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Targets Meet Reality: A Plastics Case Study

In 2019, we looked at a new kind of commitment some large companies were making to reduce their production of single-use plastic packaging, along with their use of virgin plastic. At the time, Greenpeace called the consumer goods giant Unilever “one of the first global companies taking this challenge seriously.” The company’s more ambitious commitments included halving its use of virgin plastic by 2025 (with an absolute reduction of at least 100,000 tonnes), using 25% post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR) across its product packaging, and collecting and processing more packaging than it sold. These goals—along with other targets relating to deforestation, water conservation, and combatting climate change—helped raise the profile of the British multinational as one of the world’s most progressive consumer goods companies.

Nearly 5 years later, Unilever’s commitments will soon come due. Some appear to be on target; others are likely to come up short. Understanding why, and how the company has responded, can tell us much about the corporate cycle of environmental and social progress.

The history of Unilever’s current sustainability efforts began in 2010, when the company launched a “Sustainable Living Plan” that included “hundreds of targets and commitments which fall under three key goals: to help more than a billion people improve their health and wellbeing, to halve the environmental impact of the making and use of our products and to enhance the livelihoods of thousands of people in our supply chain.” In 2015, the company reported that it had completely eliminated landfill waste from its factories. As of 2019, all its factories were powered by renewable electricity.

Such accomplishments may have helped drive the company’s ambitious plastics commitments that same year. In the years since, Unilever has paired its ambitions with relatively strong, detailed disclosure, allowing stakeholders to track progress. Unilever’s most recent annual release of sustainability data suggested the company is on pace to meet or exceed its goal of 25% recycled plastics in packaging by 2025, with that number at 21% as of the end of 2022. Such moves are critical in helping create a stronger market for PCR, driving its value up to help keep more plastic out of landfills and oceans.

But against some of its other targets, Unilever has struggled. The company is not on track to reduce its use of virgin plastic 50% by 2025, with just a 13% reduction reported as of the end of 2022. Its progress on collecting and processing plastic packaging is a bit stronger, with an equivalent of 58% of the company’s total plastic packaging production being processed. But against its seemingly easier goal of making all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable, progress has been confoundingly slow, rising to just 55% at the end of 2022, against a baseline of 50% in 2019.

The company’s slow progress in these areas has brought on a wave of criticism, including a lengthy investigative piece from Reuters and a damning report from Greenpeace, which just a few years earlier had declared Unilever’s commitments relatively promising. Much of the criticism has focused on Unilever’s continued sales of single-use plastic satchets (similar to ketchup packets) of soap, shampoo and other personal care products in developing markets. Made from multiple layers of different plastic types, no successful method for recycling plastic satchets has ever been deployed at scale. But according to another Greenpeace estimate from 2023, Unilever alone sells 1700 such satchets per second. Further, Reuters reports that Unilever has lobbied against single-use satchet bans in India, Sri Lanka and the Phillippines.

Meanwhile, the company says it is working on reusable, refillable containers and other solutions. But it has yet to launch more than narrow pilot programs using these approaches, leaving the company likely to fall short on several of it headline plastic packaging pledges for 2025. Despite its ambitious targets and regular disclosure, therefore, Unilever has been forced to defend its slow progress, and has struggled to explain to stakeholders the market forces and other outside factors that it blames for the shortfall.

What can Unilever’s example tell us about corporate targets for reducing pollution and other key environmental goals? First, we do not fault the company’s ambition in setting big targets to reduce plastic waste. Ambitious targets signal to stakeholders and competitors that a legitimate shift in values is underway, normalizing corporate environmental and social goals. Unlike some other companies, Unilever paired its targets with public progress reports, a strong demonstration of good faith.

But Unilever and other companies wishing to market their sustainability credentials might be well-advised to backload more of their public relations efforts. Strong sustainability commitments deserve to be publicized. But it is in meeting these targets (or at least coming close) that companies will truly earn reputations as sustainability champions. Ramping up sustainability-related marketing as targets are met would surely create far less reputational risk than taking credit for them up front.

In the end, we continue to believe that transparency trumps all. Had Unilever set the same targets without annually disclosing its progress, it would simply be guilty of greenwashing. But the company’s disclosure tells a different story: one of incomplete action and questionable choices, perhaps, but not one of bad intentions. With clear headway being made in other areas, including climate, we still see an opportunity to work with Unilever in hopes of restarting progress and leading the way on plastics.