Unilever pledge to change the way we wash

Around the world Unilever products – from soap to tea to washing powder – are used two billion times every day.

The showering, boiling and spinning this entails has a large carbon footprint – in fact, on average, 68% of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by Unilever products come from ‘consumer use’ rather than manufacturing or transport

Today at the launch of their Sustainable Living Plan, Unilever pledged to halve the environmental impact of its products. This means that over the next ten years Unilever will have to get into the business of behaviour change.

Technology and product design can play a part in making this happen; Unilever can make more concentrated detergent that can be used at lower temperatures. But ultimately, as Unilever’s chief executive Paul Polman said today “we will also have to succeed in getting consumers to change their habits.”

In the wash
The main behaviour they’ll need to set their sights on is washing. Shower gel and skincare products make up a massive 52% of the greenhouse gas footprint of Unilver’s products. And adding in shampoo, conditioner and laundry detergents brings the total emissions from washing related products up to 72%, dwarfing products like ice cream, which cause 4% of the company’s greenhouse gas emissions, and tea and beverages, which are responsible for 5%. (All stats from the Sustainable Living Plan)

Social norms
But changing washing behaviour is tricky – because how long we spend in the shower and how often we bathe is bound up in complicated social norms and ideas about cleanliness. In the past century we’ve moved from bathing once a week to showering once or twice a day.

Solitaire Townsend from Futerra who was in the audience asked how much of Unilever’s marketing budget would be diverted from selling products to selling behaviours – an interesting proposition that didn’t really get an answer.

There are bound to be potential pitfalls along the way. For example, the tag line for Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan is “small actions, big difference”.  A big PR effort along these lines could further entrench the idea that all we need to do to live more sustainably is make a few small changes and no more – something that’s not going to get us to 80% carbon cuts by 2050.

But there’s no two ways about it, this is a potentially ground-breaking pledge. Keep your eyes on Unilever, because over the next decade they’ll be in the business of changing the way we wash.

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