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An analysis of Unilever’s plastic reduction commitments - game changer or myth?

Businesses are increasingly coming under fire for their contribution towards the plastic pollution crisis. The recent brand audit conducted in 51 countries by members of Break Free From Plastic reveals the top five plastic polluters, namely Coca Cola, Nestle, Pepsico, Mondelez International and Unilever. These companies are facing flak for their inefficient product design, excessive reliance on single-use plastic, and promotion of disposable products that has resulted in plastics clogging our landfills and oceans. In the face of negative media publicity and conscious consumerism, companies are being forced to rethink their unsustainable business practices. Businesses are pushing out voluntary pledges and initiatives in the form of phasing out single-use plastics, usage of more recycled plastic in packaging and more effective recycling systems. This is taking place at the individual business level as well as through initiatives like the New Plastics Economy global commitment by businesses worldwide

Unilever is one of the first major global fast-moving consumer goods companies to commit to an absolute plastics reduction across its portfolio.  Within India, Hindustan Unilever Limited sells a variety of products under well-known brands such as Dove, Axe, Pond’s, Vaseline, Wheel, Sunsilk, Domex, Surf Excel, Lakme, Pears, Brooke Bond, Kwality Walls and Clinic Plus. The company has a variety of sustainability initiatives including greenhouse gas emissions reduction, sustainable sourcing etc. This is not new for the company, which has claimed that environmental benefits are as important as growth concerns. While every step counts, it is imperative that companies do not escape accountability for their actions by greenwashing. Therefore, this article briefly explores the substantive content of the plastic reduction commitments made by Unilever in order to determine the efficacy of these claims. 

Unilever announced its plastic reduction targets through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan November 2010, and through announcements in January 2017, and more recently in October 2019. The table below summarises the substantive content of these targets and the progress (as stated by Unilever itself) in the achievement of these targets. 

    Table 1: Unilever’s plastic reduction targets and progress in achievement of the same. 

Attempting a quantitative analysis of the progress/success figures put out by Unilever in order to understand the dent it makes in the plastic pollution problem, is a significantly insurmountable task in the face of lack of data. While the commitments in themselves are laudatory, the methodology and data used to arrive at the progress statistics is at times unclear and vague.  

Unilever’s target to cut down on the waste associated with the disposal of its products by 50 percent by 2020

- Unilever claims that their waste footprint has gone down by 31% per consumer use in 2018 compared to 2010. Currently, the total amount of packaging waste produced by them is 729 kilotonnes for the year 2018 and per consumer use of packaging waste is 0.6 g. 

- These figures mentioned above are for overall reduction for all kinds of packaging waste, and are not limited to plastics alone. There is no data available to find out what the exact reductions have been for different kinds of packaging material. 

- The waste footprint calculator used by Unilever takes into account two kinds of waste. First, post-consumer use packaging material (glass, paper, plastics, multi-layered plastics, aluminium etc) that has not been recycled, reused or recovered. Secondly, leftover product in the packaging. The 31% reduction in waste per consumer use, does not give separate figures for the reduction from packaging material and leftover product respectively. Therefore, this non-disclosure could lead one to believe that the 31 percent reduction could have resulted from a decrease in leftover product waste and not by reducing plastic packaging. 

- Also, the data used by them is not inclusive of the total amount of packaging waste generated by them. It covers only a representative group of products from 12 sub-categories: beverage, deodorant, dressings, hair care, ice cream, fabric solutions, fabric sensations, oral care, savoury, skin care, and skin cleansing.  This covers only 1600 products whereas the total number of brands owned by Unilever is 400. Even if we make an assumption that each brand has only 10 products, the total number of Unilever products would come up to 4000. Based on this assumption, 1600 does not even cover half of the actual products. 

- The calculation has been done for packaging waste from 14 countries which represents 60-70 percent of the sales volume. However, the waste from the rest of the 30-40 percent of sales volume remains unaccounted for. 

- They have not specified the methodology used to assess the waste generated by them.  The assumption is that they have made this calculation based on the sales of the 1600 products covered and derived the amount of packaging waste from the respective number of 1600 products sold. 

- The data given by them is insufficient as  it does not cite the figures/methodology for arriving at the per consumer use of packaging waste. 

Unilever’s target to make all plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. 

- They have not yet come up with a metric to measure the progress for this target. Plans for the same are in the works. The only example they have given is that coloured PET bottles are not defined as recyclable, as globally coloured PET is unrecyclable. However, they plan to publish the entire list of plastic material they utilise in packaging by 2020 in an effort to be transparent and avoid the usage of problematic materials.

- While the metric for defining 'reusability and recyclability' is yet to be finalised,  it is imperative that the metric takes into account and clarifies what is to be defined as the lifecycle of reusability (for example does the target cover 10 uses, 100 uses or a lifetime of use?) There is a considerable difference between 10 uses and a lifetime of reuse, when it comes to having an impact on sustainability and waste reduction. 

- It is crucial that they also define what is covered within the ambit of recyclability; reliance by Unilever on false solutions such as incineration and chemical recycling only amplifies the problem. It takes attention away from the actual solution which is moving away from the single-use packaging business model. 

Unilever’s target to increase the content of recycled plastics in packaging to 25 %

- Beyond stating that around 4,845 tonnes of post-consumer recycled materials has been incorporated into rigid plastic packaging in 2018, this data does not state what is the current percentage of recycled plastic in their products.

- If we were to make that calculation based on this data (4845 tonnes of recycled plastic) and Unilever's total plastic packaging volume which is equal to 610,000 metric tonnes, the content of recycled plastics in packaging would be 0.79%. This number is woefully inadequate compared to the 25% target which is to be supposedly achieved by 2025.

In light of the above, it is hard to pass a reasonable judgement on the progress made by Unilever on achieving the plastic reduction targets as the methodology and data used in arriving at these results is unspecified and vague at best. This is often done purposely so as to enable the companies to hide the lack of effort on their part.  At the same time, the vagueness of this data enables them to put forward feel-good progress reports that earns them false credit. Further, even when being transparent about their progress, their reliance on the search for alternative materials, chemical recycling, incineration, etc., as ways to reduce plastic waste is worrisome. The need of the hour is a systemic shift away from the current model of single-use packaging. It can be aptly summed up in the words of Graham Forbes, Global Plastics Project Leader at Greenpeace, "We encourage Unilever to prioritize its efforts upstream by redesigning single-use plastic and packaging out of its business model."



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