Eco-efficiency in manufacturing

We aim to reduce the environmental impacts of our manufacturing operations, minimising both resources used and waste created.


Our approach

In this section we describe our overall approach to improving the eco-efficiency of our manufacturing operations, including our eco-efficiency strategy, our approach to data collection, target-setting, our summary performance across our key performance indicators and the environmental management system that underpins our approach.

Reducing the impacts of our own manufacturing operations – eco-efficiency – is a core part of our strategy. We have a clear track record of improving eco-efficiency performance in the areas of water, waste and CO2 from energy. As part of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, we have set significantly more ambitious eco-efficiency targets, which underpin Unilever’s commitment to reducing our environmental footprint. These targets cover greenhouse gases (GHG), water and waste and include the following:

Reduce GHG from manufacturing

  • By 2020 CO2 emissions from energy from our factories will be at or below 2008 levels despite significantly higher volumes.

This represents a reduction of around 40% per tonne of production. Versus a 1995 baseline, this represents a 63% reduction per tonne of production and a 43% absolute reduction.

  • We will more than double our use of renewable energy to 40% of our total energy requirement by 2020. We recognise that this is only a first step towards a long-term goal of 100% renewable energy.

  • All newly built factories will aim to have less than half the impact of those in our 2008 baseline.

Find out more about our latest performance at Reducing GHG in manufacturing.

Reduce water use in our manufacturing process

  • By 2020, water abstraction by our global factory network will be at or below 2008 levels, despite significantly higher volumes.

This represents a reduction of around 40% per tonne of production. Versus a 1995 baseline, this represents a 78% reduction per tonne of production and a 65% absolute reduction. We will focus in particular on factories in water-scarce locations.

  • All newly built factories will aim to abstract less than half the water of those in our 2008 baseline.

Find out more about our latest performance at Reducing water use in manufacturing.

Reduce waste from our manufacturing

  • By 2020 total waste sent for disposal will be at or below 2008 levels despite significantly higher volumes.

This represents a reduction of around 40% per tonne of production. Versus a 1995 baseline, this represents an 80% reduction per tonne of production and a 70% absolute reduction.

  • By 2015 all manufacturing sites will achieve zero non-hazardous waste to landfill. (New Target 2012)

  • All newly built factories will aim to generate less than half the waste of those in our 2008 baseline.

Find out more about our latest performance at Reducing waste from manufacturing.

Decoupling growth from environmental impact

Our targets commit us to maintaining our 2008 levels of greenhouse gas, water and waste impacts against a backdrop of significant growth in our business. This is a tough challenge.

In 2010 we undertook Project Neutral, a site-by-site assessment of all our manufacturing sites to understand better how we could meet our Sustainable Living Plan targets.

We reviewed the likely areas of growth from a geographic and product perspective. We also looked at the current environmental performance of all our sites. As a result we identified a number of ‘levers’ or areas of potential change to deliver reductions in our environmental impact. Examples of levers include renewable energy sourcing, rainwater harvesting and energy saving in our processes.

We asked all our manufacturing sites to assess themselves against these levers in order to identify opportunities for reductions.

Our manufacturing sustainability strategy: four areas of focus

Following this assessment, we were able to determine four key areas of focus:

  1. Reducing the environmental impact of new production facilities – either new factories or new production lines

  2. Reducing the impact of all existing factories

  3. Making our global and regional purchasing more efficient

  4. Embracing new technologies.

New production facilities

To support the growth of our business we will need many new factories and production lines. A key area of focus will be ensuring that eco-efficiency is built into the designs of our new facilities.

We will use the following methods to do this:

  • Exploring renewable energy opportunities including the use of biomass fuel in our boilers and furnaces

  • Optimising the fuel we use, choosing the fuel that emits the lowest greenhouse gas emissions and is also economically viable and available

  • Factoring in the orientation of our buildings (eg minimising solar gain to reduce energy required for cooling and the impact of prevailing winds)

  • Considering building fabrication (eg insulation, sun-shading screens)

  • Setting minimum standards for the certification of new factory buildings

  • Installing high-efficiency equipment (eg utilities and production lines)

  • Optimising the distribution of energy, waste and water (eg centralised versus decentralised utility distribution).

These considerations will ensure that all new facilities have sustainability built into their core designs and are significantly more eco-efficient than current ones. Unilever Engineering Services are working collaboratively with external third-party suppliers on many of these initiatives. In addition we are using certification systems such as LEED and BREEAM environmental assessment methods and rating systems for buildings. Our seven new factories in 2013 will achieve a rating of LEED Silver or above.

