Our products have an impact on the environment at each stage of their life cycle from the sourcing of raw materials through to product manufacture, distribution, consumer use and disposal. Understanding and managing these impacts is crucial to achieving our Sustainable Living Plan goals.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is one of several techniques we use to help us understand the impacts of our products on the environment. We use LCA in three ways: in new product design; for assessments of existing products; and in science and methodological development.
New product design
Insights and knowledge from LCAs enable us to compare new and existing products and to measure the differences in their respective environmental profiles. This information helps guide product developers during the innovation process and may be used to communicate the environmental performance of our products to consumers.
Existing product assessment
We conduct LCAs on our existing products and ingredients to identify opportunities to reduce environmental impacts, and to improve the quality, availability and relevance of data used for our own studies and by other organisations. For example, we have used LCAs to support our work with supply chain partners on some of our key crops such as palm oil and tomatoes. This includes publishing papers on the impacts of different agricultural feedstocks for bio-ethanol (PDF | 838KB) and the pilot application of the Palm GHG calculator for palm oil products (PDF | 828KB), which uses LCA results to enable producers to calculate the GHG balances of oil palm products.
We have also worked with the European surfactant industry to update the Life Cycle Inventories of the key surfactants used in home and personal care products. Our environmental sustainability scientists have supported the life cycle work of several organisations including the International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (AISE), Cosmetics Europe, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and The Sustainability Consortium (TSC).
Science & methodological development
We engage with partners to develop and promote the science used for LCA, aiming to improve both the robustness and scope of life cycle-based approaches and assessment. We have published a number of papers on new impact assessment methods for LCA within the areas of land use, biodiversity and water-related impacts.
Our scientists also support the development of the science and capability for life cycle thinking. We sponsor programmes such as the Water Footprint Network and the UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative and participate in one of the EU Product Environmental Footprinting pilots on liquid laundry detergent. We are working with Radboud University in the Netherlands on the European Industrial Doctorate project (RELIEF project), through which we support the studies of five PhD students, who are working to improve the reliability of LCA for product footprinting.
Unilever continues to support the global standardisation of life cycle methods and we play an active role in the work of standard setting bodies such as ISO and the WRI GHG Protocol.
Related publications in 2016
A model and tool to calculate life cycle inventories of chemicals discharged down the drain
Degradation in carbon stocks near tropical forest edges
Chaplin-Kramer R, Ramler I, Sharp R, Haddad NM, Gerber JS, West PC, Mandle L, Engstrom P, Baccini A, Sim S, Mueller C, King H (2015)
Chaplin-Kramer, R. et al. Degradation in carbon stocks near tropical forest edges. Nat. Commun. 6:10158 doi: 10.1038/ncomms10158 (2015)