Unilever sets goals to reduce its plastic use and support a 'waste-free world'

Unilever logotype on office building with illustrated plastic waste
ShutterstockKonektus Photo/studiostoks
Unilever logotype on office building with illustrated plastic waste.

The "war on plastic" has opened up a major new front, with Unilever announcing Monday it intends to halve its use of virgin plastic and collect and process more used plastic packaging than it sells by 2025.

The consumer goods giant confirmed the new targets Monday as part of a wide-ranging new plan to support the development of a "waste-free world." The company said that it intends to reduce its absolute use of plastic packaging by more than 100,000 tonnes and rapidly expand its use of recycled plastics so as to ensure it halves its use of virgin plastic.

This commitment makes Unilever the first major global consumer goods company to commit to an absolute plastics reduction across its portfolio. As such, the move will provide further credence to warnings that oil majors relying on the plastics industry to deliver continued growth as electric vehicles eat into demand for fossil fuels could find their projections are too bullish. 

Unilever said the new goals build on existing packaging targets that it is already on track to meet, including its pledges to make all its plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and that it uses at least 25 percent recycled plastic in its packaging by the same date.

"Plastic has its place, but that place is not in the environment," said Alan Jope, Unilever CEO, in a statement. "We can only eliminate plastic waste by acting fast and taking radical action at all points in the plastic cycle. 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."

He acknowledged that meeting the goals would require "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," he added, in a nod to the company's involvement in the recently launched Loop packaging re-use service.

The new targets also include a pledge to collect and process around 600,000 tonnes of plastic annually by 2025, which will be delivered through investment and partnerships that improve waste management infrastructure, primarily in countries that currently lack widespread recycling services.

"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," Jope said. "This is a daunting but exciting task which will help drive global demand for recycled plastic."

The new strategy was welcomed by environmental campaigner Ellen MacArthur, who hailed it as 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," she said. "We urge others to follow their lead, so collectively we can eliminate the plastic we don't need, innovate, so what we do need is circulated, and ultimately build an economic system where plastic packaging never becomes waste."

The announcement came as Barclays Corporate Banking published a new report detailing how consumer demand for sustainable products is growing, but many are still reluctant to pay a premium for green services such as delivery, re-use and collection business models.

The survey of over 2,000 consumers and 500 business execs found that most want to see greener delivery services, but 62 percent said they would not pay any more for greener deliveries.

However, when differentiating between retailers, consumers were more likely to choose businesses that offered "green" options such as sustainable packaging and doorstep recycling schemes, where drivers take away unwanted boxes, Barclays said.

The survey also revealed that nine out of 10 retailers are planning to invest in greener delivery services, such as electric fleets and circular resource services. 

"British shoppers are increasingly influenced by brands' sustainability credentials," said Karen Johnson, head of retail and wholesale at Barclays. "Retailers have to recognize that it's not a choice — they must be able to demonstrate that sustainability is top of their agenda if they are to retain and attract new customers, whether that's through greener delivery options, packaging or wider supply chain improvements.

"The elephant in the room is who is expected to fund these sustainability efforts, with our research showing that consumers are largely unwilling to foot the bill. Hard pressed retailers don't have a lot of wiggle room at the moment, so it's not easy for them to take the hit either. Despite this challenge, it's good to see that the vast majority of retailers are committed to devoting more resources to green activity and it's crucial that they safeguard this spending even when funds for investment are limited."

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