Investing in our planet is not just the theme for Earth Day 2023, it’s becoming an increasingly louder ask from people to the companies they buy from.
What’s more, they’re increasingly prepared to take action with their wallets, with 66% of consumers who took part in a saying they actively align themselves with brands that are compatible with their values and priorities.
In 2020, Unilever established a Climate & Nature Fund with a mandate to invest €1 billion by 2030 in projects to accelerate decarbonisation and nature solutions globally.
This Earth Day, Swetha Stotra Bhashyam, a wildlife biologist and activist caught up with Eric Soubeiran, VP of Business Operations Sustainability and MD of our Climate & Nature Fund, to ask him about the actions being taken, the progress being made, and the work left to do.
S: Thanks Eric, for having this interview with me. One of the first things I want to really understand is what does the Fund do?
E: Well, it’s more than a fund, it’s an investment impact-led platform, aiming to transform the way our products are made so they’re more sustainable, and to connect that sustainability journey with brand benefits.
One of the things we want to do is invest more in regenerative agriculture. For example, elsewhere in the business Unilever has been helping farmers in Iowa to produce soy in ways that protect soil health. And soy is a key ingredient in our Hellmann’s mayonnaise, so when you buy Hellmann’s, the choice you’ve made is helping to support nature.
And that’s important for us.
We have the chance to interact with close to 3.4 billion people in the world who use a Unilever product every day. And that interaction is a great opportunity to help make sustainable living commonplace. It’s also a great responsibility.
S: What is your vision for the Fund?
E: To use Unilever’s convening power to make sure 1 + 1 adds up to more than 2.
We are a big organisation and that helps us attract and connect new partners and scale solutions. In Iowa, for example, we partnered with farmers, Pepsi and a non-profit called Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) to make the project happen and help renew the land for future generations.
We are also a founding member of an initiative called the Rimba Collective which is working to protect and restore at least 500,000 hectares of forest, with and for forest communities.
We want the €1 billion we’ve set aside to be used in projects like this that drive change and attract partners to help us to co-finance and scale solutions. That way, we can achieve at least double the contribution we’ve made.
When you don’t have an intimate connection between the actions you’re taking, your real business and the ability to scale those solutions, that’s when accusations of greenwashing arise.Eric Soubeiran, MD Unilever Climate & Nature Fund and VP of Business Operations Sustainability
S: That’s a powerful place to be and a powerful place to influence change. Do you think an initiative like this is something other companies should have?
E: Yes, but first companies need to experience what I call “the transparency shock”.
This means looking at your value chain, being very transparent and deciding where you can have an impact because you are relevant in that space, and where you want to have an impact.
Take the work we’re doing in ice cream. We know people love dairy ice cream and the indulgence it brings. But we also know the consequences of methane emissions.
Ideally you want to develop low carbon dairy production programmes that also keep the indulgence of our ice cream. By connecting both needs, you’re creating benefit for consumers who love ice cream, and benefit for our business while reducing our impact on the world.
When you work at that intersection, you find places where investing your money, resources, energy and passion can have the biggest impact, otherwise you won’t use the engine of your organisation to scale up solutions.
S: When you hear about funds like these, the first thing a lot of people think is it’s just big companies using it to greenwash. How would you respond to that?
E: I think the answer is found in what you are trying to do. Is it transformational or peripheral to your business?
When you don’t have an intimate connection between the actions you’re taking, your real business and the ability to scale those solutions, that’s when accusations of greenwashing arise.
For us, the Climate & Nature Fund is not a communication tool; it’s a doing tool. And the changes it’s helping us make are core to our business.
When we talk about how we grow soy for mayonnaise, it’s at the core. When we talk about dairy use for ice cream, it’s core. When we talk about the restoration of a sensitive ecosystem while still using palm oil, it’s core.
We’re trying to be where the big unlocks are. And we’re getting things done before we communicate.
S: Unilever has committed to achieving net zero across its value chain by 2039. How are you scaling up this work to help you reach that goal?
E: You know Swetha, there is a difference between me telling you I want to be fit and me telling you I’m going to wake up every day at 6am and run 10 kilometres.
What’s important is the specifics, and in sustainability strategies that’s very often what is missing.
We’re not in a decade of committing any more. We’re in a decade of delivering. But delivery is only enabled if you have a good strategy.
For example, we know the importance of tackling emissions from dairy-related ingredients in our Ice Cream business. But we also know there will be differences in the way we tackle this issue depending on geographies.
The dairy intensity of milk in the US is different from that in India, so the types of levers you utilise to reduce your carbon intensity is going to be different in each place.
In the US, it’s about optimising the system, making sure you capture all the methane emissions, and using the manure-generated fertiliser to close your end loop.
In India, it’s a grazing and pasture-based system. You need to work on the diet of the cows, increase animal welfare and provide access to clean water. Because if you do that, then the cows produce more litres of milk and you reduce the carbon intensity per litre.
The role of my team and the Fund is to find the roadblocks and decide what type of action we need. To look at the KPIs we want to achieve, put in timings, resources and how much it’s going to cost. Having that plan will help us to reach the 2039 goal.
Ben & Jerry’s begins work on low carbon dairy
In a project funded by the Climate & Nature Fund, Ben & Jerry’s has been working with farmers, scientists and academics to cut emissions from dairy farming. Here’s what it’s trying to do in a pilot project with 17 farms:
- Cut cow burps: By feeding its herds meal plans that are cow-tested and cow-approved and that include a high-quality forage diet and innovative feed additives, it aims to reduce the generation of methane as cows digest their food and the burps they make.
