Unilever extracts oil from detergent and cleaning supplies: ‘This is our diesel moment’

The fact that the laundry comes out of the washing machine clean and fresh is largely due to oil, but Unilever wants to stop. The market leader in detergents and cleaning equipment promises that in ten yearstime there will no longer be any fossil chemicals in its products, and is earmarking EUR 1 billion for research into alternatives.

“This is our diesel moment,” says Peter ter Kulve of Unilever. “We have to go from diesel to electric and you see the same thing in the cleaning industry. We were working on small initiatives, but now it’s going to be the basis.”

In recent years, more brands have come onto the market claiming to be less environmentally damaging, such as Ecover and Marcel’s Green Soap. They use vegetable raw materials instead of petroleum. The major brands are now starting to follow this trend. Unilever will change the composition of products such as Cif, Ruby, Glorix and Omo.

Not more expensive

“This is a growth strategy,” says Ter Kulve. “If we can make the big brands more sustainable and don’t make it more expensive, that leads to growth. In addition, governments are going to tax CO2 and plastic, and by taking it out yourself, you’ll improve on that. What’s more, people don’t want to work for a dirty company, but want to help find a solution to the climate crisis”

In 2008, Unilever also made an effort to reduce its environmental footprint, but at that time the main plan was to make detergent more efficient so that smaller portions were needed per wash.

Milieu Centraal is positive about the announcement: “Cleaning products may not have the greatest impact on your footprint. But every step such a large company takes is very nice,” says Sanne Janssen of the environmental organisation.

She does wonder about the environmental impact of the vegetable substances that are used. “Cultivation also has an impact on the environment. Agricultural land is needed, water, pesticides and artificial fertilizer and the construction of plantations can be accompanied by deforestation”

Science fiction

Unilever is also looking for alternatives. “We are looking at algae, at plastic waste from which we can extract ingredients and we can take it out of the air,” says Ter Kulve That may sound like science fiction, but in India we are already extracting ingredients from the polluted air for our product from a dirty factory. You have to have this kind of innovation.”

Over the next few years, various products will gradually be adapted. Detergent is the first to be adapted, later on popular detergent products will be adapted.

Unilever wants to reduce CO2 emissions across the board in the coming years. At the same time, the company has the ambition to further increase revenues.