Unilever and Geno to Produce Sustainable Palm Oil Ingredient Alternatives

28 June 2022 by Catherine Harris
blog author

Plans to scale and commercialize sustainable alternatives to palm oil and fossil fuel-derived ingredients for cleaning and personal care products have been unveiled by two leading organizations.

Unilever, one of the world’s biggest soap and detergent manufacturers responsible for brands such as Dove, Knorr, Magnum, Surf, Seventh Generation and The Vegetarian Butcher, has partnered with Genomatica (Geno), a leader in biotech and sustainability, to improve cleansing ingredients which appear in thousands of everyday products. 

San Diego-based Geno uses technology, developed over the past two decades, to create and scale sustainable materials derived from either plant or waste-based feedstocks as a fossil fuel alternative.

Using innovative biotechnology, the organisation can convert plant-based raw materials into key component chemical building blocks.

The collaboration will offer a sustainable palm oil alternative, via Geno’s cutting-edge biotechnology. As demand for sustainably sourced palm oil grows, the aim of the partnership is to deliver additional responsibly sourced palm oil plant-based alternatives to the market.

Unilever, named as the top ranked company in the GlobeScan/SustainAbility Sustainability Leaders survey for the eleventh year running, is the first to invest in the pioneering initiative (making it the company’s largest investment in biotechnology alternatives to palm oil to date) which has a joint investment of $120m and other strategic investors are expected to join.

Personal care and cleaning products require ingredients that lather and lift dirt but there are currently few alternatives to palm and fossil sources that can be scaled up to make such ingredients for the combined $625b home and personal care markets, so the venture hopes to tap into this gap.

Although palm oil will remain an important feedstock to London-based Unilever, the alternative ingredients can help diversify supply chains to embed sustainability, cost efficiencies and transparency. 

Geno is already starting to scale the process for its advanced technology to produce the ingredients and estimates that companies could reduce the carbon footprint of palm-derived ingredients by up to 50 per cent with this technology-driven alternative.  

Richard Slater, Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer, said: “Biotechnology has the potential to revolutionise the sourcing of our cleansing ingredients and ensure Unilever is a future-fit business – for consumers, shareholders and the planet we all share. This new venture will sit at the intersection of science and sustainability, meaning we can continue to grow our business without relying only on palm oil or fossil fuel derivatives, while also making our supply chains more resilient by having access to ingredient alternatives.  

“We will be marrying science and nature to make sure there is no tradeoff for our consumers between the efficacy and sustainability of their 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.”

Christophe Schilling, Geno CEO, said: “Geno’s collaboration with Unilever builds upon its strong track record of partnering with market leaders who are committed to accelerating the commercialization of sustainable materials in their industries – from clothing to now cleaning ingredients. We’ve developed our technology in response to our planet’s urgent climate crisis and we’ve proven that biotechnology can replace traditional production methods to produce ingredients with bio-based sources that deliver both high-performance and sustainability, at scale.  

“Our technology enables pathways for alternative sourcing of materials whose supply chains often have limited social and environmental transparency, by offering more resilient supply chains that are transparent, traceable and responsibly sourced as demanded by consumers. Beyond creating new transparent and responsibly sourced-supply chains and alternatively-sourced materials, our Geno technology also represents the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100 million tons in upcoming years.” 

Catherine Harris, Director of Sustainable Business – North America, at Acre, said:“It’s very exciting to see two market leaders combine and bring such an innovative solution to the market. 

“This hopefully marks the beginning of a new era in sustainable, transparent and responsible sourcing where at last precious habitats - and their inhabitants – are protected and can flourish long into the future.”

Catherine has been recruiting Senior Sustainability Executives and Non-Executives for over 9 years. Prior to Acre, Catherine worked for a boutique search firm with a focus on the charity and public sector.

Catherine also sits on the board of Future-Fit Foundation, a non-profit offering tools to help investors and businesses tackle key Sustainability and climate change issues.   With a passion for board diversity and appointing exceptional leaders at the board level, she is also co-author of The Social Board, a paper exploring how to engage board members on key ESG and Sustainability issues.  


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