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Responsible innovation

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Science with objectivity and integrity underlines our approach to responsible innovation.

A woman and a man wearing Unilever lab coats looking into a fumehood in a lab

Innovation, Science and Technology with objectivity and integrity

Science and scientific research are crucial to enhancing our knowledge and understanding of how food, nutrition, home, beauty and personal care products can benefit our consumers’ health, confidence and wellbeing. They are also key to understanding how we can improve the environmental, societal and economic impact of our products.

We invest in science and scientific research, and champion responsible research and development (R&D). We’re committed to applying high standards of quality to all our scientific activities.

Five principles govern our scientific research

1. Scientific robustness

We believe that scientific research should be hypothesis driven and follow the principles of scientific rigour. This includes discussion of any limitations or challenges in order to ensure objective and robust critique and evaluation. All scientific research should also meet the universal scientific criteria for methodology and design, data quality and validation, and statistical analysis. We look for academic consensus as the strongest demonstration of the validity and robustness of science.

2. Objectivity

We strive to maintain scientific objectivity as an essential requirement – including in discussions with external parties. We believe policy decisions must be primarily informed by objective scientific evidence. Other dimensions taken into account in decision-making need to be made transparent.

3. Governance

We apply rigorous standards in our research, and our R&D leadership takes responsibility for adhering to these. Our Code of Business Principles and Code Policies (PDF 5.28MB) (Opens in new window) explains more about these standards. We believe independent peer review is the best way to maintain our standards of quality.

4. Transparency

We welcome dialogue with the world’s scientific community so we can operate at the forefront of scientific developments. We present key findings and research developments at international conferences or meetings to encourage discussion and build scientific consensus.

Where we are seeking to reach scientific consensus, we will publish the science we conduct. This applies in particular to research on the safe use of our ingredients and the potential impact of specific products or ingredients. We publish in independent, peer-reviewed journals and other appropriate forums, increasing transparency and raising awareness. We’re also transparent and open about our research collaborations with external partners, such as universities and consortia.

5. Working with others

The world of scientific research is collaborative and we’re increasingly working with external partners, often in multi-stakeholder partnerships. We apply the same principles to these collaborations as we apply to our own research.

Bringing benefits to people and the planet through biotech

Biotechnology is the application of biological systems to develop ingredients and products. People use biotechnology in a number of areas, including healthcare, crop production and agriculture, for non-food uses (such as in biodegradable plastics, vegetable oils and biofuels), and for environmental uses.

We believe that biotechnology can play an important role in the development of affordable, innovative products and sustainable ingredients at scale – benefiting both consumers and the environment. For instance, new biotechnology-derived ingredients and processing can improve cleaning performance across different water qualities and temperatures, delivering better hygiene and environmental performance.

For decades, we’ve used biotechnology produced enzymes in our Home Care business, and more recently we started using algal oils in soap bars. Future innovations using biotechnology-derived ingredients are also being explored.

Our priority is to provide safe products that meet our strict safety standards and the regulatory requirements of the countries in which they are sold. We only use biotechnology-derived ingredients and processes in products if they meet the latest scientific and technological standards for safety and environmental stewardship. This applies to all our biotechnology supplier partnerships too.

We use controlled and contained production methods for all biotechnology-derived ingredients - this means that after fermentation no active ingredients are released into waste streams. And we actively apply and support a robust regulatory framework wherever we operate, for Unilever and our suppliers.

Our sustainable biotechnology approach

In our application of biotechnology, we aim to use sustainably sourced materials as feedstock for production of the ingredients and apply methods, which have a superior life cycle assessment (LCA). This involves studying the environmental impacts of a product or process throughout its lifespan.

There is also no conflict in our support for biotechnology and our commitment to enhancing livelihoods for smallholder farmers. We assess the risks and challenges to smallholder farmers on a case-by-case basis. We take into consideration, for example, the competition for land use to generate food versus land use for chemicals, and assess the pressures on supply and demand. In addition, we take steps to ensure that alternative sourcing of ingredients through biotechnology does not disadvantage smallholder farmers who make similar ingredients. We use waste from agriculture, industry and society to support biotechnology.

We are open, transparent and committed to engaging with stakeholders to promote the responsible development of new biotechnology approaches for our products. We provide information about the processes applied in a way that is meaningful for our consumers and enables them to make informed choices. And we comply with regulatory requirements on disclosure.

We work with biotechnology industry partners, such as Novozymes and Solazyme (now TerraVia), to explore new materials to use in our products. Our partners use established and proven biotechnology methods in a controlled and contained environment.

Responsible stem cell research

Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer many potential therapeutic benefits. This applies not only for health (helping to heal diseases such as leukaemia and Parkinson's), but also for beauty.

Stem cells are important research tools to model aspects of human biology (such as skin and hair) that are difficult to study in detail by other means. They are also used to investigate the effects of ingredients on specific biological processes.

We support research using adult human stem cells and plant stem cells. However, we won’t undertake any research with embryonic stem cells. We conduct all our research and innovation responsibly, in full compliance with the highest safety, ethical, legal and regulatory standards and requirements.

We also work in partnership with leading scientific experts to investigate the potential applications of stem cell technology, including health and beauty benefits for consumers.

The exciting world of the human microbiome

The human body contains trillions of micro-organisms. They are present all over the body including on the skin and in the digestive system. The collection of these organisms is called the microbiome and it is unique to each of us.

The microbiome is an exciting area of scientific discovery and understanding. A balanced microbiome containing a diversity of organisms helps to maintain health. It’s essential for human development, immunity, health and wellbeing. Each of our individual microbiomes adapts throughout our lifetime and people can achieve a healthy microbiome in different ways.

We’re working to support people to have a healthy and balanced microbiome, ensuring the microbiome is resilient and stimulating the growth of good bacteria.

We work with world-renowned experts to understand the microbiome and develop products that are specifically designed to support it. For example, good hygiene practices such as hand washing and mild cleansing can help to preserve a balanced microbiome and enhance the skin’s natural defence immunity. A healthy oral microbiome helps to prevent gum disease. And a balanced gut microbiome can positively affect our metabolism and how we process energy from food.

We have a global team of expert microbiologists who are dedicated to this area of research. We quickly adopt new techniques once they are validated and develop new techniques ourselves. We’re supporting research to build even more knowledge and understanding of this vast and continuously developing area of science. All of our products are thoroughly assessed to be both effective and safe.

Genetically Modified Crops – the subject of lively debate

Genetic modification (GM) has been widely used in agriculture for more than 20 years to make food crops more resistant to pests, more tolerant to herbicides and more resilient against diseases. A large proportion of some of the world’s major agricultural food commodities, such as soy, maize and rapeseed are now grown as GM crops.

Nevertheless, the use of GM technology in agriculture continues to be the subject of lively debate. Supporters point to the fact that GM crops have repeatedly been declared safe for use, that they are easier to manage, more cost-effective, and often more productive. They say that this could play an important role in feeding the planet’s growing population.

Opponents express concerns about the impact of GM crop farming on biodiversity and the environment, and the position of a few leading seed companies. They also worry about the dependency of smallholder farmers on these seed companies, and their ability to compete in a global market.

Our priority is to provide consumers with safe products that meet all regulatory requirements and fulfil our high standards for quality. And our commitment to safety and quality includes all of our food ingredients, whether produced from conventional crops or from GM crops authorised by regulatory bodies. We believe GM crops are as safe as their traditional counterparts and fully support regulatory control around GM technology and continued scientific research in the area.