household products the costs of lower-emission chemicals must come down. We’ve seen this happen in other sectors, where innovation and policy have led to increased availability, better performance, and reduced costs.

Renewable carbon raw materials commonly come from agriculture. While they are a good opportunity to reduce emissions, the land used to grow them must be managed responsibly. Captured carbon from the burning of bio-based fuels or air capture can also be used as an alternative raw material for lower-emission chemicals.

A dilute-at-home bottle of Persil/OMO laundry detergent is poured into a larger refill bottle.

Focused action

Guided by our Climate Transition Action Plan (CTAP), we’re also taking action in our own value chain.

Supplier Climate Programme

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Our Supplier Climate Programme is designed to accelerate the transition of key suppliers to a position of climate leadership. Leadership in this area means suppliers setting their own science-based greenhouse gas reduction targets, publicly reporting progress, and being able to give us a Product Carbon Footprint (PCF) for the materials we buy.

Around 40 of our largest Home Care suppliers are now in this programme and building their climate capabilities to be able to deliver on these asks.

Our CTAP explains more about our Supplier Climate Programme (PDF 7.98 MB).

Partnerships and collaboration

A group of industry representatives sit at a Clean Future’s conference

We’re using our position to bring stakeholders - including policymakers, NGOs, industry, academics, and trade associations - together. Because the industry is complex and broken up, collaboration is needed to drive the structural and global changes to the global chemical sector.

Working with partners in the chemical industry is also a critical part of reducing our emissions. We’re partnering with specialists to develop innovative ingredients such as new proteins and enzymes, palm oil alternatives, biodegradable surfactants, and waste carbon. Read more about these partnerships and the innovations they’re creating.

Reformulating products

A woman in a white lab coat working at one of Geno’s biotech labs

Reformulating our products is one of the biggest ways we can reduce emissions from our Home Care business group, and across Unilever. Crucially, we’re doing this without compromising on product performance or consumer experience.

One approach is by using our ingredients more effectively. This involves reformulating some of our products, like laundry liquids and fabric conditioners, to use less of the most carbon-intensive ingredients. We’re also rethinking some of our packaging formats to create more compact products that reach customers in smaller, lighter or dilutable formats – such as Dilute at Home in Brazil.

Our CTAP explains our key actions for reformulating our Home Care products (PDF 7.98 MB).

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