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Personal carbon footprints


When it comes to our personal carbon footprints, it’s not always easy to know how to be ‘good’. Here are six ways we are making planet-friendly living a little easier.

A woman walks on white footprints across a grassy field

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.

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.

Amsterdam results

Spend: 4.67kg CO2/a day
Biggest carbon cost: food

Using the Capture app, my average daily footprint in Amsterdam was a healthy 4.67kg CO2/day.

As I live in the centre of the city, nearly everything I need is accessible on foot, by bike or by public tram powered by renewable electricity. This means that over the month I was tracking my carbon footprint, my transport footprint remained zero.

My diet was a much higher contributor to my daily footprint. I follow a low meat diet and am basically vegetarian 3–4 days a week. When I do eat meat it is usually chicken or fish but even in these conditions my food intake still contributed a hefty 4.67kg of CO2 to my daily average.

With hindsight I wish I had chosen an app that took more factors into account, as two major components were missing from my carbon footprint calculation: energy and my spending habits.

I purchase electricity from a green wind-energy provider, so my electricity use is zero emissions. My thermal energy, however, is from natural gas – so heating and activities/appliances that use hot water do have a CO2 footprint that I was not able to add to my total.

I was also not able to monitor my spending habits, which would have been helpful in informing me about how much my purchases were contributing to my carbon spend.

Nevertheless, and despite these limitations, at the end of the four weeks, I felt good about my carbon footprint and confident that with relatively little effort I could keep it within my daily 7kg CO2 target.

Then, I flew home to Texas …

Houston results

Spend: 35kg CO2/a day
Biggest carbon cost: transport

My average daily footprint in Houston was an incredible 35kg CO2/day – and that is without taking into account my flight.

The Capture app calculated that my direct 10-hour flight from Amsterdam to Houston came to about 2,531.4kg of CO costs. Taking that one flight basically meant that I had already ‘spent’ my CO2 allowance for the year, so I decided to keep it separate from my daily carbon count.

The huge cost of the flight was a bit of a shock, but it got worse, as within hours of arrival I had added an hour-long drive home in a 2018 Chevrolet Tahoe. This drive cost me 25.2kg in CO2 – that is five times my daily average footprint in Amsterdam.

Transport continued to be my main carbon ‘spend’ during my stay. The lack of public transport, or walking or cycling options, meant that it was basically impossible to keep my emissions to 7kg.

It was not all bad news, however, as I was surprised to discover that the city of Houston sources 92% of its power from wind and solar energy – so my footprint from household energy activities was on a par with Amsterdam.

Diet, on the other hand, was much more meat-heavy. Much of Texas food culture revolves around meat, whether it be carne asada from a Mexican restaurant, a BBQ or a festive dinner at a steakhouse, and I found myself eating chicken or beef at least once a day. At the end of the week I had eaten meat about seven times, compared to my twice weekly meat consumption in Amsterdam.

My take-away learnings

I was surprised that diet, not transportation or home power, was the largest contributor to my carbon footprint. This is strangely reassuring as I feel it can be countered by small daily changes that are relatively easy to make and can have significant impact.

I was also surprised how much tracking my behaviour made me much more conscious about the choices I was making. As with anything, the more you measure, the more you change.

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