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Unilever aims for sustainability through package innovation

Packaging Digest had the opportunity to talk with Humberto Garcia, packaging manager for environmental sustainability at Unilever, a major packaged goods company serving a global market. In the discussion, Garcia shares his views on sustainability and how it impacts Unilever.

Packaging Digest : Your title is “Packaging Manager for Environmental Sustainability.”  What does your job entail?

Garcia: My job is to coordinate the issues around responsible packaging, environmental issues and sustainability for packaging across Unilever's Foods, Ice Cream, and Home and Personal Care categories in North America. Unilever has a long history of corporate and social responsibility and we have always maintained strict standards in regard to environmental issues.  Our mission is to bring vitality to life, by meeting everyday needs for nutrition, hygiene and personal care with brands that make people feel good, look good and get more out of life.  We need packaging to fulfill our mission, and we put emphasis on packaging reduction and material selection, but our approach is to minimize the environmental impact of our products – packaging is only one component of the whole product system.  

One important function of packaging is to protect the product, and protect all the resources that go into that product because reducing packaging to the point where there is product damage has a big environmental impact.  Within that framework, we are making progress in packaging reduction through the use of world class technologies. For example, our new global packaging for roll-on deodorant is 15% lighter, 10 times stronger, and uses 40% less energy in manufacturing, saving 1260 metric tons of resin and 6MM kWh annually, and at the same time we have a consumer preferred design.

Packaging Digest: Do you have any new sustainable packaging materials or container innovations in the pipeline that you can talk about? 

Garcia: Unilever is leading the conversion to laundry liquid detergent concentrates around the world. This is a great example because it benefits Unilever, retailers, consumers, and the environment.  Our All Small&Mighty 3x concentrate product, when compared to dilute detergents, saves a considerable amount of resin (55% less) and corrugate (45% less) –and because the product is smaller, we can ship more product per pallet and fit more product on the shelf (200% more) while reducing the number of truck loads required to ship the same number of loads by 66%. The business benefits are at the same time environmental benefits – using less resin and corrugate is an important business benefit but it is also good for the environment – and using fewer trucks to ship the product offers savings for Unilever and retailers and also saves fuel and reduces emissions.  Additionally, consumers benefit from having a smaller bottle, which is easier to transport and easier to pour from.

A second example is our new pouches for pasta sauce, under the brands Ragu and Bertolli.  The pouch is an example of packaging innovation in this category, offering an alternative to the glass jar with some added consumer convenience because the pouch is microwaveable and doesn't break during handling and transportation. The weight of the pouch itself is less than the weight of the metal lid on the glass jar, so when we take into account all primary and secondary packaging and compare the glass jar vs. the pouch, the packaging reduction is 70%.  There is potentially an additional benefit – microwave cooking in a pouch uses less energy than cooking on a stove, thus further reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of the whole product if the consumer chooses to cook it this way.

Packaging Digest: What is Unilever’s measure of success in terms of Environmental Sustainability?  

Garcia: Unilever's approach is packaging which, as part of a whole product system, minimizes the environmental impact of our products and creates more social value, with less environmental impact. This resonates very well with our vitality mission and with the mantra of doing well by doing good, but it is also important to have metrics. 
Unilever has reported the eco-efficiency performance at our manufacturing sites since 1995, measuring water, hazardous and non-hazardous waste, and CO2 emissions to name a few. We also look at our broader footprint with a life cycle view to incorporate, for instance, water used in agriculture and during consumer use, as well as the carbon footprint for our product throughout the life cycle.  For our home and personal care products which need energy to heat water and to power washing machines and tumble dryers, the carbon footprint during the consumer use phase can be 30 to 60 times as much as our own emissions, depending on assumptions about how consumers use our products. 
We can help reduce the environmental impact of our products when using the life cycle approach, and many of our detergent brands like All, Omo, Surf and Persil can now be used at temperatures as low as 30 degrees centigrade.  Another example is Surf Excel Quick Wash, a revolutionary formula that rinses quickly and only needs half the amount of water, a key benefit in regions where clothes are washed by hand and water is scarce.

