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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Unilever, Geno Launch $120M Venture to Scale Alternative to Palm Oil-, Fossil Fuel-Based Cleansers

The partnership aims to commercialize and scale more sustainable alternatives to palm oil and fossil-fuel-derived cleansing ingredients — the current industry standard in everyday cleaning and personal care products.

Today, Unilever and Geno (fka Genomatica) — a leader in sustainable biotech solutions — launched a venture to scale and commercialize alternatives to palm oil and fossil-fuel-derived cleansing ingredients. These ubiquitous ingredients are integral to the formulations of thousands of everyday cleaning and personal care products. With growing demand for sustainably sourced palm oil, this venture aims to deliver additional responsibly sourced palm oil alternatives to the market.

With $120 million jointly invested in the initiative and other strategic investors expected to join, the venture will develop a plant-based palm oil alternative. This is particularly relevant to cleaning and personal care products that require ingredients to lather and lift dirt. But at present, there are few viable alternatives to environmentally and socially destructive palm and fossil-fuel-derived ingredients that can be produced at scale in order to make those ingredients. As such, the venture offers the opportunity to tap into the combined $625 billion home and personal care markets. For Unilever, one of the world’s biggest soap and detergent manufacturers, this is the largest investment in biotechnology alternatives to palm oil to date.

“Biotechnology has the potential to revolutionize the sourcing of our cleansing ingredients and ensure Unilever is a future-fit business — for consumers, shareholders and the planet we all share,” said Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer Richard Slater. “This new venture will sit at the intersection of science and sustainability, meaning we can continue to grow our business without relying only on palm oil or fossil fuel derivatives, and at the same time make our supply chains more resilient through having access to ingredient alternatives. We will be marrying science and nature to make sure there is no tradeoff for our consumers between the efficacy and sustainability of their products. We are building this innovative new venture to have the scale to drive real impact and change in our industry, reinventing the chemistry of home and personal care products for the 21st century.”

Geno’s biotechnology converts plant-based raw materials into chemical building blocks that are key components of widely used materials; it has partnered with companies over the years to deliver plant-based alternative feedstocks for a number of industries — recent collaborations with lululemon and Aquafil are working to scale bio-based nylon textiles. For the project with Unilever, Geno is already starting to scale the process for its advanced technology to produce the ingredients. Beyond creating a newly transparent supply chain, initial estimates have shown that companies could reduce the carbon footprint of palm-derived ingredients by up to 50 percent with this technology-driven, plant-based alternative.

“Geno’s collaboration with Unilever builds upon its strong track record of partnering with market leaders who are committed to accelerating the commercialization of sustainable materials in their industries — from clothing to now cleaning ingredients,” says Geno CEO Christophe Schilling. “We’ve proven that biotechnology can replace traditional production methods to produce ingredients with bio-based sources that deliver both high-performance and sustainability, at scale.

“Our technology enables pathways for alternative sourcing of materials whose supply chains often have limited social and environmental transparency, by offering more resilient supply chains that are transparent, traceable and responsibly sourced — as demanded by consumers. Beyond creating new transparent and responsibly sourced-supply chains and alternatively sourced materials, our Geno technology also represents the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100 million tons in upcoming years.”

Meanwhile, Unilever has been partnering with biotech innovators to develop sustainable alternatives to palm oil for years: In 2013, it teamed up with TerraVia (fka Solazyme) to develop Solazyme Tailored™ Algal Oil, which replaced palm oil in a number of Unilever products — including its best-selling Lux (Caress) soap. While palm oil will remain an important feedstock to Unilever, these alternative ingredients play a growing role in diversifying supply chains to drive optionality, sustainability, transparency and cost management.