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Using innovation to lower the footprint of our products

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Average read time: 8 minutes

Jon Hague, Head of Clean Future, Science and Technology for Home Care, explains how chemical innovation is reducing the carbon footprint of our cleaning products.

An illustration of two men and a woman in a research and development lab
Image of Jon Hague, Home Care’s Head of Clean Future, Science and Technology

Our Climate Transition Action Plan sets out the steps we will take to halve the greenhouse gas emissions impact of our products, per consumer, by 2030, and to achieve net zero across our value chain by 2039. 

In a series of interviews, Unilever is introducing some of the many people helping to deliver our action plan and making change happen. Jon Hague, Home Care’s Head of Clean Future, Science and Technology, explains how we are changing product formulations to lower emissions and provide more sustainable options for consumers.

How long have you been working at Unilever?

I’ve been at Unilever for 32 years and what drew me to the job was my love of science. I’ve worked across many areas of research and development, from deploying products into the market to global design jobs where we create and invent new mixes that go into the brands. At the moment. I’m bringing new science and technology into the Home Care business, creating better products while we transition to a clean future. That means creating superior products that are sustainable by design and affordable to the many.

What does your day-to-day job actually involve?

The lifeblood of research and development is data from our experimental work in laboratories and with partners. That data feeds the future specifications for the products that we make. My job is setting the direction for the research that we do. Shall we look into biosciences or biotechnology? What’s out there in the world of advanced materials research that we can bring into Unilever and harness for the benefit of our products and our consumers?

When you’re using a washing product, it obviously goes into the water. We’re working to have 100% biodegradable ingredients by 2030, so our products leave very little trace behind in the water courses. But as they biodegrade, they release carbon dioxide into the air.

There are three ways we can tackle that. We can work with suppliers to drive down a material’s initial carbon footprint. We can also use biodegradable, renewable carbon where possible – carbon from plants, which goes back into the plant lifecycle rather than releasing emissions. And the third way is using something we call ‘weight efficiency’ or eco-design.

What is weight efficiency?

When I buy any material, its footprint is related to how much I’ve bought. If I currently need a 50 gram dose of powder to clean a large load of clothes, within that powder there will be a lot of chemicals. Making the chemistry of a product work harder for you, so you only need 25 grams, is a really good way of reducing carbon footprint. We call this weight efficiency.

By making chemicals more weight effective, you basically reduce the amount of material you need. We’re ensuring that for every gram of carbon we use, we’re getting much more bang for our buck. It’s a really important strategy for us and it’s served us very well throughout the business.

If you look at the laundry liquids we sell across Europe now, we’ve halved the level of the cleaning ingredients, not because we want it to clean less, but because we found different cleaning ingredients that were much more weight effective and just as powerful.

A third of consumers buy from brands based on their social and environmental impact*

How are product concentrations and refills helping?

If you can concentrate products, then you can ship them in much smaller volumes of water. That means that the greenhouse gas impact associated with transportation comes down. But asking consumers to use highly concentrated liquids for their washing machine, for example, can be tricky, as very small doses are harder to measure.

The alternative is setting up a dilute-at-home system where people actually dilute the concentrate themselves into a larger pack, which we’ve tried in several markets. The biggest success with this has been laundry liquids in Latin America, where we’ve built 20% of the market in dilute-at-home-from-concentrate home care products.

Dilute-at-home also dramatically reduces the packaging that’s needed, because you’re using one primary pack and a much smaller refill to handle the concentrates, so the other big benefit of concentration is the ability to minimise plastic and plastic waste.

Persil/OMO

One of our latest innovations is our first dilute-at-home laundry detergent. It has a 6x concentrated formula designed to be poured into a standard 3 litre bottle. The packaging uses 70% less plastic than a 3 litre bottle, is fully recyclable and contains a minimum of 50% recycled plastic. First launched in Brazil, the innovation proved an instant hit with consumers. We’ve now rolled it out to other countries in Latin America, including Argentina, Chile and Ecuador – all while reducing plastic by 1,740 tons and distribution CO2 emissions by 83%.

A dilute-at-home bottle of Persil/OMO laundry detergent is poured into a larger refill bottle.

What innovations are you currently working on?

