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Scaling up our climate collaboration with suppliers

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Most of our emissions come from the raw materials, ingredients and packaging we buy. Climate Specialist Giulia Saladino explains how supporting our suppliers in monitoring and reducing their product carbon footprint will help us get on track for net zero.

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Image of Giulia Saladino, Climate Specialist in the Business Operations Sustainability team at Unilever.
Giulia Saladino, Climate Specialist in the Business Operations Sustainability team at Unilever.

At Unilever, our Climate Transition Action Plan (PDF 7.98 MB) sets out the steps we will take to halve the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) impact of our products, per consumer use, by 2030, and to achieve net zero across our value chain by 2039.

In a series of interviews, we put the spotlight on some of the many people who are helping to deliver our action plan and make change happen.

Giulia Saladino, Climate Specialist in the Business Operations Sustainability team at Unilever, explains how we are scaling up our work with suppliers to accelerate emissions reduction.

What does your job involve?

My main task is engaging suppliers in our Supplier Climate Programme. The programme offers guidance and access to tools and resources to a key group of suppliers whose materials contribute most significantly to our emissions. So a lot of my work is about research, establishing which tools and capability-building partners are out there and selecting the best fit for our suppliers.

I also work closely with our Procurement team, specifically with buyers, making sure they have the knowledge they need to be able to talk with suppliers about climate action. And the other part of my role is about connecting with sustainability peers. One of the biggest learnings we’ve had from working with our suppliers so far is the need for business asks on climate to be aligned across industries. Part of my work is talking to other businesses to gain an understanding of where industry is headed, so we can determine how to align our asks around climate action.

How did the Climate Programme come about?

We have around 52,000 suppliers. Of these, 300 contribute significantly to our upstream emissions. When we began researching how to work with them on emissions reduction, we discovered that two-thirds of this group didn’t have a climate target yet. This presented a huge opportunity for Unilever to offer support. That’s what the Climate Programme is all about.

Last year we ran a pilot with 35 of our suppliers to test out tools and resources designed to help suppliers build their climate capabilities and accelerate their climate journey. We wanted to understand whether these tools matched their needs. We also looked at data gathering and sharing – when suppliers have product carbon footprint data, what does it look like and how should we go about receiving, validating and using it?

Initially, we were unsure how suppliers would engage with the pilot. When you start something new, and this was new not just for Unilever but also within the industry, you don’t know how it will develop. But we invited 60 suppliers to take part, and more than half wanted to get involved. The fact that there was real interest gave us confirmation of the need for a programme like this to exist. And by the end we had created a small community of engaged suppliers who understand we must all work together to tackle this huge challenge.

What were the key learnings from the pilot project?

We learned a lot, especially that there isn’t a quick fix. We realised how important it is to tailor our asks and our tools to suit each supplier’s needs. We always try to meet suppliers wherever they are in their climate journey, so we segmented the pilot suppliers into three groups according to their climate maturity and this approach really worked.

The suppliers just starting out on climate were offered an e-learning tool, while the mid-range suppliers were given a tool which helped them learn how to calculate product carbon footprint, and the most climate aware group were asked to share the data they already had, because we wanted to test out our collection and validation processes.

For those at the early stages, the biggest challenge was a lack of resource, but as soon as one or two resources were put in place, they quickly wanted to move beyond the e-learning into actual data gathering. That’s why this year we have changed our offering and will provide a platform for suppliers to develop their GHG baseline and an emissions reduction plan.

The feedback we had from the second batch of suppliers was that the pilot was a valuable exercise. Taking a deep dive into their own operations and wider value chain provided an opportunity for this group to identify and sometimes rethink where their biggest hotspots are, helping to shape their planning on where best to reduce their emissions.

From the most advanced group, we learned there is a clear need to standardise what companies are asking suppliers to provide and the methodologies used. That’s why we are supporting industry alignment through the Partnership for Carbon Transparency (PACT), hosted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

How does PACT work?

We are members of WBCSD and through PACT we have played a key role in helping to shape standardised methodology over more than a year. Now PACT is creating a network that will enable companies to freely exchange product carbon footprint data at scale, in the most automated way.

The key here is transparency – connecting suppliers to businesses and businesses to retailers to eventually create a flow of data that will mean a product’s carbon footprint is fully democratised and shared.

The more that is known about the climate impact of different materials, the faster action can be taken to address this impact and bring down emissions.

Were there any surprises from the pilot?

An unexpected win was that, even at this pilot stage, we got real, usable data from our suppliers. They saw the value in exchanging data with us, because it allowed them to better understand our needs and what we want from them in terms of data gathering. We’re hoping to be able to use their data in our annual reporting next year.

How are we scaling things up this year?

In 2022, our pilot had 35 suppliers. In 2023, we want to bring between 100 and 120 suppliers onboard the Climate Programme, and the aim is to have engaged the full 300 suppliers we initially identified by the end of 2024.

Earlier this month, we brought 100 of our target suppliers together with the suppliers from the pilot. We wanted our new batch of Climate Programme suppliers to hear from the pilot suppliers first hand, to show them what is possible and that it is important to work together because this is too big a challenge for any of us to overcome alone.

I also had the privilege of meeting many more suppliers in person at our recent Partner with Purpose event in London, where we talked them through our work and how they too can get involved. We’re encouraging our whole supplier base to sign up to the Unilever Climate Promise to publicly demonstrate their shared values and commitment to ambitious climate action.

What does success look like for the Climate Programme?

So far with the Climate Programme we have focused a lot on engaging suppliers to collect data. But data is just a means to an end, and the end-goal is emissions reduction, so we need to make sure suppliers are working on plans to reduce their emissions too.

We’ve got a huge challenge ahead of us to bring down emissions from raw materials and ingredients and packaging and it will take time before we see the results.

We have to remember that what we are doing in this area is really new and there is not a clear path. Going beyond own operations and looking at value chain emissions is something that’s only really emerged in recent years. But overall, I feel optimistic about how quickly things are moving. We want to pave the way for others to follow.

What inspires you most in your role?

The most important thing for me is that we are driving positive impact. I couldn’t imagine myself doing a job just for the sake of doing it. My purpose is enabling people to transition to a more sustainable way of living and my job is helping suppliers to transition towards a more sustainable way of doing business. So my job is really aligned with my purpose and that’s why I love it.

The Unilever Supplier Climate Programme is supporting the company in becoming future fit. We’re helping to build a resilient supply chain, readying ourselves for climate legislation, and meeting consumer needs for more sustainable products. Ultimately, it’s helping the business do the right thing, for people and the planet. I’m proud to be at the forefront of that.

Find out more about the ways we’re working with our suppliers to reduce the carbon footprint of our products, through innovation and partnerships

Partnering with suppliers to deliver net zero | Unilever

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