Building a new future for the factory floor
In 2020, our homecare factory in Pozzilli, Italy was set for closure. Now it is destined for sustainable success as a state-of-the-art plastic recycling centre based on a zero-waste, no redundancies ambition.
After 18 months of dedicated planning and negotiation, the Pozzilli factory reconversion programme is underway. With support from the Italian government and an industrial partner, Seri Plast, the factory is due to reopen in 24 months’ time as a new centre of excellence for high-value recycling, based on a 100% circular, zero-waste model.
The new factory will not only support Clean Future, our recently announced ambition to embed circular economy principles into our home care products, but also our broader plastics commitments. By offering all workers the opportunity to reskill in the run-up to the new opening, it is also our hope that the Pozzilli project will become an example of our Future of Work commitments in action, highlighting how sustainable business can deliver a win–win for people, the planet and business.
We catch up with Leena Nair, Chief HR Officer, and Gianfranco Chimirri, HR Global Director and Green Pozzilli Project Lead, as they reflect on this Future of Work success story.
In two years Pozzilli reopen as a centre of recycling excellence. Why was this factory chosen for the refit?
Gianfranco: Pozzilli is one of two Unilever home care factories in Italy. Located in Molise, in the south of Italy, it opened in 1979 and mainly produces household detergents and softeners for the Italian market. During a European network review, it was highlighted that current production needs could be met with just one Italian factory.
Why was conversion chosen over closure?
Gianfranco: The factory is located in one of the most socio-economically challenged areas of Italy. Unemployment is at about 30% and the factory is one of the few employers in the region. We knew that if the factory closed, the chances of re-employment were low, not just for our people who worked in the factory but also for the broader value chain of suppliers and third-party businesses.
As a member of the team that co-designed the original Future of Work framework, I have always been passionate about protecting livelihoods through upskilling. Faced with the potential closure of the Pozzilli factory, we met with all the stakeholders in order to try to find a way of protecting our employees and the value chain.
Luckily the government minister in charge was fully aligned with our way of thinking when we presented the situation to him, and immediately agreed that we had to find an alternative to closure for the sake of the local economy. After discussing a number of options, we decided on this solution as it aligned perfectly with our Clean Future vision.
Leena: Usually this sort of business transformation results in job losses. But that is what our Future of Work commitments challenges. We don’t agree that job losses are always inevitable. We believe that with a change of perspective, different approaches can result in a win–win for business and for people. The Pozzilli project is a working example of this alternative response to business transformation.
We all have to lean in together to create plans that allow a win–win for business, a win–win for society and a win–win for all the workers in our factory.Leena Nair
What will this mean for the future of workers and ancillary businesses at Pozzilli?
Gianfranco: The project will take about two years to complete, which will give us enough time to reskill the team. People here feel part of the Unilever family, and even the best solution in the world is difficult for them to accept if it means they are no longer working within the Unilever ecosystem.
The fact that Unilever is a joint shareholder in the new project and that we have logged our intent to be a long-term commercial partner is very important to them. And, of course, this is why we are investing so much in reskilling our workforce through training. The same goes for our partner businesses. Over the transition period, we will help them keep the same level of turnover in the short term, while in parallel helping them rethink their core businesses in a way that will better support the new plastic recycling site.
Leena: This is a beautiful example of how important it is to protect livelihoods. No business can stand up today and say I am going to protect every job ever created. No government can say that. But what we can say is that while we may not be able to protect your jobs, we can try to protect your livelihoods by creating new opportunities.
I am so excited about this project as it connects our vision for circular products, as outlined in our Clean Future programme, with employability and inclusion.
Why was recycling rather than production chosen as the purpose of the new factory?
Gianfranco: Sustainable recycling ticked all the boxes for us and all the stakeholders involved in the project as we assessed all potential solutions.
We evaluated everything against two strict criteria. The first was to protect the livelihoods of Unilever employees and all the partner businesses in the value chain. The second was to accept only long-term, strategically sound projects that would be able to ensure a bright future for the area.
Creating a high-value recycling plant made sense for us as it was in line with our sustainable business model and our Clean Future commitments, and could ultimately provide Unilever with the high-quality recycled plastic it needs for its sustainable packaging.
It also made sense for the Italian government, as it aligned with their ambition to position Italy as an attractive option for investment in high-value green and circular economy ventures. The fact that Unilever was committed to the project and was remaining as a partner was instrumental in central government deciding to make such a huge investment in the area.
Leena: The Pozzilli project reflects so many of our business’s core values. It has the potential to make the business better, to help us in our zero-waste journey through plastic reconversion and to transform supply chains. Moreover, it shows that business transformation does not always have to come at the cost of jobs. We can find an answer that is a win–win solution for everyone.
What makes this project unique?
Gianfranco: As well as working on a zero-waste, fully circular model, the new factory will also be the first in Italy to use both mechanical and chemical recycling methods. Mechanical recycling uses about 60–70% of reclaimed plastic, but with the chemical method you bridge the gap and rework 100%. Not only that, but the chemical recycling process also creates plastic that can be used for food packaging.
We will be meeting a growing need in the market as there is high demand for recycled packaging in Europe, but currently low supply. And, of course, the new plant will also help us in the long term by potentially ensuring a steady supply of the PCR [post-consumer recycled plastic] and high-quality secondary raw materials we need for our packaging.
Leena: While this may not be the solution for all future projects, this is the first practical example of our Future of Work initiative being implemented in an industrial reconversion setting.
As well as working on a zero-waste, fully circular model, the new factory will also be the first in Italy to use both mechanical and chemical recycling methods.Gianfranco Chimirri
How important has collaboration been to the success of this project?
Gianfranco: It has been very important to keep everyone involved from the beginning. As soon as we heard the news, we started speaking to a large number of stakeholders, including the unions and the government. By working together we were able to find better solutions.
Leena: This is a good example of collaboration between so many parties: stakeholders, regional governments, unions and ancillary companies. It reflects our belief that society’s big problems such as social inequality and unemployment cannot be solved by business alone. They can only be solved through collaboration and by using all our national and regional institutions.
We all have to lean in together to create plans that allow a win–win for business, a win–win for society and a win–win for all the workers in our factory. Our hope is that Pozzilli will become an inspiring example of how we can optimise costs with appropriate relocation, while taking care of our people and giving them opportunities in a new activity.
What will success look like for you?
Gianfranco: This has been a very personal journey, and for me success lies in everyone involved being satisfied with the outcome. Unilever is quite unique in that when you have a good idea, no one tells you to shut it down. The Pozzilli project really has been my purpose and looking to the future I would love to see this project scaled up in other locations if feasible.
Leena: There are three metrics I will be looking for. The first would be a thriving Unilever Italy business. The second would be to hear that all 400 people who were part of Pozzilli are enjoying being part of something new. And the third would be to see Unilever establishing its reputation in Italy and beyond as a leading progressive business. I would love to see Pozzilli become one of many Unilever Future of Work solutions that prove you can make a better company and a better world by taking care of people in the right way.
The workers in Pozzilli now have a way to secure their livelihoods thanks to the principles of our European agreement based on the Future of Work commitments. Currently, this is our best example of these principles in action, but Pozzilli should form the foundation for more examples. We must continue to make the preservation and promotion of employability a general task of the company.Hermann Soggeberg, Chairman of Unilever’s European Works Council.