From farm to film: Saving soil, protecting livelihoods
How our Iowa cover crop programme went from farm to film.
Our business will not prosper without a healthy planet and a healthy society.
The Unilever Compass is our roadmap and strategy for delivering an ambitious sustainability agenda that works to drive climate action to reach net zero, reduce plastic as part of a waste-free world, regenerate nature and agriculture, and raise living standards in our value chain.
And we are harnessing the power of our people, our brands and our partnerships to help tackle the most pressing issues.
As Unilever CEO Alan Jope says: “Climate change, nature degradation, biodiversity decline, water scarcity – all these issues are interconnected, and we must address them all simultaneously.
“In doing so, we must recognise that the climate crisis is not only an environmental emergency, it also has a terrible impact on lives and livelihoods. We, therefore, have a responsibility to help tackle the crisis: as a business, and through direct action by our brands.”
But how do our goals translate into actions? Here’s a snapshot of some of our sustainability programmes at work.
Logistics and distribution account for around 15% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve our ambition of net zero by 2039 across our value chain, we are using a combination of methods to reduce our carbon footprint.
As Sustainability Logistics Manager, Laura Realpe, explains: “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.”
Across our Home Care portfolio, we’re changing product formulations to lower emissions.
One of our latest innovations is a dilute-at-home laundry detergent from Persil/OMO – with a 6x concentrated formula and sustainable packaging that uses 70% less plastic – which has reduced our distribution CO2 emissions by 83%.
“Integrating sustainability and business strategies isn’t just a moral objective anymore – it’s essential in order to future-proof your business,” says Jon Hague, Home Care’s Head of Clean Future, Science and Technology.
When you are a global business consuming energy at 245 sites in more than 70 countries, ensuring that all your electricity and heat is from renewables is a challenge.
So we’re working to increase our access to renewable electricity supplies and supporting innovations in thermal energy, such as piloting the use of hydrogen technology.
For example, we have been piloting the use of heat pumps which capture low-temperature, low-grade heat and increase it to 65–80⁰C, which means heat that was once wasted can be used again and again. In our ice cream factories, heat pumps can potentially offset heat requirements and reduce CO2 emissions by up to 70%.
As our group engineer for thermal energy, Vivek Nesarikar, says: “It is a clean technology solution in the truest sense.”
Plastic is a valuable material, but it’s one we need to keep inside the circular economy – where it is reused, recycled or composted.
In home care we are investing €1 billion over ten years to change the way our cleaning products are created, manufactured and packaged.
This has seen innovations such as our Dirt is Good (DiG) re-engineered capsules that contain powerful biodegradable active ingredients, 65% of which are derived from plant sources. The packaging is kinder to the planet too.
The capsules are sold in a plastic-free, fully recyclable cardboard box, a move set to save around 6,000 tonnes of plastic per year, the equivalent in weight to 500 double-decker buses.
The box was designed in partnership with Graphic Packaging International and is built to lock out moisture even more effectively than current plastic packaging to prevent capsules from sticking together. It’s also easier to open and close, child-safe and fully recyclable.
“The breakthrough formulation, format and packaging are the work of multiple R&D teams, and we couldn’t be prouder of the result. The new generation DIG capsule and packaging are truly industry leading,” says Dr Keith Rutherford, Head of Global Innovation, Unilever Home Care R&D.
The visibility that technology gives us into our supply chains means we can make them increasingly more transparent and traceable. So we’re collaborating with partners to trial and adopt state-of-the-art technology including satellite imaging and artificial intelligence. By providing new insights and data, these solutions allow us to predict where forests are at risk of deforestation, so we can take proactive measures to protect ecosystems and livelihoods.
So far we have mapped 67 million hectares of forests, assessed 77,000 villages to support sourcing from low-risk smallholders, and analysed almost 4,000 palm estates to direct suppliers to deforestation-free sources.
“The latest digital capabilities will help us better identify high-risk areas and target interventions where they’re most needed,” says Willem Uijen, our Chief Procurement Officer.
Our sustainable sourcing programmes include working with farmers to introduce regenerative agriculture practices such as cover cropping, to help protect and replenish soil.
Over the past ten years, we have been providing financial and technical support to farmers in Iowa who supply our business with soy for our Hellmann’s products. In 2022, we had over 520 farmers planting almost 180,000 acres of cover crops, and we continue to grow the programme.
“Over time, cover crops help build healthier soils that can better absorb extreme rain falls or drought conditions,” says Stefani Millie Grant, Senior Manager, External Affairs and Sustainability. “A cover crop also better holds nutrients in the soil and has the potential to capture carbon.”
The production of milk and dairy creates significant emissions of greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. Dairy is a significant ingredient in our ice cream business, and therefore reducing those emissions must be a key part of Unilever’s solution for tackling climate change – and we are already working to do so.
As our Sustainable Sourcing Manager for Dairy, Klaas Jan van Calker, says, “Since 2015, we have already seen an emissions reduction of 14% in the pilots run with Ben and Jerry’s.”
When it comes to sustainable palm oil, we want our work to benefit everyone in the areas we source from – including smallholder farmers, forests and wildlife, governments, businesses, and communities.
As Willem Uijen, our Chief Procurement Officer, says: “We’re investing in landscape programmes because it’s clear that the challenges related to climate, nature and social equity are deeply interconnected and require holistic solutions.”
For a detailed look at Unilever’s sustainability journey, visit our Planet & Society hub. That’s where you’ll also find more on our sustainability reporting, including performance data and our reporting archive.
How our Iowa cover crop programme went from farm to film.
Groundbreaking solutions like satellite imaging and artificial intelligence are helping us better understand areas at risk of deforestation and those that have high potential for regeneration.
Research shows over 60% of people believe companies’ greatest responsibility is action on climate. For Earth Day, activist and biologist Swetha Stotra Bhashyam asks Eric Soubeiran, MD of our €1bn Climate & Nature Fund, what and how it will deliver.