- Put manure to good use: Cows produce 80lb manure per day, per cow. To minimise its methane impact, manure digesters and separators are working to turn the poop into renewable electricity and animal bedding.
- Growing and using regenerative feed crops: The company is also growing more grass and using regenerative practices to grow corn and other crops that help feed the herd and will help maintain healthy soils. Discover more .
S: Do the Fund’s initiatives have social and ecological justice built into them?
E: For me environmental justice and social justice go hand-in-hand.
If you want to change the agricultural system, you need to do it with and for the farmer; otherwise it doesn’t work and it doesn’t last.
If you want to work on afforestation efforts and protect forests, you need to make sure the indigenous people have a living wage and an income that makes it better for them to stay where they are instead of moving to the cities and selling their land that will then be deforested.
Same thing with cocoa. We identify the biggest risks and make sure that when we develop an agricultural programme, a social programme goes hand in hand and ensures a living wage and tackles issues like child labour.
In almost all the sustainability programmes we’re developing, the social aspect is essential, it’s the enabler.
S: As a biologist, I’m also interested in what’s happening on the nature side of the Climate & Nature Fund. Can you tell me more?
It’s based on three pillars:
- Taking an integrated landscape approach to protect and restore nature on the 30% of land that the world cannot afford to lose. That means working with stakeholders in communities to decide together what to plant and grow to help protect and regenerate 1.5Mha of land, forests and oceans by 2030. We’re also progressing towards a deforestation-free supply chain, and for this transparency is so important, having the tools in place to monitor our impact. We’re using satellite technologies for that.
- Using our portfolio as a food player to develop new types of diets and food to help increase biodiversity. This can mean more experiences, more smells, more taste, and more texture. It’s why Knorr is using different plant-based ingredients in its products and recipes.
- Ensuring that regenerative agriculture and production that makes improving soil health an established part of growing our ingredients. Because healthy soil doesn’t just deliver great crops, it sequesters carbon and brings back worms and birds.
S: How do you see the Climate & Nature Fund working to transform the businesses as a whole?
E: Right now, the world is very complex. It’s very difficult to control anything. But you’re left with one very important tool which is creating energy at the right inflection point to influence the system.
And this is what the Climate & Nature Fund is all about. Investing significantly in a few chosen tipping points that can influence industry.
We’ve selected our battles and defined seven priorities:
- 1 sustainable natural feedstock alternatives
- 2 carbon capture and utilisation
- 3 biotechnology for sustainable ingredients
- 4 plastic alternatives and transformations
- 5 non-animal-derived alternatives
- 6 regenerative agriculture & positive action on nature
- 7 transition to renewable energy
And we are going to invest in these systematically and significantly. Once you do that, you create energy in the system.
It’s also where we can use what Unilever is buying and the €35 billion of natural commodities we buy annually to leverage our convening power and influence transformational change across industry.
S: If you were to come back in 2039, what would you hope would have been achieved by the Climate & Nature Fund?
E: What would be really good is to have a handful of large-scale programmes that have proven that sustainability and value creation can work hand in hand. If we do that, there would be no questions any more about sustainability and our brands. It will be fully embedded into our way of doing business and then we will leverage the full power of Unilever.
E: Swetha, can I ask you that question from a consumer and activist perspective?
S: To be the dreamer, I would love to see Unilever starting the revolution in the business sector – so I could enjoy products like ice cream guilt-free, knowing that it was made taking account of its impact on the planet.
I would like people in 2039 to look at Unilever as the one who started this movement, seeing real changes in the way products are made and other companies following Unilever's lead on this.
On the activist side, I would love to see your employees actively talking about it and engaging with the public on how they are proud to be part of Unilever because they made change happen. Yeah, that would be beautiful to see.
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Areas where we can make a positive impact on Climate and Nature
Here are just some of the ways we can use focused investment, our scale and buying power to attract innovators and co-finance to transform the way our products are made and distributed to help make sustainable living commonplace.
Using cover crops to improve soils and yields in Iowa (1 of 3)
Iowa is losing its topsoil faster than it can be replenished. In 2022, Unilever paid over 520 farmers a cost share to plant 179,000 acres of cover crops. The crops help build healthier soils that can absorb extreme rainfalls and build resilience to drought conditions. They also hold nutrients in the soil and have the potential to capture carbon.
Working with and for dairy farmers in India (2 of 3)
In India, we’re working with 1,000 farmers across eight villages who supply milk to Unilever’s dairy supplier in Nabha, in Punjab’s Patiala district. With the help of on-the-ground experts, MoooFarm, we implement best practices to improve cattle health and welfare, boost milk yields, increase livelihoods for dairy farmers, and reduce emissions. We will be looking at our learnings around social justice and applying these to Climate & Nature Fund projects.
The tech that’s helping us tackle deforestation (3 of 3)
Through our Forest Data Partnership launched during COP26, we are actively recruiting local communities in tropical landscapes to help us create a unified framework with access to open-source geospatial data to help us monitor and address deforestation risk and restore forests faster. Find out more in .
By using regenerative agricultural practices to tackle cow burps and managing manure, Ben & Jerry’s is aiming to cut greenhouse gases from its dairy farm suppliers to half industry standards by 2024.*
With regenerative agriculture transformation and innovation requiring long-term financing, the Unilever Climate & Nature Fund, AXA Climate and Tikehau Capital are coming together to explore the idea of an investment tool that will help accelerate the shift.
Knorr’s plan for 50 regenerative agriculture projects is predicted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use by an estimated 30% while improving biodiversity, soil health and livelihoods.