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Putting laundry and cleaning products on net zero emissions pathway


At Climate Week NYC, the University of Oxford, in partnership with Unilever, has launched a new report identifying the policy interventions needed to address the carbon emissions of everyday cleaning, laundry and home care products.

View of the inside of the drum of a washing machine showing a pile of brightly coloured clothes.

When a laundry or dishwashing product is used, the detergent that goes into the drain breaks down and greenhouse gas emissions are released into the atmosphere.

The only way to eliminate these emissions is to make the product’s ingredients from renewable sources, rather than from fossil fuels.

While this is technically feasible and provides the same performance for consumers, it is still an emerging industry. So the supply of more sustainable ingredients needs to increase and costs need to come down before it can become adopted at scale.

The sector-wide shifts that are required are outlined in a new report by the University of Oxford, in partnership with Unilever, called Cleaning up Cleaning: Policy and stakeholder interventions to put household formulations on a pathway to net zero (PDF 2.57 MB) (Opens in a pop-up window ).

The report – which launches today at a roundtable meeting during Climate Week NYC – identifies opportunities to address the emissions released after use, focusing on the fossil-based carbon found in everyday cleaning products such as laundry powder and liquid, hand and machine dishwashing detergent and bars.

In these products, the carbon used to make the ingredients known as surfactants – which make up to 80% of the carbon present – is largely derived from the petrochemical industry.

If this sector is to move to net zero, these will need to be replaced by sustainable carbon from renewable or recycled sources.

But this transition is unlikely to occur at the pace required to address climate change in a manner aligned with keeping global temperatures to 1.5 degrees unless there is government policy intervention. This is because bio-based chemicals are currently more expensive than their fossil-based counterparts and there is little incentive for any single company to voluntarily switch, as this would put it at a competitive disadvantage.

As such, the main recommendation of the report is for policymakers to work with stakeholders from across industry, civil society, the financial community, researchers and consumers to create national strategies to increase the use of sustainable carbon as feedstock (raw material used for processing or manufacturing) for these products.

Overall, nearly 60% of our greenhouse gas emissions within the scope of Unilever’s net zero target come from the raw materials and ingredients we buy, and finding alternatives to fossil-fuel-based chemicals is going to be our biggest challenge in reaching net zero by 2039.

To achieve this, we’re working with supplier partners to radically reduce the GHG impact of our scope 3 emissions. The latest example of this is our India business collaborating with leading chemical companies TFL and OCI to pilot the production of near-zero emissions synthetic soda ash – a key ingredient in laundry powder.

As Rebecca Marmot, Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer, says: “We are fully committed to achieving net zero, which means we need to continue to address our scope 3 emissions. But in order to do this, we need our supply chain to accelerate its shift to ingredients with renewable feedstocks.

We are fully committed to achieving net zero, which means we need to continue to address our scope 3 emissions.

Rebecca Marmot, Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer.

“Addressing scope 3, or supply-chain GHG emissions, is a challenge the entire industry is facing. But by working together, we can accelerate progress and find solutions that benefit consumers and industry, yet still deliver the GHG emission reduction that is needed.”

Since the ingredients we use are responsible for the biggest share of greenhouse gas emissions across the lifecycle of our home care brands, this shift is at the heart of our Clean Future strategy. Here are just a few other ways we’re already working with partners to develop alternatives.

  1. Building a clean green foam-production machine

    We have been working with world-leading chemical specialists Evonik for several years now, looking to develop the use of rhamnolipids – a high-performance biosurfactant made using sugar as its main raw material. The biosurfactant has great potential to help reduce the cleaning industry’s carbon impact as it’s fully biodegradable with a low-impact life-cycle.

    When we started using this revolutionary sustainable foaming agent in our Quix hand dishwash liquid in 2019, it was a world first. Now, working in partnership with Evonik, we are taking this pioneering green ingredient global.

    Factory floor at chemical specialists Evonik showing equipment for producing rhamnolipids – a biosurfactant made using sugar.
  2. Scaling plant-based alternatives to feedstocks like palm oil

    Alongside Genomatica, a leader in biotech and sustainability, last year we launched a venture to scale and commercialise alternatives to palm oil and fossil fuel-derived cleansing ingredients. With growing demand for sustainably-sourced palm oil, this venture aims to deliver additional responsibly sourced palm oil alternatives to the market at a competitive cost.

    The innovation is particularly relevant to cleaning and personal care products that require ingredients to lather and lift dirt. But at present, there are few viable and affordable alternatives to palm and fossil sources that can be produced at scale in order to make those ingredients.

    Scientist in lab at Genomatica. Unilever is partnering Genomatica to scale alternatives to fossil fuel-derived ingredients.
  3. Creating a plant-based hand dishwash that’s three times more renewable

    In 2021, we launched a hand dishwash product made with an alternative to fossil-fuel derived surfactants that’s not only made using renewable ingredients but also offers the same – if not better – cleaning performance. The formulation is three times more renewable and 99% biodegradable, using 100% plant-derived ingredients.

    The launch of this new formulation marked another significant step forward in our Clean Future journey as it provided us with the base into which we can incorporate future technologies such as rhamnolipids.

    Bottle of Lux hand dishwashing liquid. The formulation is 99% biodegradable and uses 100% plant-derived ingredients.

Read the full report here (PDF 2.57 MB).

The report was led by Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, and developed in a partnership between the Oxford Department of Chemistry and Unilever.

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