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Unilever Vows to ‘Zero Out’ Emissions by 2039, Put Climate Labels on 70,000 Products

Consumer goods giant Unilever NV has vowed to “zero out” its operating emissions—and those of its suppliers—by 2039, and to keep itself accountable by labelling emissions information on each of its 70,000 products. 

Together with a promise to invest US$1.1 billion in climate-friendly projects over the next 10 years, the announcement vaults the “maker of Dove skin care, Colman’s mustard, and Q-tips cotton swabs” far ahead of all other corporate efforts to tackle carbon emissions, reports Bloomberg Green.

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The move comes from a company that already lists highly in rankings of “climate-friendly corporate governance and prioritizing emissions reduction in its supply chain,” Bloomberg adds, placing well ahead of direct competitors like Kraft Heinz Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. 

Notable in Unilever’s newest climate efforts is its stated refusal to simply default to carbon offsets as a way to achieve its goals on paper. “While in theory these offsets balance out emissions by funding activities such as tree planting, landscape restoration, and regenerative farming—all of which can suck carbon out of the air and put it back in the ground—in practice serious questions remain about the carbon accounting used by many companies offering offsets,” Bloomberg notes.

“We could announce that we are carbon neutral today by just spending money on offsets,” said Marc Engel, Unilever’s global head of supply chain. But the company emits roughly 100 million tonnes of CO2 annually through the full life cycle of its products, from production to consumption. Unilever intends to cut those operating emissions to zero, removing some three megatonnes and working with its suppliers and shippers to trim a further 30 Mt on their end.

That still leaves the 65 million-plus tonnes of emissions generated when Unilever products are used: “Whenever someone boils water, say, for a cup of Lipton tea,” writes Bloomberg. The consumer giant hopes to cut those emissions in half by 2030 through a mix of public policy changes (such as greening the grid), and innovations like detergents that work in room temperature water.

Also announced in Unilever’s latest climate plan is a commitment “to go ‘deforestation-free’ throughout the supply chains for the five raw ingredients most associated with tree loss: palm oil, soybeans, tea, paper, and cocoa,” writes Bloomberg. The company plans to replace third-party certification of sustainable forest practices with a verification process based on blockchain technology and satellite imagery. Although, citing a Greenpeace UK news release, Bloomberg notes that the company is still learning to walk the talk on forest protection: “In 2010, Unilever committed to end deforestation for commodities by 2020. It failed and has now kicked the can even further down the road to 2023,” the release said.

The plan to carbon label all of its products—a move that Engel said is driven by consumer demand—will likely be the company’s “most challenging task,” writes Bloomberg. At present, “there are no standards or third-party verification available, which means consumers will have to take the company’s word for it.”

Unilever’s hope, said Engel, is that its “competitors will follow suit, and that soon there will be an independent standard for carbon labelling, just as there is for nutritional labels on foodstuffs.”