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Solar panels on the roof of Unilever’s Silvassa Detergent Factory, Silvassa, India.

This issue relates to the following Sustainable Development Goals

  • Responsible consumption and production
  • Climate action

Decarbonising our business

Average read time: 10 minutes

We’re in the global race to achieve net zero emissions. We’ve been taking climate action across our operations for decades and now we’re working to eliminate fossil fuels entirely and switch to renewable energy.

When it comes to climate action, every tonne of carbon counts. That’s why we’ve carefully measured our greenhouse gas footprint to understand where our emissions come from and target our efforts on our journey to decarbonise our business.

Man climbing up a ladder on a wind turbine

The greenhouse gases we emit come from energy used to make our products, fuel to distribute them to our customers, and energy and refrigerants to keep our ice creams cold. This makes up only a small portion of our total greenhouse gas footprint – just 1% comes from manufacturing, 3% from distribution and 4% from retail. Yet the size of our operations means it’s still a significant amount so we’re working to eliminate them entirely.

We’ll achieve zero emissions across our operations by 2030. Our focus is on making absolute emission reductions so we’ll only use carbon offsets for small amounts of emissions that we can’t yet get to zero.

Zero emissions in our operations by 2030

We will reduce Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions from energy and refrigerant use in our own operations by 100% by 2030.

We’re transforming the way our factories run by investing in new technologies like hydrogen, increasing energy efficiency and switching to renewable energy sources. We’re also focusing on efficiency and innovation to reduce emissions from transporting our products and from our freezers in retail stores.

100% renewable grid electricity

Since the start of 2020 we’ve sourced 100% renewable grid electricity across our operations worldwide. This means we now buy renewable grid electricity to power all our factories, offices, R&D facilities, data centres, warehouses and distribution centres.

We’re a founding signatory of the RE100 global campaign for businesses committed to using 100% renewable electricity. This means we’re working with other companies to show there’s significant demand for renewable electricity, which we hope will increase its availability and lower prices worldwide.

Generating our own renewable power

Many of our sites require other forms of energy to power their equipment, so we need to go beyond buying renewable electricity and generate our own renewable power on-site. Many of our sites are switching from fossil-fuel-based energy systems like coal and gas to clean energy alternatives like wind, solar and biomass. Currently, Unilever facilities in over 20 countries have on-site solar installations.

Wind turbines in Russia

Harnessing the power of wind and solar

In Italy, a wind farm at Avellino powers five of our sites, which could reduce our environmental impact by over 7,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. And our operations in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are powered by a mix of 75% wind and 25% solar energy.

Man standing in front of solar panels and wind turbines at Unilever China factory

Creating renewable energy on our factory sites

This includes solar water heating systems at sites in Australia, Israel, Mexico and India that together reduce CO2 emissions by around 1,500 tonnes per year, and a biomass boiler at our Tema factory in Ghana.

Hydrogen storage tank in morning light

Pioneering hydrogen as a new low-carbon fuel

We’re part of a world-first pilot, funded by the UK government, that’s aiming to demonstrate how hydrogen fuel can be used as a low-carbon alternative to natural gas at an industrial scale.

We’re piloting this fuel in our manufacturing process at our Port Sunlight factory in the UK. If successful, we’re hoping to scale-up this pioneering technique to other sites globally.

Investing in large-scale renewables

Where we don’t produce our own renewable electricity, we make direct purchase agreements with large-scale solar, wind, hydro and geothermal installations, and small-scale hydropower schemes. For example, around 90% of the electricity we use in Mexico is produced from wind power. In the Philippines, we are now sourcing all our electricity from a geothermal power plant.

Our energy procurement team have spent years establishing renewable power contracts across every continent where we operate.

Renewable heating technology

Around half of our manufacturing energy comes from renewable sources. We’ve taken big strides to use electricity only from renewable sources, which powers machinery and lighting in our factories. But we also need thermal energy for hot air, hot water and steam – and this makes up two-thirds of our total energy needs. We’re phasing out conventional fossil fuel sources of thermal energy.

To meet our demand for heating and hot water, we’re exploring new renewable technologies. These include heat pumps, concentrated solar power, biogas, biomass and hydrogen. Many of these options are not yet commercially viable or widely available so we are supporting innovation and looking for ways to integrate them into our operations.

Biomass and biogas are important alternatives to fossil-fuel-based gas or coal for heating. We produce our own biogas at some sites, using by-products from our manufacturing processes. For example, Marmite helps power our Burton site in the UK – a by-product from the manufacturing process is converted into biogas for our boilers.

Anaerobic digesters producing biogas from agricultural waste

Powering factories through inedible food waste and sewage

In the UK and Ireland, our factories in Trafford Park and Cork are powered by a combination of renewable electricity from the grid and renewable biomethane (also known as biogas) – as are our offices in Surrey and London. The biomethane is generated from anaerobic digestion, which converts inedible food waste and sewage into energy. And it’s fully traceable and certified.

Leaner, greener factories and offices

We’re developing leaner and greener factories for the future. We’ve already reduced our global manufacturing carbon footprint by two-thirds since 2008 – but we want to get to zero.

We’re constantly looking for new ways to save energy, which cuts our emissions and our costs. But energy efficiency can only take us so far in reducing emissions because we will always need energy to make our products. So we’re using renewable energy to help us cut emissions from our factories even further.

