• Unilever's revised sustainability strategy sees it scale back its plastic reduction targets to a "realistic" level.
    Unilever's revised sustainability strategy sees it scale back its plastic reduction targets to a "realistic" level.

Under pressure from shareholders to cut costs, Unilever has released a revised sustainability strategy that CEO Hein Schumacher describes as “unashamedly realistic”, while critics call it shameful.

Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher:
Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher: "Determined to deliver our plan".

As one of the biggest users of plastic packaging globally, Unilever has long been in the spotlight for its plastic reduction goals, on the one hand lauded for its ambitions, on the other rebuked by groups like Greenpeace for not dealing sufficiently with the “tsunami of  plastic waste” it produces.

In previous sustainability strategies, the global group had pledged to halve its use of virgin plastic by 2025. But the company now says it needs more time: “There’s still a long way to go. We need to change the way plastic packaging is sourced, used and disposed. This will take more time, bolder innovations and systemic change. But we now have more knowledge and insights that we’re applying to update our approach.”

CEO Hein Schumacher says the company’s ‘new era’ for sustainable business leadership is all about “accelerating delivery, with greater impact, by making sustainability progress integral to business performance”.  He says Unilever intends to be a frontrunner, by being more focused in allocating resources to sustainability priorities, more urgent in driving actions to long term ambitions, and more systemic in its advocacy to address the enablers and blockers of progress outside of its direct control.

Unilever aims to reduce its virgin plastic footprint by 30% by 2026, and 40% by 2028.
Unilever aims to reduce its virgin plastic footprint by 30% by 2026, and 40% by 2028.

Schumacher stresses that Unilever’s revised plastic goals focus on the areas where the company can have the greatest impact. Priority areas identified are reducing virgin plastic use and developing solutions for hard-to-recycle flexible plastic, including plastic sachets.

Specific goals set are to reduce Unilever’s virgin plastic footprint – by 30% by 2026, and 40% by 2028, for 100% of its plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable – by 2030 (for rigids) and 2035 (for flexibles); to use 25% recycled plastic in its packaging by 2025; and to collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell by 2025.

To date, the company says, it has reduced its virgin plastic footprint by 18% and increased the use of recycled plastic to 22% of its global portfolio. And it has trialled a variety of reuse and refill models around the world.

Apart from focusing on internal strategies to deliver on its plastics goals, the company maintains that “voluntary goals and initiatives can only go so far without the right infrastructure and rules in place” and is calling for stronger, harmonised policy such as, a UN treaty on plastic pollution that sets legally binding global rules; extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes that hold businesses to account for their packaging choices; and reuse policies that help create the right enabling environment for new models to scale.

Greenpeace Nina Schrank, the head of plastics at Greenpeace UK, cited in The Guardian, has accused Unilever of “dressing up their backpedalling and low ambition as worthy pragmatism”.

Schumacher says, “We are determined to deliver against our plan, and are passionate about the difference it will make – to our business, and to our many stakeholders.”

Last month, the Unilever board announced it would cut 7000 jobs from the company globally and separate the ice cream business because of its poor performance and sizeably different manufacturing processes to the rest of the company. 

Unilever is six months into its “Growth Action Plan”, a 10-point plan announced by Schumacher in October to turn around the company’s underperformance. Unilever’s top 30 brands generate 70 per cent of its turnover. 

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