Eco-efficiency in our operations

We aim to reduce the environmental footprint of our operations even as our business grows. Improving the eco-efficiency of our manufacturing sites and offices helps us cut their environmental impact, reduce running costs and enhance overall site performance.

Factory buildings

Driving environmental improvements

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) sets out our greenhouse gas, water and waste reduction targets, and our ambition to play a leadership role in the transition to a zero-carbon economy.

Our environmental management system provides a framework for continual improvement at our manufacturing and office sites. It helps us work towards the ambitious environmental targets set out in the USLP.

We also set annual global targets for each of our eco-efficiency performance indicators to drive progress, these are supported by site-specific targets set by our regions and Divisions.

Each site is different, so the best ways to drive efficiency depend on use, scale, location and capacity. In terms of our operations, we focus on driving efficiencies in our manufacturing sites as they have a bigger footprint.

To view our performance, please see our Sustainability performance data. Our progress on eco-efficiency has also been recognised by numerous external benchmarks. For more information, see Awards and recognition.

Unilever’s Codes of Business Principles

Our Code of Business Principles (PDF | 9MB) contains a specific principle on the environment: “Unilever is committed to making continuous improvements in the management of our environmental impact and to the longer-term goal of developing a sustainable business. Unilever will work in partnership with others to promote environmental care, increase understanding of environmental issues and disseminate good practice.”

The Code of Business Principles ensures our conduct complies with laws and regulations, protects our brands and reputation, and prevents harm to people or the environment.

Our environmental management system

We developed the Unilever SHE Framework Standards in the 1990s and have kept improving and adapting them to our changing needs ever since. Currently, there are three SHE Framework Standards: Occupational Health & Safety, Environmental Care and Consumer Safety. Taken together, they describe a complete SHE Management System and apply to all organisations* within Unilever.

SHE specific standards

Each organisation must identify and evaluate its products, operations, activities or services to determine those which have (or could have) a significant impact on the environment. The evaluation must be reviewed periodically, taking into account any changes to our standards or external legislation.

Where the requirements are specific to a site or business risk, Unilever publishes SHE specific standards and separate supporting guidance. For instance, one of our Research and Development centres will have different issues or specific risks compared with an office or Personal Care factory.

SHE specific standards include those for third-party manufacturing (including further standards for new factories), auditing, reporting and verification of management systems, environmental performance reporting, notification and investigation, and reporting of SHE incidents. We have also developed standards for activities such as biomass sourcing and polychlorinated biphenyls in electrical equipment (where applicable).

Our Environmental Care Framework Standard

Based on the requirements of the international ISO 14001 standard for environmental management systems, our Environmental Care Framework Standard maintains the robustness of ISO 14001, while enabling us to tailor the framework specifically to our operations to drive improvements more effectively. The framework ensures a robust process by incorporating requirements for planning, implementation and operation, checking, corrective action and management review.

Using our own framework allows us to quickly update the requirements of the standard when needed, for example, to reflect emerging best practices or in response to incidents that have occurred.

  • Environment
  • Planning
  • Implementation &
  • Checking
  • Management
  • Environment Policy
  • Environmental
    strategy & policy
  • Code of Business Principles
  • Roles & responsibilities
  • Planning
  • Environmental
    management system
    standards & guidance
  • Environmental aspects
  • Site-level
    objectives & targets
  • Implementation & Operation
  • Lifecycle assessment
  • Training
  • Good environmental
    practice transfer
  • Total productive maintenance (TPM)
  • Checking
  • Supplier assurance
  • Auditing
  • Positive assurance
  • Management Review
  • Environmental
    performance reporting
  • Benchmarking
  • Review of performance
    data against targets


How our Framework Standard stacks up

How our Framework Standard stacks up

We believe ISO 14001 is a great mark of environmental compliance. However, the scale of our business means we need more flexibility.

By basing our Framework Standard on ISO 14001, we are ensuring the robustness of our system while tailoring requirements to our own operations. This approach also enables us to audit 100% of our production output, using a combination of third-party assessments and internal verification.

When developing our standard, we mapped all requirements to ISO 14001 one by one to ensure close alignment. Therefore, sites certified using our Standard should also be ISO 14001 compliant.