Packaging Digest: As a global company is Unilever’s packaging centralized or does each country take responsibility for developing country specific packaging?

Garcia: Packaging development happens at a global level, regional level, and is even country- specific.  It depends on the scope of the project and the needs of the market, but global projects are a great example of leveraging our capabilities to design packages that can optimize the use of materials while adapting to local needs. In addition, Unilever has formed a Responsible Packaging Steering Team, a global team of senior executives that leads the development and delivery of strategies for responsible packaging.  With representation from R&D, Packaging, Marketing, Procurement, Customer Development and Communications, as well as packaging representatives from the regions, this group is responsible for setting one global strategy, and all priorities and initiatives.

Packaging Digest: Unilever has a strong presence in Europe. Would you say that they are ahead of the curve compared to the USA in terms of sustainable packaging?

Garcia: The legislation and retail environments are different in the EU, and consumers have been exposed to sustainability concepts for a longer period of time.  Europe may have been ahead in the past, but the US is fast catching up.  Perhaps one area of opportunity is the amount of packaging waste that is recycled or recovered. For example, some countries like Germany are achieving a recovery rate of over 70%.

Packaging Digest: Who drives Sustainable practices at Unilever; is it the big box retailer, the end user or just an internal strong desire to make the planet greener?

Garcia: It’s a combination of all of these factors.  We have an internal desire driven by our corporate responsibility initiatives and our vitality mission, but delighting our customers and consumers is also very important to us.  One of the key challenges we face with sustainability is that it is a very complex subject and it is easy to think you are doing the right thing, without realizing that when looking at the big picture you are not doing the best thing.  For example, recycling may not always be the best option – sometimes, particularly with light weight plastic packaging that is contaminated with product residue, it is better to incinerate and recover the energy.  Public perception does not always match scientific reality – across the developed world consumers think that degradable packaging is a good idea, and yet typical packaging materials contain few plant nutrients, so if they are degraded to compost the compost is of little value.  This is in effect a free meal for bacteria, when controlled incineration with energy recovery would reduce the packaging going to landfills, capture the energy for mankind, and save us burning fossil fuels to make it.   

What is really interesting is the amount of packaging innovation that we see in the marketplace.  This is an exciting time because different elements that help drive innovation are aligned – retailers, governments, companies, public perception, higher commodity prices, energy prices, etc.  I believe we will see more innovation in materials, processes and designs that will give companies like Unilever more alternatives to reduce the environmental impact of packaging.

Packaging Digest: There are arguments for and against corn based alternatives to oil; are consumers aware of these issues and how do these issues impact on your packaging decisions?

Garcia: Bio-based polymers have been promoted as a sustainable alternative to conventional plastics made from fossil fuels.  While bio-plastics are renewable, as their raw material is from plants, this does not mean that they are sustainable when all the factors in making them are taken into consideration.  Indeed, at this time Unilever does not believe that there is sufficient evidence to confirm that bio-plastics are more sustainable than other packaging materials currently in use.  The great majority of Unilever’s products have a long shelf life (unlike fresh food).  In terms of technical performance, the currently available range of bio-plastics is not suitable for protecting such products through their shelf life.  

There is growing evidence that carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere are most reduced by using waste vegetation material for incineration to generate power, instead of burning fossil fuels to do the same thing.  Using vegetation or food materials to make packaging is not the most carbon efficient use of them. Therefore, Unilever does not currently support the use of biopolymers for packaging but encourages the development of both new materials that perform as required and can be handled by waste management systems, and ways to make traditional materials from non-fossil fuel sources in more energy-efficient ways.  When biopolymers can be shown to be the most carbon efficient use of vegetable matter (that doesn’t compete with food production), and provided they are functionally fit for purpose, then they should be considered as packaging materials.

Humberto Garcia is the packaging manager for environmental sustainability at Unilever.  He will be speaking at 11:10 a.m. on Wednesday, May 14 at the upcoming Packaging Summit Conference and Trade Show, which is being held May 13-15 at the Rosemont Convention Center near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.  Registration for Garcia’s presentation and the conference is free, and can be done at



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