Solar panel icon

€873 million Since 2010, we’ve avoided €873 million in energy costs from energy-saving initiatives in our factories.

So far we have more than 20 zero emission factories worldwide. This means they’re highly energy efficient and use energy only from renewable sources.

In 2010 we committed to eliminating direct coal from our energy mix. By the end of September 2020, we had phased out coal except for three of our factories using coal directly, and six sites using coal indirectly through purchased grid electricity derived from coal. We’re phasing out coal as quickly as possible at these remaining sites. We advocate for worldwide phase-out of coal through the Powering Past Coal Alliance.

Lower footprint offices

Our offices make up less than 1% of our total greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint. Though this may seem small, we still look for opportunities to reduce our impact.

We’re creating lower carbon footprint offices by: designing new offices to meet strict environmental standards; reducing energy use and using energy-efficient equipment; switching to low-energy LED lighting; supporting teams at each site to take action; and working with our landlords and other partners to find new solutions to reduce emissions.

Since 2010 we’ve reduced CO2 emissions from energy used in our offices by 56.5%.

Tackling emissions from product transport

Our distribution network transports our products over 1.5 billion kilometres each year from our factories to where they’re sold – that’s the equivalent of travelling to the moon and back twice every day. Transport makes up around 3% of our total GHG footprint.

We don’t usually own the trucks, trains and ships that transport our products so we work with our logistics partners to reduce emissions. Options to cut CO2 emissions include fuller trucks, more efficient vehicles and lower-carbon alternative fuels.

We’re also involved in several cross-sector sustainable transport initiatives aimed at creating wider change.

Delivering transport emissions reductions

Fuller trucks cut fuel costs and emissions by transporting more products with less wasted space. We’re increasing truck fill rates and making sure the most efficient vehicles complete each trip. We’ve also reduced the number of distribution centres and complete more deliveries direct to customers to avoid unnecessary journeys.

We use rail and sea freight where feasible – or intermodal transport, switching from road to rail and sea. On the roads, driver behaviour can make a big difference too. Our logistics providers train drivers on eco-efficient driving techniques, and they share progress with us twice a year. Technical innovations – including artificially intelligent (AI) route planners and liquid nitrogen – are helping us find new ways to get our transport emissions down. And thermal insulated blankets enable temperature-sensitive shipments to be transported in normal trailers in the US.

Aerial view of roads with AI overlay

AI helps avoid transport emissions

Machine learning and AI solutions are helping our distributors in South East Asia identify better routes and avoid holdups.

The dynamic route planning programme is being put to good use by our distributors’ delivery operations. It’s helped distributors cut emissions by streamlining delivery routes – and it’s also cut costs by a fifth.

Truck driving on asphalt rural road at sunset

Cleaner ice cream deliveries in the Netherlands

We’ve been trialling the world’s first clean cold engine to deliver ice cream to our customers in the Netherlands. It uses liquid nitrogen instead of diesel to produce clean power and cold air with zero CO2 or particulate emissions.

Using alternative fuels

Lower carbon alternative fuels help us cut CO2 emissions from our trucks and reduce costs.

One option we’re exploring is liquefied natural gas (LNG). It has many advantages compared with diesel: up to 11% less CO2, 95% less particulate matter, 50% less noise pollution from trucks – and it’s often cheaper too. But a lack of fuelling stations is a major obstacle to wider use, especially for long-distance journeys.

Several of our logistics partners have begun using LNG in parts of Europe and northern Asia. We’re also using compressed natural gas (CNG) as an alternative to diesel in India, Turkey and the US. In Sweden, we’ve successfully trialled the use of hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO100), a renewable diesel made from waste fats and vegetable oils.

We see CNG and LNG as transition fuels on our journey to low-carbon logistics. In the long term, we need fuels that will enable us to achieve even bigger cuts in our transport footprint, such as hydrogen and biogas.

Switching to electric vehicles

Switching to electric vehicles can also dramatically reduce CO2 emissions and fuel costs. We’re a member of EV100 to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles worldwide.

So far we have electric vehicles in 12 countries, and we’re expanding the use of EVs in our fleet worldwide. In the US, Europe and China, we’re working with suppliers to explore the use of electric trucks to transport our products. We’ve been using hybrid vehicles – diesel and electric – in Mexico since 2017 and have more than 200 EVs in our Mexican fleet.

Keeping cool with climate-friendly freezers

Our ice creams – brands like Wall’s, Algida, Ben & Jerry’s and Kibon – are sold from more than 3 million freezer cabinets in over 45 countries. The refrigerants and energy used to keep them cold can have a significant climate footprint.

Freezers are designed to keep refrigerants sealed inside. But if they leak, refrigerant gases such as hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) have a global warming impact thousands of times greater than CO2.

Ice Cream icon

2.9 million Climate-friendly freezers for ice cream purchased since 2004

We’ve pioneered the use of natural hydrocarbon refrigerants (HCs). Since 2004, we’ve purchased around 2.9 million freezers containing natural refrigerants and it’s mandatory that any new freezers we purchase use HCs rather than HFCs.

We collaborate with freezer manufacturers to improve the efficiency of the freezers we buy, which also helps reduce emissions and running costs for the retailers who sell our ice creams.

We’re also exploring using renewable energy to power our freezers. We’ve completed trials of mobile solar-powered ice cream cabinets in India and the US, and we’re developing solar-powered static freezers.