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Gloved hands holding palm oil kernels

Backing a biotech alternative to palm oil and fossil fuels

We're investing in sustainable, tech-driven ingredients to power our future growth.

Unilever is partnering with San Diego-based biotechnology specialists Geno (Opens in a new window) to jointly invest $120 million (€114 million) in a new venture to commercialise plant-based alternatives to feedstocks like palm oil and fossil fuels that are used to make cleansers for home care, beauty and personal care products.

The venture has huge potential to help power our growth and strengthen our supply chains by creating cost-competitive alternatives and reducing our dependence on a small number of feedstocks that can have high levels of volatility. Geno is already starting to scale up the process for its advanced technology to produce the exclusive ingredient.

Effective, sustainable, resilient

So how does it work? Using cutting-edge biotechnology, Geno has established a fermentation process that uses sugar to convert microorganisms into an ingredient needed to make key cleaning agents called surfactants. These are integral to all cleansing products – across the home, personal care and beauty industries – to help them foam, lather, and lift dirt.

While offering incredibly effective cleansing properties, these ingredients are predominately made using fossil fuels and palm oil with few viable substitutes that can be manufactured at scale. That’s why this initiative could be a game-changer for the combined $625 billion (€594 billion) home, beauty and personal care markets. Better yet, initial estimates have shown it could reduce the carbon footprint of palm-derived ingredients by up to 50%.

As one of the world’s biggest soap and detergent manufacturers, we’re excited to be part of this innovation at an early stage, which marks our biggest collaboration in biotechnology alternatives to palm oil to date. Further strategic investors are expected to join in time.

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

Marrying science and nature

While palm oil will remain an important feedstock to Unilever, alternative ingredients can play a growing role in diversifying supply chains to offer greater choice alongside sustainability, cost efficiencies and transparency.

This new venture will sit right at the intersection of science and sustainability.

Richard Slater, Unilever Chief R&D Officer

“Biotechnology has the potential to revolutionise the sourcing of our cleansing ingredients and ensure Unilever is a future-fit business – for consumers, shareholders and the planet we all share,” explains Unilever Chief Research & Development Officer Richard Slater.

“This new venture will sit right at the intersection of science and sustainability, meaning we can continue to grow our business without relying on palm oil or fossil fuel derivatives, while making our supply chains more resilient from having access to alternative ingredients.

Sourcing a diverse range of feedstocks to power our formulations is key to supporting current and future growth.

Peter ter Kulve, President, Unilever Home Care

“We will be marrying science and nature to make sure there is no trade-off for our consumers between the efficacy and sustainability of their products. We are building this innovative new venture to have the scale to drive real impact and change in our industry, helping to reinvent the chemistry of home and personal care products for the 21st century,” he adds.

“The best supply chains balance resilience and cost effectiveness,” agrees Peter ter Kulve, President of Unilever’s Home Care division.

“A business like ours is highly reliant on a few commodities, such as oil, therefore sourcing a diverse range of feedstocks to power our formulations is key to supporting current and future growth. The power of biotechnology to aid this is something we are particularly excited about. Working together with Geno, we look forward to scaling the next generation of ingredients that do not increase the use of fossil fuels or add further pressure on land use.”

Acting on the climate crisis

Creating new bio-based materials will help us make the planet positive personal care products of the future.

Fabian Garcia, President, Unilever Personal Care

“We’ve developed technology in response to our planet’s urgent climate crisis and have proven that biotechnology can replace traditional methods to produce ingredients with bio-based sources that deliver both high performance and sustainability,” says Christophe Schilling, CEO of Geno.

“Creating new bio-based materials will help us make the planet positive personal care products of the future,” adds Fabian Garcia, President of Unilever Personal Care.

“Collaborating with scientific partners is essential to accelerating our progress, bringing to market cutting-edge, cost effective and sustainable solutions that our business and consumers will benefit from.”