Unilever and iCAST Researchers at the University of Oxford publish new policy guidance to improve sustainability of household products

22/01/2024

iCAST

Research to evaluate the policy interventions which will help provide renewable carbon for formulations used in everyday household products has been carried out by researchers at the University of Oxford working with Unilever Home Care. The collaboration has resulted in a jointly authored report between experts in Environmental economics, led by Prof. Cameron Hepburn, and experts in Chemistry, led by Charlotte Williams, and Unilever.

Every year, 29 million tonnes of fossil-based carbon molecules are used in chemical formulations for everyday household products such as cleaning and laundry products – with the same industry being accountable for 7% of greenhouse emissions.

 

Meeting climate targets and avoiding price volatility linked to oil prices requires the fast-moving consumer goods sector to adopt sustainable sources of carbon raw materials to make their products. There are already some successful sources of renewable carbon molecules but currently they only make up ~ 6% of the chemical feedstock market and can be up to four times more expensive than their fossil-based counterparts.

Unilever is one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies with a presence in more than 190 countries and the Home Care Business Group has widely recognised household brands including OMO (Persil in the UK), Domestos, Sunlight, Comfort and Cif.  Unilever is committed to achieving net zero emissions for all its products by 2039. In accordance with this objective, the collaboration between Unilever Home Care and the University of Oxford has involved detailed technical and economic research into key bio-based chemicals, with potential for use in its products, assessing their greenhouse emission saving potential and modelling cost-curves and pricing for these materials.

Following the study, all the team have worked to produce a public report highlighting challenges and opportunities for the sector, and sets policy recommendations to accelerate the transition from fossil to bio-derived carbon sources.

Cleaning up cleaning: policy and stakeholder interventions to put household formulations on a pathway to net zero

The main recommendation of the public report ‘Cleaning up cleaning: policy and stakeholder interventions to put household formulations on a pathway to net zero’ is for policymakers to work with consumers, researchers, consumers, and stakeholders in industry, civil society and the financial community, to create joint national strategies to use sustainable bio-derived carbon as feedstock.

The authors suggest a combined, ‘portfolio-based approach’ where technology-specific and sector-specific policies can be implemented along with carbon prices to promote a timely transition.

The key findings of the report are as follows:

  • Bio-feedstocks likely offer the best opportunity (in terms of technological alignment with net zero, and policy-driven intervention) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from household formulations.
  • A carbon price ranging from US$144-711/tCO2eq is currently needed to make bio-based surfactants cost-competitive.
  • Technological advances in bio-feedstocks could deliver cost competitiveness, as demonstrated by other technologies, such as renewable power.
  • Policy interventions could make bio-carbon more competitive on the supply side.
  • Similarly, policy interventions could be used to shift feedstock demand towards sustainable sources.
  • Policymakers can deploy measures from a portfolio of possible interventions, working with key stakeholder groups to minimise trade-offs.
  • International coordination based on synergies with biomass production, carbon removal and job creation can play a key part in the industry’s pathway to net zero.

Charlotte Williams comments that “Our work with Unilever highlights the importance of collaboration between technical experts and environmental economists to steer evidence-based changes in policy that support the pathway to net zero for the UK manufacturing sector.”

Read the full report

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