Removing the stain of climate change from washing products

There’s a train coming and we’re all on the tracks. We know it’s coming, everybody’s talking about the train and how much it’s going to hurt when it arrives. But no one’s actually doing anything to stop it, or even slow it down.

That’s how facing down climate change can often feel.

Governments convene, agree there’s a problem and that it’s increasingly urgent – and then, most of the time, shy away from the short-term economic and political costs of acting.

But what if someone did take a big, bold stride off the track we’re all on?

That’s how Unilever sees its new Clean Future project.

The global food and home products giant (2019 revenue: 50 billion Euros) has undertaken to eliminate fossil-derived carbon from all of its cleaning products by 2030.

The story Unilever wants to write into its next decade actually began a decade ago in 2010, when it launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

That was an undertaking to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals by taking action on health and wellbeing (including by sponsoring handwashing and oral health programmes), enhancing livelihoods (introducing new employment practices and creating more opportunities for women) – and halving the company’s environmental impact.

Clean Future is easily the largest stride so far towards that third commitment.

The role of carbon in cleaning products is bigger than you might think.

Stain removers in laundry products, for example, have long been petrochemical derived.

Like many homecare manufacturers around the world, the ingredients in Unilever’s cleaning products account for a significant proportion of its carbon footprint – 40%, in fact.

And yet those ingredients are currently key to the products’ effectiveness.

No one wants cleaning products that don’t clean.

The solution, as Unilever’s president of home care products Peter ter Kulve put it recently, is to “stop pumping carbon from under the ground when there is ample carbon on and above the ground if we can learn to utilise it at scale.”

It’s a significant shift for an industry that needs to clean up its act.

At the centre of the Clean Future initiative is the “Carbon Rainbow”, a schematic designed to guide the company’s move away from non-renewable fossil sources of carbon (black carbon) towards carbon from plant and biological sources (green carbon), marine sources such as algae (blue), captured Co2 (purple) and carbon recovered from waste materials (grey).

The science for making some of those substitutions at scale doesn’t exist yet, which is why Unilever has put up a NZD$1.77 billion research fund to make it work. Continue reading

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