Unilever is piloting a new heavy-duty truck that’s powered purely by renewable electricity – and we’re committing to switch to many more.
In a series of interviews, Unilever is introducing some of the many people who are helping to deliver our action plan and making change happen.
Our logistics and distribution emissions arise from the transportation and storage of our products, from suppliers through to manufacturers and finally on to our customers. Laura Realpe, our Sustainability Logistics Manager, explains how we’re using innovation and co-operation to help tackle climate change across this part of our business operations.
What does your job involve?
The role of global logistics sustainability manager has two main responsibilities. The first is related to compliance and sustainability reporting, helping us to measure our progress towards our commitments. The second is more strategic and looks at how we are driving sustainability initiatives within different regions, helping share best practice across markets and working with market teams to design their plans and execute their logistics strategies.
Why is it so important for us to tackle logistics emissions?
Logistics and distribution account for around 15% of Unilever’s total greenhouse gas emissions footprint. Achieving net zero by 2039 across our value chain is a very challenging ambition, especially as we don’t have one single solution that fits everywhere. We are using a combination of methods to keep us moving towards decarbonisation.
Our progress so far in this part of our business includes improving efficiency to reduce distance travelled and number of trucks used, switching to renewable energy to decarbonise our warehouse footprint, varying our modes of transport and conducting various pilots with electric vehicles and alternative fuels.
In the coming years, efficiency and reduction of kilometres travelled will remain at the heart of our decarbonisation strategy. We also see a major opportunity for renewing our fleets across our operations in emerging markets, as new technologies become available. In addition, we expect to use alternative fuels as a transitional source of energy, bridging the gap between now and the moment when medium- to heavy-duty electric vehicles come to market.
Yet the development of infrastructure for zero emission transport is a huge challenge that needs to be tackled, because it is currently very limited. Government policies will be a key catalyst for the transition to clean energy, and we trust that in the following years the development will move forward faster.
What are the innovations that you're most excited about?
We are trialling a type of sustainable biofuel – derived from waste cooking oil in the Netherlands and UK – which can be used in any diesel engine, meaning we can use it over the coming years before we’re ready to change our fleet. In North America, we’re also testing biogases and trialling carbon capture technology which stores carbon emitted from the truck. This is then sold on to the construction industry for use in building work. Tests of biogases began a couple of months ago and the results to date have been hugely positive. We expect to pilot the carbon capture technology early this year.
In terms of zero emissions technology, we’re already piloting electric vehicles in most regions where we operate, learning from the technology, understanding how it works and also trying to co-operate better with our carriers and partners to implement new technology faster.
How will our transition to electric trucks work?
Primarily, we need to scale up our supply of clean trucks. And it’s important to consider that it’s not just about having the electric vehicle itself, we also need the infrastructure in place to recharge it. Developing this isn’t something we can do by ourselves. We need to collaborate with governments, our peers and across the logistics sector to make it viable in terms of cost and operation. That’s why we joined EV100+, .
And there is a lot of interest from other companies. Based on the current technology available, I think there’s a consensus that in the long term, electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles are going to be the key technologies in the industry. What we are doing right now is understanding where the first ecosystems need to be developed, and we expect Western Europe and North America will be the first adopters at scale.
Around 90% of our logistics emissions come from road transportation, while ocean transportation accounts for around 6%.
Where does ocean shipping come in?
We are part of the Smart Freight Centre, an industry coalition specifically trying to develop the ecosystem for electric vehicles to accelerate their deployment, and we are also part of , or Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels, a similar coalition aiming to identify and implement decarbonisation solutions within shipping.
At the moment, the technology for zero emissions shipping is expected to take more time to be developed and integrated than it will for road transport, since the lifetime of a ship is much longer. At this point the only real solution available in shipping is sustainably sourced biofuels. But by signalling our commitment to zero-emission shipping through coZEV, we are confident that we can accelerate the transition at the pace and the scale that is needed.
What do you love about your job?
I think it’s amazing to be able to work on something that actually has real-world positive impact, not only for me but also for others and for the generations to come. I also love the innovation related to this role. We are testing things that, at times, are being done for the first time in the world. And while I know decarbonisation for logistics is challenging, I’m very hopeful because I believe we are heading in the right direction and are definitely making progress.
Unilever is the first FMCG organisation to join The Climate Group’s EV100 global initiative. This aims to bring together forward-looking companies committed to accelerating the transition to electric vehicles and making electric transport the ‘new normal’ by 2030.
We’re running a pilot in the Netherlands to test battery-powered refrigeration in trucks. If successful, it could provide a new solution for lowering the environmental impact of our refrigerated products, including ice cream brands such as Magnum, Wall’s and Cornetto.