Naples, Fla. — Unilever plc's "sustainable living" brands — including consumer products packaged in 100 percent post-consumer plastic — have grown 46 percent faster than the company's other brands, according to Melissa Craig, the company's senior manager of packaging sustainability.
"We know that is the key. That is what works. When you tie a brand's purpose to a social or environmental mission, it works. It sells," Craig said Feb. 25 at the Plastics News Executive Forum in Naples.
Sustainability is more than a buzzword.
"We believe that businesses that keep sustainability in the forefront, in their products and their brands, those are the ones that actually sustain for the long run," Craig said. She covers sustainable packaging for North America.
Unilever products that use 100 percent post-consumer resin (PCR) include Hellmann's mayonnaise, Dove beauty items, St. Ives body products, Love Beauty Planet and Right to Shower products that support the homeless.
The consumer giant is working on more fully PCR plastics packaging — and zero packaging for some products, she said.
"Do we really have to have plastic packaging? Can we package our products in what we call 'naked packaging'? We're still going to include PCR. But also concentrates, lightweighting — those are the kinds of things we're looking at," Craig said. Refillable packages are another option.
But it hasn't been easy.
"We found that when you get the higher levels of PCR, the more and more difficulty you have with making a responsible product that looks the same, that acts the same and that costs the same — that's always a challenge," she said.
Odor and color are big challenges with post-consumer plastic. Craig said the mayo packaging made of recycled PET also can have a little darker tint than virgin PET and sometimes have black spots. Hellmann's doesn't try to hide this, but explains it to consumers, she said.
"The brand's leaning into it," Craig said.
Although material cost is an issue, Unilever officials are forging ahead.
"We know PCR, it does cost more and that's the bullet that we're taking. We're paying for it," she said. "But the big issue is we have the goals to use more PCR, and so does everyone else. All of our competitors have the same goals, and there's just not enough material to go around. That's our challenge."
Having enough material is a major issue when all giant consumer products makers are making big promises. "The bottom line is we need to get more material back," Craig said.
She described the "roller coaster" highs and lows of moving to 100 percent post-consumer plastics, including variations in material, molding challenges, and resin supply issues.
"We need you guys; we need the plastics industry," Craig said. "We all have to work together. We're looking for collaboration. We're looking to collaborate with everyone. We know we can't do it all ourselves."
Craig recapped Unilever's efforts in sustainability. By 2025, the company has committed to using 25 percent PCR and cut the amount of virgin plastic it buys in half. Another goal: to use 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging.
And Unilever pledged that, by 2025, to help collect and process more plastic packaging than the company sells.
"So by 2025, we know, in order to meet these goals we have to really take fast, quick radical action at every point in the plastics cycle," Craig said.