We’re working with one of our suppliers to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) and turn it into an ingredient called soda ash. It’s relatively straightforward chemistry, but when used in our laundry powders, it helps with cleaning and then it mineralises and goes to the bottom of the riverbeds and oceans. It forms carbonates that capture CO2 into the ground. It’s an exciting project where, through use of our products, carbon could be sequestered away from the atmosphere.

We also have a big programme for switching carbon that’s sourced from petrochemistry to carbon from renewable sources. We recently signed a deal with Geno to create alternatives to palm kernel oil using biotechnology. We’ve committed to having a deforestation-free supply chain by the end of 2023, so we need to find different sources to create our foaming agents and our next generation cleaning and care enzymes. That’s why we’re exploring carbon sources from across the whole ‘carbon rainbow’.

Image showing how each colour of carbon is derived and how, unlike virgin fossil fuel.

What is the carbon rainbow?

With fossil-based, or black carbon, once you’ve refined it and used it in a product, when those products biodegrade, it’s almost as though you’ve taken the crude oil and just burnt it. It’s no different – the biodegradation results in the release of that fossil carbon into the atmosphere. Unilever developed the concept of the carbon rainbow to identify alternative carbon sources we can use to replace non-renewable, fossil-based carbon.

With plant-based, or green carbon, things become circular. You grow a palm tree, it sucks in carbon dioxide, you harvest the palm, refine it and use it. When that CO2 is released at the end of the product’s life, it gets fed back into a plant-based system and becomes circular.

In a world not constrained by the size of palm plantations, you could switch all of your carbon to green carbon from palm trees. But that’s not reality – we have to protect nature. Unilever has been leading efforts to address deforestation, and we need to find alternatives to green carbon too.

Because of years of industrial use of black carbon, there are other sources of carbon already in the atmosphere that we can give a second life. Waste plastic can be harvested and converted into chemicals used for cleaning ingredients. We call that grey carbon.

Purple carbon is the concept of capturing CO2 from industrial emissions, or the atmosphere. Blue carbon is drawn from marine sources, like the highly active ingredients within seaweed. And then there’s something we call brown carbon, which is a blend of different carbon colours. It’s likely we will have to use a mix of sources to get to where we want to be, so the R&D team are exploring the creation of new sources of carbon at scale, across the whole rainbow.

Why is it important to diversify our carbon sources?

Integrating sustainability and business strategies isn’t just a moral objective anymore – it’s essential in order to future-proof your business. Soaring oil and gas prices have shown we can’t be so heavily reliant on the use of virgin fossil chemicals. We must start using non-fossil carbon feedstocks and create agile supply chains of the future if we want our business to survive.

We’ve piloted in OMO laundry liquid capsules in China, Sunlight dishwashing liquid in South Africa and Coral laundry liquid in Germany. It’s just one example of how we’re reinventing the chemistry of our Home Care products to create growth opportunities for our brands while cutting the use of fossil fuels.

Why can’t we just eradicate carbon from our products completely?

Carbon chemistry is the chemistry of this planet. It’s the chemistry of life. You’re made of carbon. I’m made of carbon. Fossil fuels got their name because they are created from the decomposed bodies of trees or marine animals. There is no other option than to use carbon because you can’t assemble useful ingredients any other way than to make them out of stitching together the carbon chain.

What would you say is the most exciting climate breakthrough you’ve seen in R&D?

Weight-efficient chemistry has been some of the best thinking and the best science that we’ve done and has also had one of the biggest impacts. There’s now half the volume of cleaning ingredients in some of our liquid products, yet they still offer a superior performance and they have made a massive dent in the carbon footprint of the product. It’s a really successful approach and it took some very clever science to unlock the magic ingredients that enabled us to take all the bulk chemicals out.

Do you feel hopeful for the future?

Yes, I do. I think in all parts of the world people are starting to look up and take notice. Business can lead the way, do the right things and genuinely act to be part of the societies that are helping take the planet in the right direction. Science is not only being applied in the service of millions of people around the world, it also has the ability to make a difference to climate change. Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time and I feel privileged to have a hand in doing something about it.

*Report shows a third of consumers prefer sustainable brands | Unilever

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