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Warmer ice cream for a cooler planet?

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Average read time: 7 minutes

Find out how we’re working to lower the climate impact of the ice cream industry.

Ice cream consumption illustration
Roy Horne, Head of Climate Action in Unilever’s Ice Cream business group.
Roy Horne, Head of Climate Action in Unilever’s Ice Cream business group.

Our Climate Transition Action Plan sets out the steps the company will take to reduce emissions to zero within our own operations by 2030 and to net zero across our value chain by 2039.

As we’re halfway through Climate Week NYC, Roy Horne, Head of Climate Action in our Ice Cream business group, explains why the frozen food industry needs to take action to reduce its carbon footprint, and explains how warming up the cold chain will be a key part of the process.

How did you start working on climate change and ice cream?

Well, I've been at Unilever forever, nearly 40 years, but I have been working in the area of climate action for a couple of years. I was drawn into it because one of my responsibilities in my previous role was for the business’s refrigeration systems. I started to appreciate and understand the high carbon footprint that comes with frozen refrigeration, and to look into the issue of how we might be able to address it.

So how is ice cream linked to climate change?

We have a saying – it’s about cows and cabinets. These are the big focus areas for us. Dairy ingredients naturally come with a relatively high carbon footprint, and our refrigeration systems – in particular the electricity used by our 3 million or so sales freezers – also contribute a lot to our footprint.

What are we doing to reduce the impact of our refrigeration systems?

The cold chain is everything involved from the ice cream being churned in our factories, right the way through to the point you or I take it out of the cabinet or out of our home freezer. All the way through it needs to be maintained at an average temperature of -20°C. So that involves refrigerated storage – it means refrigerated trucks, it means refrigerated sales cabinets, it means home freezers. It’s the whole process that requires refrigeration.

Now, since the dawn of the ice cream industry, maybe 120 years ago, ice cream has been stored at around -18°C and a few years ago, some of the R&D team began challenging that and saying why is that the target temperature? Why not colder or why not warmer?

And that led us to investigate – can you change the design temperature of ice cream and still give the consumer exactly the same experience? And broadly we think the answer is yes, you can. We think we can change the design temperature from -18 to -12°C or even higher and still give exactly the same consumer experience. And that difference in temperature will translate to something like a 20–30% energy saving in the cold chain.

And that won’t lead to melted Magnums and soggy Cornettos?

No. It involves changing the formulation of the ice cream, so that you would get exactly the same experience with an ice cream in your left hand at -12° as the one in your right hand at -18°C. You would not be able to tell the difference. Already, many of our products have a lower design temperature. We have a small pilot in Germany just concluding at the moment and we have a larger pilot starting shortly in Indonesia, where we’re going to be doing this at scale.

What about the cows?

We should talk about cows as they’re equally important. Cows are lovely, of course. They produce milk and cream, which are great to use as raw materials in ice cream, but they come with a high carbon footprint attached. So, we are having a deep conversation in our brands now, about where we need to use dairy ingredients and how we can improve the carbon footprint of those ingredients.

Ben & Jerry’s are the first of our brands to move on that and they have a programme that’s focused on working with farmers to bring down the carbon footprint of dairy products. And it is doable. It takes quite a lot of changes to the agricultural practices on a farm, but it can be done, and they have pilots in both Europe and the US where they are working with farms to make it happen. So, improving dairy is clearly going to be important for us.

The other thing we can do is remove dairy and replace it with plant-based ingredients. In ice cream, it’s relatively easy to replace the dairy fat with a tropical oil, like coconut oil, and as a consumer you wouldn’t notice the difference. And we already have some really good vegan and non-dairy products on the market – if you’ve never tried a Magnum Vegan, you need to go and try one.

It’s an area where we’ll only get better, replacing traditional dairy ingredients with plant-based ingredients, which have an inherently much lower carbon footprint than dairy – it can be around 70% lower for many of them.

So we need to put all of this together. We have to make the refrigeration changes, improve the dairy footprint and up the amount of plant-based ingredients we’re using, and then we have to bring that all together in all our brands. Because if we can do that, we will bring down our carbon footprint significantly.

Why is it so important for us to take action on our carbon?

Well, you know, there are a number of ways of looking at this. The simplest way I think is, it’s the right thing to do and good businesses do the right things. We are a good business and we do want to do the right thing.

But we also will find over time, with climate change never out of the news for long, that our consumers and the big retail customers, will start to ask us “what are you doing to bring down your carbon footprint?” – remember, our carbon footprint is their carbon footprint. They actually only have control of a very small part of what makes up their footprint, because most of it is from the products they’re buying in from companies like ourselves.

And the food industry plays a surprisingly big role in the carbon footprint of everyone on the planet, and in particular in developed markets. Around 20–30% of our carbon footprint comes from the food that we consume, and that’s a mix of carbon produced during the agricultural production of the food and also processing, packaging and distribution. Action by the food industry is really important.

Are we working with others in the field to address the issue of climate?

We would love to work with the whole of the ice cream industry. When we announced we were working on this programme to warm up our cold chain, we invited other partners in the ice cream industry to join us. And we are really hoping that others will come and join in, because it makes good sense for the planet and it makes good sense for the future of the industry.

Looking at the scale of the problem, do you feel hopeful for the future?

These are quite radical ideas, and they take time to develop and embed in the industry. But the good thing, I think, is that when we’ve looked at our carbon footprint in the ice cream industry, and taking the ideas we’ve already got and are testing – if we add them all up, we can see something like a potential 70% reduction in greenhouse gases. That makes me very hopeful, because it shows we’ve already got a good bank of ideas, which could have a very big impact on our greenhouse gas footprint.

However, they’re all hard work. None of these come with just small changes. They require big changes. And climate scientists say to limit global warming to about 1.5°C, the food industry (and indeed many other industries) needs to bring its carbon footprint down by something like 80–90% over the next 30 years. So there is a huge amount to be done, and we are always open to new and additional ideas.

But that’s why I love my job – it’s great to be working on the early phase of a big change programme. It’s exciting to gather in these ideas and to test them out and then be able to pass them on to our brands and country teams and see the change that’s possible. So yes, I am hopeful that we can make a difference.


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