Unilever invests in biotech alternatives to palm oil for greener cleaning

Unilever is sinking millions of dollars into a plan to scale up the production of a plant-based ingredient that could curb the use of palm oil and fossil fuels in its extensive household product range.

The consumer goods giant announced that it had partnered with U.S. biotech firm Genomatica on a $120 million venture to commercialize and scale alternatives to environmentally damaging feedstocks used to manufacture everyday cleaning and personal care products.   

The partnership aims to help Genomatica scale a “technology-driven, plant-based ingredient,” estimated to have half the carbon footprint of palm-derived ingredients, according to the update.

Unilever did not disclose the amount it had invested in the partnership but confirmed it was the largest investment it had made to date in biotechnology alternatives to palm oil.

It has urged other strategic investors to join the initiative, arguing there is an opportunity to tap into a $625 billion home an personal care market looking to cut its environmental footprint but with few viable alternatives for palm and fossil fuel feedstocks.

Unilever’s chief R&D officer said biotechnology had the potential to ‘revolutionize’ sourcing.

Unilever’s chief R&D officer, Richard Slater, said biotechnology had the potential to “revolutionize” the sourcing of its cleansing ingredients while ensuring Unilever was “future-fit.”

“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 and at the same time make our supply chains more resilient through having access to ingredient alternatives,” he said.

He added that Unilever was committed to ensuring there would be no trade-off for consumers between products’ “efficacy and sustainability.” “We are building this innovative new venture to have the scale to drive real impact and change in our industry, reinventing the chemistry of home and personal care products for the 21st century,” he said.

Genomatica CEO Christophe Shilling explained that his firm’s technology would deliver “both high performance and sustainability at scale” for businesses looking to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, and fossil fuels from their products.

“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,” he said. “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.”

The partnership with Unilever is the latest in a string of high-profile alliances for Genomatica, which has previously partnered with the likes of sports gear firm Lululemon Athletica, chemicals company Asahi Kasei and plastics company Covestro.

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