FMCG giant Unilever is investing €1 billion to eliminate the use of petrochemical-based ingredients in the products of its Home Care division over the next ten years.

Up to now sustainability issues around laundry have centred on the energy use of washing machines and tumble driers but the industry’s ‘dirty secret’ is the use of fossil fuel-based surfactants (for degreasing) and soda ash (for softening water) , among other chemicals, in detergents, which contribute significantly to carbon emissions.

“We have our diesel moment,” said Peter ter Kulve, president of Unilever’s €11bn Home Care division, in a reference to auto industry admissions, sparked by Volkswagen’s 2015 rigging of diesel emission tests, that diesel was not as clean a fuel as had previously been thought.

“I think everyone realises that the time has come that the cleaning industry has to pivot, and ask: ‘How do we clean up cleaning?’,” he said in remarks reported by the Financial Times.

The scale of the challenge is evident in the fact that the chemicals used in its cleaning and laundry products – which include such well-known brands as Surf, Radiant, Omo and Persil – make up 46% of Unilever’s Home Care division’s carbon emissions across their life cycle, according to Reuters.

Possible alternatives include chemicals derived from palm oil, algae or plastic waste, the use of which Unilever expects to cut emissions by one fifth.

“We know that the consumer wants to make green choices as long as they are not more expensive, and the products don’t work less well,” ter Kulve explained, going on to assert that “a new bioeconomy is rising from the ashes of fossil fuels”.

“We’ve heard time and time again that people want more affordable sustainable products that are just as good as conventional ones,” he continued. “Rapid developments in science and technology are allowing us to do this, with the promise of exciting new benefits for the people who use our products, from ultra-mild cleaning ingredients to self-cleaning clothes and surfaces.”

Sourced from Financial Times, Guardian, Reuters; additional content by WARC staff