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Unilever provokes critics as it backtracks on environmental and social pledges: 'Should hang their heads in shame'

"Rather than doubling down, they're quietly dressing up their backpedaling and low ambition as worthy pragmatism."

"Rather than doubling down, they’re quietly dressing up their backpedaling and low ambition as worthy pragmatism."

Photo Credit: iStock

For decades, companies have won the business of environmentally conscious customers by making promises to improve their impact on the planet. Recently, many companies in the U.S. and worldwide have walked back those climate pledges. According to the Guardian, the U.K. consumer goods giant Unilever is among the latest to backtrack on its pledge to reduce plastic use.

What's happening?

According to the Guardian, Unilever is one of the world's largest users of plastic packaging. It had previously promised to address this by cutting its virgin plastic use in half by 2025.

However, under the leadership of new chief executive Hein Schumacher, the company is shifting direction. Schumacher took over in July 2023, and in an April interview with Bloomberg, he announced the policy change.

Now, instead of cutting plastic use on packaging such as its Dove brand sachets in half by 2025, Unilever is aiming to reduce its virgin plastic use by only one-third and shifting the deadline to 2026. According to the Guardian, this is a difference of about 110,000 tons per year.

"I'm not going to shout that we're saving the world, but I want to make sure that in everything that we do, that it is indeed better," Schumacher said, per the Guardian.

Why is this broken climate pledge important?

Some cities and states have been moving to ban certain kinds of plastic use in the food industry, citing both health concerns and environmental ones. Microplastics broken off from larger pieces of plastic have been found in the blood of people all over the world, with potentially severe health effects that are still under study.

Meanwhile, plastic is among the worst packaging materials from an environmental standpoint. It's made from oil, which pollutes the water and soil where it's extracted, and at the end of its life, it continues polluting as it breaks down slowly over 100 years or more. Recycling it is difficult and may not be a working long-term solution.

Nina Schrank, Greenpeace UK's head of plastics, said Unilever's executives "should hang their heads in shame," per the Guardian.

"Hein Schumacher and his board are well aware of the ruinous impact of their plastic pollution," Schrank said. "The tsunami of plastic they produce each year meant their existing targets were already not fit for purpose. We needed much more. And so rather than doubling down, they're quietly dressing up their backpedaling and low ambition as worthy pragmatism."

What's being done about Unilever?

Unilever has recently been under investigation for misleading climate claims. While regulatory bodies work on addressing the issue, consumers can do their part to show what matters to them by avoiding the company's many brands that still have shown little or no reduction in the use of virgin plastic — such as Dove — and instead choosing plastic-free alternatives

"Unilever really are pouring fuel on the fire of the plastic pollution crisis. Their brands like Dove are famous for telling the world they're forces for good. But they're pumping out a staggering amount of plastic waste," Schrank said. "It's poisoning our planet. You can't claim to be a 'purposeful' company whilst bearing responsibility for such huge pollution. Unilever has to change."

Spreading the word with family and friends can go even further toward financially incentivizing companies to make a change.

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