We know cycling to work is good for the planet and taking transatlantic flights is not. We know that running our household energy on green power lightens our carbon footprint and that driving our cars deepens it. But what is more difficult to determine is what a good personal footprint actually looks like. While the world commits to targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement, and we as a business work to meet the environmental commitments set out by initiatives such as Clean Future and Future Foods, there is no universally agreed benchmark for individuals.

Establishing the science

There are however some established parameters. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s body for assessing science related to climate change, has stated that in order to minimise damage from climate change by 2050, global warming has to be limited to a 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold.

To make this reduction, WWF suggests that if everyone on the planet were to have an equal share of carbon emissions, each person should have a footprint of around 1 tonne of CO2 emissions per year by 2050. According to the European Commission Joint Research Centre, in 2019 the global per capita emissions were well above that at 4.93 tonnes of CO2 per capita per year.

Of course, in our world of disparity some countries are already well below that average (Kenya 0.38 tonnes per person per year in 2019) and others well above it (the US was 15.52 tonnes per capita per year in 2019).

Personal carbon data is complicated

But what exactly is included in a personal carbon footprint? According to the Carbon Trust, “a carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organisation, event or product”.

For an individual, that means the choices we make every day about what to eat, how we travel, how we heat and power our homes and the products we buy. They all contribute to our personal footprint.

It quickly adds up (see personal story below). But luckily small savings add up too. From products to packaging to production, every reduction ultimately translates into carbon savings.

Here then are six ways we are helping keep our carbon footprint, and those of our customers, down.

1. We’re ensuring plant-based diets are easy, affordable and appetising

Animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels. So when it comes to keeping carbon footprints down, moving to a meat-free diet, even just for a few days a week, clearly makes sense. Our Future Foods initiative aims to help make this transition easy and appetising by substantially growing our plant-based food portfolio. 

Over the next five to seven years we have committed to hitting a €1 billion annual sales target for our meat and dairy alternatives. In real terms, this means consumers will soon be seeing even more planet-friendly vegan and vegetarian options from brands such as Knorr, Hellmann’s, Magnum and The Vegetarian Butcher. January, for example, saw the launch of Hellmann’s trio of vegan mayos and Magnum’s new Vegan Salted Caramel ice cream.

2. We’re exploring ways to use planet-friendly alternatives in our foods

Around 500 food innovators at the Hive, our foods innovation centre at the campus of Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, are leading research into plant-based ingredients and meat alternatives that could one day be used as a basis for delicious, sustainable new foods. Our recent partnership with the biotech start-up Algenuity, for example, is exploring the potential of microalgae. Sustainable, natural, non-GM and protein-rich with neutral flavours, Algenuity’s Chlorella Colours® microalgae could offer a sustainable source of protein for planet-friendly foods of the future.

3. We’re transitioning to planet-friendly packaging

We are working hard to make our packaging as carbon-light as possible. Recycled plastic, concentrated formulas that require smaller containers and new no-plastic containers are just some of the ways we are exploring.

Dove products, for example, are now available in 100% recycled bottles across Europe and North America, while Magnum is introducing ice cream tubs made from food-grade recycled plastic.

Concentrated formulas in packaging that use a fraction of the plastic of normal-sized bottles are also making an impact. In the 12 months following their UK launch, Cif’s Ecorefills saved 171 tonnes of plastic and empowered hundreds of thousands of customers to reuse spray bottles rather than buy new ones. In Brazil, 30% of OMO 3-litre bottle consumers made the switch to a refillable format, while the concentrated shampoos and conditioners from Love Beauty and Planet offer customers the same number of uses with only half the usual amount of plastic.

Our ultimate aim, of course, is to use no plastic at all, and we are making progress here too. Our home care brand Seventh Generation has launched a zero-plastic range sold in cardboard shell packs while PG Tips has introduced biodegradable teabags and aims to be completely plastic-free by 2021.

4. We are exploring new planet-friendly ingredients for our cleaning and laundry products.

As part of our Clean Future initiative we have committed to halving the greenhouse gas impact of our products across their lifecycle and making all our product formulations biodegradable by 2030. This involves finding new sustainable ways of achieving the same great cleaning results. And that’s not all. We have also committed to removing ingredients derived from virgin fossil fuels by 2030, instead using a variety of carbon sources as outlined in the Carbon Rainbow.

For example, we have introduced plant-based stain removers in our OMO detergent, also known as green carbon. In Chile and Vietnam, we launched a dishwashing liquid (Quix) with a new biosurfactant which is renewable, biodegradable and ultra-mild on hands. And in India, we launched our first laundry powder (Surf Excel) made with soda ash from captured CO2, also known as ‘purple carbon’.

5. We are working towards carbon-neutral production

We are committed to achieving zero emissions across our operations by 2030. We have already achieved 100% renewable electricity and are now working on expanding circular models which minimise waste and carbon emissions.

Our Pouso Alegre site in Southern Brazil, for example, is Unilever’s first zero carbon operational site in the Americas. Its two 500 sq metre greenhouses use the factory’s plant-based waste to enrich their soil. Both greenhouses now produce enough vegetables to supply the factory’s restaurants two days a week.

Another great example is our Ceytea site in Agarapathana, Sri Lanka. Today 73% of the waste produced by the site is used to create green energy, while the remaining 27% of spent leaf is turned into organic fertiliser which is used to replenish surrounding tea gardens.

6. We are working to introduce carbon labelling

In an ideal world, understanding a product’s carbon footprint would be as easy as looking at a label. And that is exactly what we are hoping to achieve in the future for all our products. It is our ambition to communicate the carbon footprint of every product we sell. In an article in the Financial Times, Marc Engel, Chief Supply Chain Officer at Unilever, highlighted that carbon labelling would be helpful for consumers who wanted to calculate their own personal environmental impact, adding that a universal standard was required in order for the system to be effective. “You need to have alignment… on the methodology you use, otherwise it’s going to be a jungle of all kinds of labels,” he said.

TAKE ACTION: Interested in finding out just how heavy your carbon footprint is? Try the WWF environmental footprint calculator here: https://www.unilever.com/about/take-action/initiative/how-big-is-your-environmental-impact-554962/

A tale of two cities: my carbon footprint journey

We asked Tinsley Corbett, Unilever Strategy Manager, to monitor her carbon footprint for four weeks in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and two weeks in Houston, Texas. Here is her story.

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