Unilever Taps Biotech for a More Sustainable Supply Chain

Liz Dominguez
Managing Editor
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Implementing a sustainable supply chain

Unilever is undergoing a powerful venture that has the potential to reduce its dependence on feedstocks that have high levels of volatility and harmful eco effects. 

The company is partnering with San Diego-based biotechnology specialists Geno to jointly invest $120 million in commercialized plant-based alternatives to feedstocks like palm oil and fossil fuels used to make cleansers for home care, beauty, and personal care products.

Unilever chief research and development officer Richard Slater stated that biotechnology will potentially revolutionize sourcing for the company’s cleansing ingredients, ensuring the brand is a “future-fit business for consumers, shareholders, and the planet.” 

“This new venture will sit right at the intersection of science and sustainability, meaning we can continue to grow our business without relying on palm oil or fossil fuel derivatives, while making our supply chains more resilient from having access to alternative ingredients,” Slater added. 

How It Works

Leveraging biotechnology, Geno implements a fermentation process that utilizes sugar to convert microorganisms into an ingredient that can be used to produce surfactants, a type of clearing agent integral to all cleansing products across the home, personal care and beauty industries that helps to foam, lather, and lift dirt. 

This introduces a significant shift for the company. Typically these ingredients are made using fossil fuels and palm oil with few viable substitutes that can be manufactured at scale. 

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Slater said that because the business is highly reliant on these select few commodities like oil, sourcing a diverse range of feedstocks to power its formulations is key to supporting current and future growth.

The company said this could be a game-changer for the $625 billion home, beauty, and personal care markets, as the switch brings the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of palm-derived ingredients by 50%. 

Sustainability Without Sacrificing Efficiency and Cost Is the End Goal

This is the latest sustainability strategy from Unilever to ensure a deforestation-free supply chain for palm oil by 2023. 

While palm oil will remain a significant feedstock for Unilever, alternative ingredients can help diversify supply chains, and improve sustainability, cost efficiencies, and transparency. Peter ter Kulve, president of Unilever’s Home Care division, said the best supply chains balance resilience and cost effectiveness.

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Slater said Unilever will be marrying science and nature to make sure there is no trade-off for consumers between the efficacy and sustainability of its products. 

“We are building this innovative new venture to have the scale to drive real impact and change in our industry, helping to reinvent the chemistry of home and personal care products for the 21st century,” he added.

Christophe Schilling, CEO of Geno, said his company developed the technology in response to the planet’s urgent climate crisis. “We have proven that biotechnology can replace traditional methods to produce ingredients with bio-based sources that deliver both high performance and sustainability.”

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