Multinationals are facing major environmental challenges, due to the carbon dioxide they emit themselves and due to the impact they have throughout the entire manufacturing chain. According to Sophie Souied, CEO of Unilever Belux, companies that fail to deliver on sustainability are doomed to disappear.
Unilever's most important resource is palm oil: the substance is in almost every snack and household product the company sells, from chocolate to shampoo. However, palm oil is very controversial because palm plantations are one of the main causes of deforestation, particularly in Southeast Asia.
After Greenpeace pointed out that the origins of a lot of palm oil are rather shady, Unilever switched to physical certificates that clarify where the oil comes from. "In 2018, 66 % of our palm oil was certified. By the end of this year, we want to make that 100 %," says Souied. "I do not deny there is a challenge, but we can make progress quickly. Ever since that report, Wilmar – the world's biggest palm oil producer – has also made some changes, causing Greenpeace to cease its campaign against the company."
A second major challenge for Unilever is plastic: the multinational needs thousands of tons to package all of its products. "We are making an effort along three lines: less plastic, better plastic and no more plastic". Besides research to use less plastic in packaging, the company also tries to recycle as much as possible, for example in collaboration with Ioniqa, which has developed a technique to completely recycle PET. Unilever is also looking for alternatives to plastic, such as toothbrushes made of bamboo or detergents without plastic packaging.
Due to the growing world population and increasing consumption in developing nations, demand for plastic is said to quadruple by 2050. For Souied, there is only one real solution, which is a circular model. We're still a long way from that at the moment: currently, only 5% of all plastic worldwide is being recycled.
The company has managed to half the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by its factories in the last ten years, but across the whole chain, emission did increase by 9 %. "By next year, we want to be operating entirely on renewable energy and by 2030, we want to be completely carbon neutral. We will achieve that. The goal is even to generate more renewable energy than we need. In Ben & Jerry's factory in the Netherlands, residual power is already turned into renewable energy and heat. Energy measures have helped us to save 500 million euros since 2018," says Souied.
The CEO also says Unilever will not fight an environmental tax, should the next government come out with one. "We believe in the leveraging power of an elevated carbon price. A carbon dioxide tax is the best way to confront polluters with their responsibility", she says.
Souied further emphasises the responsibility of major companies such as Unilever to put things in motion: she believes these companies have no other option but to choose a sustainable model and they will have to adapt to keep existing. "Only responsible companies have a future. Our employees, consumers ans shareholders will be holding us accountable. Younger employees no longer want to work for a company that does not take these values seriously."