By building in sustainability at an early design stage, we aim to minimise the cost impact of these initiatives and ensure good financial returns. In this way the facilities we build will continue to deliver eco-efficiency benefits over the long term.

By adopting this holistic approach we are ensuring that each of our newly built facilities is capable of producing increased volumes while using less natural resources to do so.

We are also using an approach of ‘design once, deploy everywhere’ to leverage our global scale, reduce the costs related to equipment purchase and design as well as speed up implementation.

Our recently constructed factory in Durban, South Africa, which opened in 2011, demonstrates the application of many of the approaches described above.

Improving all our existing factories

Our 252 manufacturing sites incorporate sustainability into our existing manufacturing excellence programme. This focuses on continuous improvement and includes investments in more efficient equipment and new technologies.

We identified various ways of reducing our environmental impact. These range from relatively simple processes, such as replacing inefficient or redundant equipment, through to larger-scale projects, such as replacing boilers and air compressors. To build on the momentum of our eco-efficiency programme in existing factories we have ‘ring-fenced’ capital investment to drive energy, CO2 and water reduction projects that deliver the most beneficial environmental and financial benefits.

Unilever has a very well-developed continuous improvement programme in place in our factories, using the TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) approach. Eco-efficiency has been incorporated into this methodology.

By using existing, well-developed TPM tools and techniques, we are ensuring that sustainability becomes part of what we do every day, as the link between eco-efficiency and better factory performance is clear. All factories are consistently measured against sustainability performance indicators.

We have identified a series of small actions (eg awareness campaigns, standardised metering, monitoring and targeting and switching off hoses and lights) that sites can implement which, when added together, will account for a big difference.

Efficient global and regional purchasing

By utilising Unilever’s scale we have been able to introduce a range of contracts at global, regional and country level. These enable us to address large-scale requirements in a cost-effective manner.

A prime example of this is moving to renewable energy in Europe during 2011, which has enabled us to meet the purchased electrical requirements of all 63 European sites. This has also enabled us to reduce our CO2 by approximately 250,000 tonnes.

During 2012 we applied the same methodology to North America, achieving an emissions reduction of similar magnitude.

We are also introducing global purchasing agreements for standard factory equipment such as boilers to ensure that we achieve the highest environmental and safety performance as well as the lower costs.

Finally on waste we have put in place a number of national waste contracts, which are yielding great benefits. We are making progress and so far all our manufacturing sites in 18 countries have now reached the milestone of sending zero non-hazardous waste to landfill. By the end of 2012, 133 sites had reached zero non-hazardous waste to landfill. This is more than half our 252 sites. It means that approximately 76,000 tonnes of site waste a year are no longer sent to landfill compared to 2008.This is equivalent to more than 1 million household bins of waste every year.

Building on our good progress, in 2012 we set a stretching new target for 100% of our manufacturing sites to achieve zero non-hazardous waste to landfill by the end of 2015.

Read more about our efforts to achieve zero waste to landfill in Europe at Reducing waste from manufacturing.

Read more about our achievement of 100% renewable energy for electricity in Europe and North America at Eco-efficiency performance overview.

Small actions, big difference

Many employees have sustainable business ideas and we have set up a Small Actions, Big Difference budget to make them happen. Factory employees can apply for investment for their ideas which are evaluated on the basis of environmental benefit and financial return.

In 2012 over 600 projects were identified and the best 100 will be implemented in 2013. Their combined benefits will deliver savings of around 1% of our global energy and water use and achieve an average payback in under two years.

Embracing new technologies

We have looked at employing new and emerging technologies which are ready to be deployed. Our aim here again is to ‘design once, deploy everywhere’. This means piloting technologies in selected factories and, if successful, deploying them globally.

New technologies are expected to deliver not only eco-efficiency benefits but also a good return on investment.

Training & awareness

Our approach is to deliver tools, techniques and awareness, and share best practice directly with those people responsible for reducing the environmental impact of our manufacturing operations. Much of our progress has been achieved through good manufacturing practices at our factories, which we continue to promote through an environmental roadmap that includes an awareness-raising programme called ‘Simple Solutions’. In addition, the implementation of Project Neutral during 2010, a site-by-site assessment process, has further driven improvement and provided a platform for our manufacturing operations to meet our 2020 Sustainable Living Plan targets.