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Companies like Unilever own the climate fight. Here's why

Companies like Unilever own the climate fight. Here's why

If you find yourself saying, WTF everytime you hear Unilever in the same sentence as something like 'improving the health of the planet', you aren't alone

If there was ever a pin up brand for climate impact contradiction, surely it's Unilever. On one hand their packaging and products pollute every orifice of the planet and on the other hand, they are increasingly taking a lead position in climate collaboration. They share, they are very vocal, they are taking action and are genuinely among the biggest environmental impact players on the planet.

Bring a thief to catch a thief

Unilever, and others like it are a cornerstone of the way we now all live, and have to make sense of our futures. Especially if we plan to have a livable future on this planet. 

If you doubt this point for a minute, substitute Unilever for Donald Trump and see how that works for you. Even as Unilever's overarching motivation in becoming climate evangelists is sales driven, it's important to recognise that motivation is driven by broad based consumers so is not only a good thing, but it won't shift come election time. Or be influenced by a few special interest groups with deep pockets. The facts of the matter are that business has both a different capacity to enact change and a real capability. And business also needs to be consistent. (A person could keep going with c words, but you get the picture.)

It's important to think of Unilever as the octopus it is. It's not just the main body that drives broad change - good and bad, but the very long tentacles and suckers that influence everything it touches. While it might do your head in that there is never any admission of responsibility for the current state of both the planet and the health of its inhabitants, it's undeniable that Unilever have been chipping away at the green agenda for years, in many forms.

Why we need to be more aware of supply chain complexity

Products arrive on shelves somehow and are made of materials from many sources. Even a simple banana can't turn up alone and isn't just made of banana. It arrives in a box of some kind, it grew somewhere - the place from which it travelled; it is often sprayed with some kind of herbicide, insecticide and maybe fertilized; it was probably gassed for ripening control, farmers tended the fields with machinery; it was housed in various warehouses and refrigeration and so on. Every point in that little banana's life has a supply chain impact.

Unilever has set very specific GHG targets and they will impact global supply chains

Unilever have announced that they have zero carbon emissions from their own operations, and to halve the GHG footprint of their supply chain by 2030. They have committed to net zero emissions across the entire chain for all products by 2039. To achieve this goal 11 years ahead of the 2050 Paris Agreement deadline, they have to work collaboratively with the supply chain to collectively drive lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions. To this end, they are prioritising partnerships with suppliers who have set and committed to their own science-based targets.

Carbon footprint transparency is an accelerator in the global race to zero emissions, and it is Unilever's ambition to communicate the carbon footprint of every product sold. As a citizen, this effectively gives you your own personal trade off choice. You might for instance choose one product with higher emissions because you prefer it and offset it literally with one that has lower emissions.

Unilever are going to require suppliers to declare, on each invoice, the carbon footprint of the goods and services provided. If you take the example of one single banana above, and then think of something like a Banana Bread packaged in shrink wrap plastic, you start to understand just how complicated this is.

Regeneration and deforestation

Once you start tracing supply chains globally, you inevitably end up at the source. Where things are grown. How the got to be grown and the impact on local communities in how they are grown. 

Unilever have set targets to have a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023. Technology now exists to make this easier – satellite monitoring, geolocation tracking and blockchain – accelerating smallholder inclusion and changing our approach to derivatives sourcing.

"WE WILL ALSO EMPOWER, AND WORK WITH, A NEW GENERATION OF FARMERS AND SMALLHOLDERS, DRIVING PROGRAMMES TO PROTECT AND RESTORE FORESTS, SOIL AND BIODIVERSITY; AND WE WILL WORK WITH GOVERNMENTS AND OTHER ORGANISATIONS TO IMPROVE ACCESS TO WATER FOR COMMUNITIES IN WATER-STRESSED AREAS."

Open source regenerative agriculture code

Unilever is also introducing a pioneering Regenerative Agriculture Code for all suppliers. The new code will include details on farming practices that help rebuild critical resources. Unilever will make the Regenerative Agriculture Code available to any organisation that may find it useful – with the goal of driving change throughout the industry.

Interested in getting a better personal understanding of the carbon footprint of stuff?

In an article about the GHG generation of Australia's electricity, we referred to a book called How Bad are Bananas that was written about 10 years ago - way ahead of its time - and for my money, it's still the best book to get an understanding of the carbon cost in the decisions we make every day. 

Greenhouse gas counting and Ekko Score

The one criticism we have of only counting carbon as an assessment tool of any product is that while it is a great overall tool, it doesn't inform citizen on the product makeup and it's this point that really drives consumer choices.

We developed Ekko Score because citizens need to be able to make more informed choices about the products they choose to buy. Because it’s impossible to create a product without having an impact on the environment (GHG cost) and because everyone has different values, Ekko Score focuses on transparency and scores it. 

In the end, setting aside pollution, unhealthy foods, crazy body products, slavery in fashion and anything else we want to argue about, everything has a GHG price, even a banana, and it's the amount of GHGs - greenhouse gases that are the measure of climate change impact. Pretty much everything about our shared survival rolls up into how we get that number down. When you are someone like Unilever with millions of products across thousands of categories, you have a massive impact on global GHGs.

You are going to see a lot more conversations about emissions, carbon emissions, carbon dioxide equivalents and GHGs as carbon trading schemes, carbon accounting and offsetting increasingly become part of daily life.


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At the time of writing this article, we couldn't find the names of the other five in the initial cohort. Here they are: A.P. Moller - Maersk Mercedes-Benz AG Natura &Co Wipro Limited Danone who join Microsoft Starbucks Nike with Unilever to work with Environmental Defense Fund Thursday, 23 July 2020