How Unilever is turning sustainability into opportunity


The food business’ impact on the environment can be rather depressing to think about.

According to the United Nations, a third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. The food industry is responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And people in the U.S. throw out about 40% of all food they buy each year, which adds up to about $400 per person.

But Hanneke Faber, Unilever’s president of foods & refreshment, can see the opportunity.

“As a business, we don’t like food waste either,” she said. “That costs money if we make stuff and we don’t sell it. So it really can be a win-win-win for people, for planet and for business if we attack and address and solve these issues.”

Unilever set its first sustainability goals in 2010, and has been adding to them since then. The international company’s latest goals, released this past November, include cutting food waste from factory to shelf in half by 2025 — five years sooner than the company had previously committed to as part of the 10x20x30 initiative. The goals also include increasing plant-based sales to be worth 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) in the next five to seven years, which Faber said is tied to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from traditional animal-based agriculture. 

Hanneke Faber

Permission granted by Unilever


The company is not just working to solve these sustainability issues from the manufacturing side of the business. It also is looking at the consumer angle. Unilever’s Hellmann’s brand kicked off a marketing campaign that asks consumers to “make taste, not waste” in a Super Bowl ad featuring Amy Schumer. Following the Big Game commercial, the campaign features recipes and other content encouraging consumers to think before they throw away food.

Faber said that the versatility of Hellmann’s mayonnaise makes it a great brand to carry the campaign, since the condiment is also an ingredient in several common recipes. The campaign was born out of research that found many consumers would open full refrigerators and say they had nothing to eat, she said.

While Unilever is setting ambitious goals and has been honored for its commitment to operating in a more sustainable way, Faber acknowledged the company still has a ways to go. 

“It’s not easy and it’s a complicated problem,” Faber said. “If it was easy to solve, we would have already done it.”

Repurposing ‘Oops’ products and rethinking planning

While Unilever may want to end all food waste, it only has direct control over what happens in its own factories. And while some waste is inevitable, the company has been looking at ways to reduce it as much as possible.

As the world’s largest ice cream manufacturer, Unilever has concentrated on curtailing waste in those plants. When an ice-cream manufacturing line changes over, a lot of ice cream ends up as a waste product, Faber said. Its German Cremissimo brand has found a way to rescue the would-be waste, re-melt it and put it back through the production process. The resulting flavor, with a name that translates to “Chocolate Hero,” was an immediate best-seller and is one of the top five flavors of the brand, Faber said. Since its launch last year, Unilever has sold more than 1.2 million tubs of it, repurposing 160 metric tons (more than 352,739 pounds) of ice cream waste annually.

Faber said the flavor’s popularity has less to do with what it tastes like and more to do with what it represents.

“It’s just a cool idea,” Faber said. “On the front of the pack, we retell the story, that this is a waste warrior product.”

The approach has been adopted by Unilever’s Ingman ice cream brand in Finland. The Finnish version is called “Hupsis,” which translates to “Oops.” The Hupsis packaging is fully recyclable, and the ice cream comes in two flavors: Chocolate with Caramel Swirl, and Hazelnut and Cacao with Licorice Sauce Swirl. 

Cremissimo’s “Chocolate Hero” flavor

Permission granted by Unilever


Unilever also uses upcycling to produce its popular British Marmite spread. Ever since its beginnings nearly 120 years ago, Marmite has been made from discarded yeast from breweries, making it an original upcycler. Today, the factories that make the spread have doubled down on reuse, Faber said. They take the manufacturing waste to an anaerobic digester, which produces biogas to power a boiler that helps run the plant on steam energy. Half of the energy needed to run the plant comes from wasted Marmite.

Unilever has other ways to minimize waste, including by maximizing its production efficiencies. It has invested in predictive analytics to reduce the amount of unused products that never make it to consumers. The tech also alerts the company to overruns.

In Europe, Unilever has made use of the Too Good to Go app, which allows food and drink makers to list and sell excess products at reduced prices, Faber said. The program will be expanding to the United States.

Last year, Unilever entered into a partnership with smart tech firm Orbisk to help reduce waste in foodservice. Through this technology, a smart camera identifies what is thrown away and a weekly report details the food that had been wasted. This program, which is currently used in the Netherlands and Belgium, saves an average of 22 pounds of food waste a day.

Changing consumer mindsets

While shifting manufacturing and distribution processes is important, Unilever is also trying to influence consumers to change their behavior. After all, if consumers are aware of the long-term impacts of their food choices, they are likely to make more sensible ones.

One of the company’s biggest opportunities is in plant-based products. The facts are clear, Faber said: Cows raised for food purposes produce a lot of greenhouse gases.

“Especially in the Western world — the Americas and Europe — we eat too much meat,” Faber said. “So what can we do as a big food company is to stimulate plant-based eating. And that doesn’t mean I’m asking everyone to become a vegetarian or vegan. You know, that’s everyone’s own choice. But if we could all replace once, twice, three times a week a meal that we have with meat with a plant-based option, that would go a long way.”

This underpins Unilever’s commitment to sell $1.2 billion in plant-based foods in the next five to seven years. According to The Guardian, the company’s sales in the segment currently total 200 million euros ($243 million). 

Optional Caption

Permission granted by Unilever


Unilever is off to a good start, Faber said. In 2018, the company acquired Dutch company The Vegetarian Butcher, which makes plant-based meat alternatives. The Vegetarian Butcher brand is currently sold in more than 45 countries, and sales have increased 70% in 2020, according to Unilever’s annual results. Faber said that there is a lot of excitement around the brand, but would not say if there were plans to expand it to the United States market.

The company also has several plant-based and vegan frozen treats from brands including Ben & Jerry’s and Magnum, as well as plant-based mayonnaise from Hellmann’s.

There may be even more sustainable and plant-based food choices on the way. Unilever CEO Alan Jope said that plant-based food will be one of the company’s top investment areas in coming years, according to a transcript of the most recent earnings call. Faber said that Unilever is striving to use its R&D arm to make its non-animal-based options taste as good and be as nutritious as what they are replacing. Other agreements, like Unilever’s partnership with algae ingredients company Algenuity, could help the company discover new ways to replace animal-based ingredients throughout its portfolio.

From reducing waste to encouraging plant-based eating, Faber said that all of the work on sustainability done by Unilever and other food and drink manufacturers has begun influencing an important group of consumers: policymakers. In September, the United Nations is hosting a Food Systems Summit to help launch sustainable development goals and increase food access and nutrition by 2030. Leading up to the summit, many companies are working together on food waste, emissions and sustainable packaging.

“Whether it’s Nestlé or Kellogg or Mondelez or Danone, everyone realizes that the food system needs some serious work to be future fit,” Faber said.