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Waste Not
With New Absolute-Reduction Strategy, Unilever 'Gets Drastic on Plastic’

By 2025, the CPG giant says it will eliminate more than 100K tonnes of plastic packaging, and collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells. This makes Unilever the first global CPG company to commit to an absolute plastics reduction across its portfolio.

Today, consumer packaged goods giant Unilever — owner of brands including Ben & Jerry's, Dove, Knorr, Lipton, Love Beauty and Planet, Omo and Seventh Generation, to name a few — has announced possibly the industry’s most ambitious commitments to reduce plastic waste and help create a circular economy for plastics.

Unilever has confirmed that by 2025, it will:

  • Halve its use of virgin plastic, by reducing its absolute use of plastic packaging by more than 100,000 tonnes and accelerating its use of recycled plastic.

  • Help collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells.

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This commitment makes Unilever the first major global consumer goods company to commit to an absolute plastics reduction across its portfolio.

Unilever is already on track to achieve its existing commitments to ensure all of its plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025; and to use at least 25 percent recycled plastic in its packaging, also by 2025.

"Plastic has its place, but that place is not in the environment. We can only eliminate plastic waste by acting fast and taking radical action at all points in the plastic cycle,” Unilever CEO Alan Jope said in a statement. "Our starting point has to be design, reducing the amount of plastic we use, and then making sure that what we do use increasingly comes from recycled sources. We are also committed to ensuring all our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable. This demands a fundamental rethink in our approach to our packaging and products. It requires us to introduce new and innovative packaging materials and scale up new business models, like re-use and re-fill formats, at an unprecedented speed and intensity."

Unilever's commitment will require the business to help collect and process around 600,000 tonnes of plastic annually by 2025. This will be delivered through investment and partnerships which improve waste management infrastructure in many of the countries in which Unilever operates.

As Becky Willan, Managing Director of brand purpose agency Given London, told Sustainable Brands: “[Unilever’s commitment] is important for three reasons: One, it is a CEO-level announcement. Alan Jope recognises this commitment as part of a broader business strategy focused on sustainability. Unilever has built a compelling positioning around sustainability over the last ten years under Paul Polman; and this is clearly a continuation of that strategy, demonstrating Jope’s own commitment.

“Secondly, it is a business announcement. This is about targeting and positioning Unilever brands for the future, connecting with new audiences. It is about commercial performance, not saving the world. Finally, it is about partnership and collaboration. This is an exciting move by Unilever and should lead to more comprehensive initiatives that are about changing entire systems, rather than simply tweaking products.”

Jope added: "Our vision is a world in which everyone works together to ensure that plastic stays in the economy and out of the environment. Our plastic is our responsibility; and so we are committed to collecting back more than we sell, as part of our drive towards a circular economy. This is a daunting but exciting task, which will help drive global demand for recycled plastic."

Today, the company has committed to:

1) Reduce its virgin plastic packaging by 50 percent by 2025, with one-third (more than 100,000 tonnes) coming from an absolute plastic reduction.

More than 100,000 tonnes will come from an absolute reduction as the business invests in multiple-use packs (reusable and/or refillable), 'no plastic' solutions (alternative packaging materials or naked products) and reduces the amount of plastic in existing packs (concentration). Replacing non-recycled plastic packaging with recycled plastics will account for the remaining reduction. Unilever will measure the total tonnes of virgin plastic packaging used each year vs the total tonnes of virgin plastic packaging used in 2018; as a result, Unilever is committing to have a virgin plastic packaging footprint of no more than 350,000 tonnes by 2025.

2) Help collect and process more plastic packaging than it sells by 2025.

Unilever's commitment will require the business to help collect and process roughly 600,000 tonnes of plastic annually by 2025. This is less than its current 700,000 tonnes plastic packaging footprint, because it reflects the 100,000 tonnes absolute reduction it has committed to today. Unilever will achieve this by:

  1. Investing and partnering to improve waste-management infrastructure 

  2. Using recycled plastics in its packaging 

  3. Participating in extended producer responsibility schemes where Unilever directly pays for the collection of its packaging

Unilever will measure the total tonnes of plastic packaging it has helped collect and process in a year vs how much plastic packaging it has used.

Ellen MacArthur, founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said: "Today's announcement by Unilever is a significant step in creating a circular economy for plastic. By eliminating unnecessary packaging through innovations such as refill, reuse and concentrates, while increasing their use of recycled plastic, Unilever is demonstrating how businesses can move away from virgin plastics. We urge others to follow their lead, so collectively we can eliminate the plastic we don't need, so what we do need is circulated, and ultimately build an economic system where plastic packaging never becomes waste."

Since 2017, Unilever has been transforming its approach to plastic packaging through its 'Less, Better, No' plastic framework.

Image credit: Unilever/YouTube

  • Through Less Plastic, Unilever has explored new ways of packaging and delivering products — including concentrates, such as its new Cif Eco-refill, which eliminates 75 percent of plastic in its South American markets; and new refill stations for shampoo and laundry detergent rolled out across shops, universities and mobile vending in South East Asia.

  • Better plastic has led to pioneering innovations such as the new detectable pigment being used by Axe (Lynx) and TRESemmé, which makes black plastic recyclable, as it can now be seen and sorted by recycling plant scanners; and the Lipton 'festival bottle,' which is made of 100 percent recycled plastic and is collected using a deposit scheme.

    Seventh Generation's new packaging for the Loop platform | Image credit: Unilever

  • As part of No plastic, Unilever has brought to market innovations including shampoo bars, refillable toothpaste tablets, cardboard deodorant sticks and bamboo toothbrushes. It has also signed up to the Loop platform, which is exploring new ways of delivering and collecting reusable products from consumers' homes.

Of course, a company’s strategy could epitomize sustainability, but the effort can ultimately fail without the buy-in and participation of all of its external stakeholders, as well.

As Jope points out in the video: “We also need you — our consumers, our suppliers, our retailers, our employees and many others — to join us on this journey, because there are things that you can do to make a real difference. So, please help us to close the loop on plastic; and let’s make our blue planet blue again.”

According to Carmen Bryan, Consumer Analyst at GlobalData, Unilever’s move should resonate with a majority of Millennial and Gen Z consumers — who, together, comprise a massive segment of conscientious consumers interested in supporting brands that authentically aim to make change for the better.

“Unilever’s decision to cut its plastic production may seem like a contrived attempt to connect with a younger generation. However, it is a necessary move for a brand trying to maintain its relevance and reputation,” Bryan says. “According to GlobalData’s Q4 2018 consumer survey, 55 percent of millennials and 45 percent of Gen Z worldwide are always or often influenced by how environmentally friendly a product is — the strongest response across all age groups. It is clear that ethical and sustainable practices in the supply chain will continue to grow in importance, particularly as the youths that champion these issues enter the workforce and become the next generation of business leaders.”