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Unilever’s gone wrong packaging

Unilever has long stood as a giant in the consumer goods industry. However, I strongly question whether this giant is taking the right steps. To my astonishment, last week in the FD, I read about their weakened goals regarding plastic and packaging. The recent objectives seem to paint a friendly picture of a company that once led the way in sustainability but now, according to its own admission, is plagued by an external, failing infrastructure.

The new CEO, Hein Schumacher, acknowledges that Unilever lags behind in the realm of recycled plastic. He attributes this to an apparently insurmountable combination of factors, including the scarcity of suitable recycled plastic and the complexity of the supply chain. It’s an easy way out, blaming the problem on external factors. But what about the reality?

At first glance, it seems understandable that Unilever and many other companies struggle with the transition to more sustainable packaging. The recycling infrastructure is indeed inadequate, the costs of recycled plastic are high (compared to cheap, new plastic), and in the past, recycling after use hasn’t always been a priority in packaging design. But these obstacles are merely symptoms of a deeper issue: a misplaced focus on recycling instead of reduction and reuse.

Unilever must ask itself, are we truly committed to sustainability at our core, or are we opting for a purely pragmatic approach? If it chooses a genuinely sustainable path, it won’t take steps towards collecting more recycled plastic. The priority will lie in reducing the company’s and its customers’ plastic needs in the first place.

A crucial distinction: reuse involves using an item again, whether for the same or a different purpose. Recycling involves transforming a waste material into a new product. Therefore, the design of packaging and products should be geared towards this philosophy of reduction and reusability.

There are countless ways Unilever can commit to a real shift towards sustainability, including phasing out new plastics, increasing the percentage of reuse, and completely eliminating single-use packaging, such as the infamous “sachets”.

It is up to Unilever to set the right example, to show ambition, and to demonstrate that sustainability is not just an empty promise but a reality they embrace. Don’t give in to the pressure of lobbying producers, stop shifting responsibility, and take the lead in the entire plastic chain. Seize this opportunity and once again become a leader in sustainability.

“It is up to Unilever to set the right example, to show ambition, and to demonstrate that sustainability is not just an empty promise but a reality they embrace”

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