Life cycle assessments

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 ambitions to improve the health of the planet.

World packaging plant scene

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.

Case study: use of recycled plastic for bottles

Dove packshots

In line with Unilever’s commitments on plastics and Dove’s care for the planet and plastic mission the SEAC team assessed the potential savings of using 100% recycled plastic in a new design of bottles. The analysis revealed that the new design of bottles is expected to save more than 20,500 tonnes of virgin plastic a year and reduce greenhouse gases by up to 40% compared to existing packs.

Case study: nitrogen deodorant aerosol

Dove Ginger

SEAC sustainability scientists provided a detailed comparative assessment of Dove deodorant aerosols containing naturally derived ingredients and nitrogen propellants against the current aerosols using hydrocarbon gases. Product redesigns of this type result in changes across the range of environmental impact categories assessed using the LCA method. In the case of the new Dove deodorant aerosol, changing the propellant to nitrogen and updating the formulation led to a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds (respectively responsible for approximately 30% and 80% of ground level ozone creation).

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 across the value chain, including with suppliers and retail, as well to improve our understanding of the variation in consumer behaviour when using our products.

This includes publications on the carbon footprint of field grown tomatoes and palm oil production in Indonesia; assessment of the variability of consumer behaviour for laundry washing in Europe and showering in four different countries (Australia, Switzerland, the UK and the US); as well as a study on the impacts of e-commerce and different shopping behaviours in the UK.

We have also worked with the European surfactant industry to update the Life Cycle Inventories of the key surfactants (foaming agents) 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 World Food Life Cycle Database initiative.

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 papers on new impact assessment methods for LCA within the areas of land use, biodiversity and water-related impacts, and on the challenges of applying a planetary boundary-based approach.

Our scientists also support development of the science and capability for life cycle thinking. We sponsor programmes such as the UNEP Life Cycle Initiative and have participated in one of the EU Product Environmental Footprinting pilots on liquid laundry detergent. We collaborate with a range of academic partners on topics such as the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) based data in impact assessment, particularly for carbon stock, biodiversity and ecosystem services assessment and the development of absolute sustainability assessment based on the Planetary Boundary concept.

For more related publications please visit our sustainability sciences website.