Walk into any grocery store in your neighborhood, and you will undoubtedly find products owned by Unilever and Proctor & Gamble (P&G). As two of the most prominent multinational FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) goods companies in the world, they are the home staples you’ve never heard of, and without a doubt, you rely on at least one of them for some of your favorite products. Both brands focus on home goods, food, and personal care products and are considered stock safe-havens – reliable companies with products we all depend on.
It is not difficult to find information about the sustainability efforts of both Unilever and P&G, thanks to their stated goals and their marketing tactics. Both companies make use of centrally planned brand development, meaning they have unified messaging on sustainability goals across every product they sell. So when they make big claims about what steps they’re taking against climate change, the information is easy and quick to disperse. But where do the two companies rank, and which out-performs the other?
Focusing increasingly on food and personal care products in the last decade, Unilever owns brands you most definitely enjoy, think – Ben & Jerry’s, Lipton, Hellmann’s, Seventh Generation, Dove, and over 400 others. Serving 190 countries, with sustainability commitments across them, Unilever’s sustainability street-cred is often considered solidified.
They claim to be up to big things, striving for net-zero emissions by 2039. Claiming to be “transitioning to renewable energy across our operations, finding new low-carbon ingredients, expanding our plant-based product range and developing fossil-fuel-free cleaning and laundry products.”
Owning the Standards
As an early adopter in the sustainability realm, Unilever became the benchmark for sustainable business practices starting back in the late 80s, setting the rules of the game before others were even considering the environmental factor. In some ways, their early adoption and high expectations have raised the bar for all companies in the sphere. However, being considered the definition of sustainability across FMCGs can create complications when assessing the reliability of their promises.
Expansion Comes With a Cost
In the 1990s, when Unilever began to expand East, targeting the “bottom billion,” they intended to bring hygiene to countries such as India, where they marketed shampoos and soaps. Because the poorest individuals do not have the resources, or the need, to purchase full shampoo bottles, Unilever began to sell it in single-use plastic sachets. These sachets and others like it now litter the streets of India, where organized waste collection is non-existent. The impact of this decision is felt environmentally and socially as cows, who free-roam and scrounge for food, routinely die from plastic consumption. The company has committed to using only recyclable plastic by 2025, but the damage has certainly been done.
Palm oil is the world’s most consumed and traded vegetable oil, used in food and personal care products such as soap. Due to its unique properties and adaptability, it is an irreplaceable component of many day-to-day products. Still, it requires intensive resources, such as rainforest lands and human labor in regions without significant oversight or labor laws.
With consumption of palm oil only expected to increase, companies must move the industry forward sustainably. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) recently conducted an in-depth survey on companies’ commitments and actions regarding palm oil. Unilever ranked exceptionally well among the bunch, with a score of 19.13/24. According to the survey, while there are still some gaps to close in the sustainability of their palm oil supply chain, Unilever, by and large, positively contributes to the industry – pushing for not only environmental sustainability but also for human rights in the industry.
We must note that this survey was conducted based on company-provided information, which may indicate some bias in the data. In 2016, Amnesty International released a report on the largest consumers of palm oil, Unilever among them. They found that the palm oil industry relies heavily on both child labor and forced labor. Tracing the oil, they were able to show that Unilever (and P&G, but we’ll get to that) benefit from these labor practices.
P&G, owning 65 different brands, focuses mainly on home care and personal care products. With 22 of their brands being billion-dollar brands, don’t let the comparatively small number fool you. P&G is a force to be reckoned with in the consumer goods space. They own brands such as Oral B, Charmin, Puffs, Bounty, Tide, and Mr. Clean.
Similar to Unilever, they talk a big game when it comes to sustainability. In September 2021, they released a new sustainability action plan where they aim to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across its operations and supply chain, from raw material to retailer” by 2040.
Partnering With….Big Oil?
In 2019, 28 companies from around the globe banded together to create The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, a non-profit organization focused on ending plastic waste. The investment of billions of dollars towards this effort is exciting and promising until you read the member list. Headed by oil companies such as BASF, Shell, and ExxonMobil, we could not blame you for feeling disappointed. The same companies funding this glorified clean-up project are simultaneously investing billions of dollars into the future of plastic production. This industry, of course, relies profoundly on the production of oil. P&G proudly displays its position as a founding partner of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which admittedly makes an informed reader cringe a bit. However, this partnership does more than disappoint; it discredits P&G’s many claims on sustainability efforts.
The Tree-to-Toilet Pipeline
The U.S. is the world leader in toilet paper consumption, which is excellent news for P&G as they own one of the most prevalent toilet paper brands in the country. However, the raw materials required to make toilet paper are intensive and can come at a significant cost to natural environments. Unfortunately, P&G relies on one of the most climate-critical environments globally – The Boreal Forest – for the primary toilet paper ingredient, pulp.
This Boreal Forest is “the most carbon-dense, intact forest left on the planet, locking up in its soils and trees twice as much carbon as the world’s oil reserves.” Vital for indigenous peoples, endangered species, and the entire planet’s health, the slow and steady deforestation occurring here is environmental negligence we cannot ignore.
And it isn’t just toilet paper. P&G produces tissues and paper towels from the same materials. They claim that for every tree they use, “at least one is regrown,” but the question is, why are no efforts being made to transition Charmin, Bounty, and Puffs to recycled contents or sustainable alternative fibers?
In the same 2021 survey conducted by WWF, as mentioned previously, P&G scored much lower than Unilever at 15.01/24. Most damaging to their score, P&G does not source RSPO Certified Palm Oil, and they have not made public commitments to human rights protections, nor committed to sourcing from suppliers that uphold those rights. By refusing to commit to sustainably sourced palm oil, P&G lags far behind its competitors.
In the End
There is little enthusiasm we can pretend to present in defense of either Unilever or P&G. Still; we can say without a doubt that of the two – P&G is far behind in its prioritization of sustainability. Moreover, the company’s decision to support The Alliance to End Plastic Waste is at its worst deceptive and malicious and at its best ignorant and irresponsible.
At Ethically, we compile scores from a broad range of data trusted sources to create a granular profile of more than 15,000 companies and brands, evaluating their impact on the environment, society at large, and good business. You can learn more about Ethically’s process in our Methodology, and you can see the scores yourself by downloading the Ethically browser extension.