Our Policies

Unilever’s Environmental Policy

Our Environmental Policy (PDF | 168KB) outlines our individual and shared responsibilities to the environment and is implemented through the commitments within the environmental pillars of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (Greenhouse gases, Water use, Waste & packaging and Sustainable sourcing). Each organisation within Unilever must prepare and document an appropriate Environmental Policy, which is consistent with the Unilever Environmental Policy. Each policy must be authorised and signed by the most senior person within the organisation, with clear communication to employees on their individual and collective rights and responsibilities.

Internal and external auditing

Regular environmental audits support continuous improvement. All our manufacturing sites are audited regularly (at least every three years) to assess the robustness of their implementation of our Environmental Care Framework Standard. More than 25% of our sites are audited against this standard every year. In 2019, around 20% of them were also certified to the external ISO 14001 standard.

We also provide annual training to ensure all sites and their relevant Safety, Health and Environmental professionals are reminded about the Standard’s requirements and its alignment with ISO 14001.

In 2015, 50% of our manufacturing sites were covered by the Environmental Care Framework Standard, with the remaining ones being certified by ISO 14001. Fast-forward to 2019 and this had increased to 71%, reinforcing the confidence we have in our Standard. In total, 92% of our manufacturing sites were covered by either our Care Framework Standard or ISO 14001 in 2019. The remaining 8% had audits managed locally.

Audits are conducted either by a third-party auditor or by a trained employee who is independent of the site being audited. The process, similar to that used for ISO 14001 audits, sees auditors gathering evidence to demonstrate compliance against the standard through the collection of documentation or employee interviews. Where we have ISO 14001 certification, audits are completed annually by a relevant certifying body.

World Class Manufacturing (WCM)

Our WCM programme is aligned with the WCM philosophy, which seeks to integrate sustainability through continual improvement, and investment in efficient equipment and new technologies. This includes regular audits of environmental performance by internal experts.

Independent external auditors visit nine manufacturing sites as part of our annual environmental performance reporting assurance process. They review each site’s processes for collection, collation and validation of environmental and occupational safety data. See Unilever’s Basis of Preparation for 2019 (PDF | 429KB) for more information. For past Basis of Preparation documents prior to 2019, see our Reports and publications.

Tracking progress

We collect eco-efficiency data from both our manufacturing and non-manufacturing sites using a web-based reporting system. This includes key metrics on environmental performance and qualitative measures on environmental management. Detailed data on utility costs enables us to measure the financial benefits associated with eco-efficiency. Environmental and financial indicators related to eco-efficiency are included in routine management reports.

We’ve been monitoring and reporting the environmental performance of our operations for over 20 years, but we seek to continually improve our processes. For example, we have automated measurement, monitoring and targeting systems at many of our manufacturing sites which enable us to track performance and identify opportunities to improve eco-efficiency using real-time data. By the end of 2019, over 80% of our production volume was covered by these systems, with more than 114,000 data reading points across our manufacturing network.

Scope of our data

Our eco-efficiency data covers all our sites globally – in 2019, that was 261 manufacturing sites and 81 non-manufacturing sites. It excludes data from third-party companies that manufacture or pack our products.

The annual reporting period for these metrics is 1 October – 30 September. Data for years prior to 2013 was calculated based on the calendar year (1 January – 31 December).

For full descriptions on how we calculate our eco-efficiency metrics, please see Independent assurance & our metrics for our most recent Basis of Preparation (PDF | 429KB) document.

For performance data, please see our Sustainability performance data.

Saving on costs

Eco-efficiency is not just about reducing our environmental footprint. It makes good business sense. The USLP delivers significant savings to our business through cost avoidance.

We collect information on costs, such as energy and water use from all manufacturing sites, through our environmental performance reporting system. This enables us to measure the financial benefits of our eco-efficiency programme.

Since 2008, we have avoided costs of:

  • over €122 million by improving water efficiency across our factories
  • over €733 million by improving energy efficiency across our factories
  • around €223 million by using less material and producing less waste (over €206 million in materials costs and almost €17 million in waste disposal costs).

* The word ‘organisation’ means all Unilever/Regional/Sub Regional Corporate Head Offices, Operating Company Head Offices, Marketing & Sales Organisations, Sourcing Units, Plantations, Research Development Centres, Warehouses and Distribution Centres. The word ‘organisation’ as used within the Unilever SHE Frameworks Standards does not apply to non-Unilever operations eg third-party makers/co-packers. A Unilever Specific SHE Standard which relates to third-party operations has been published separately.