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Bird’s-eye view of COP26 venue in Glasgow, with suspended globe

COP26 – where do we go from here?

Unilever is proud to have been a principal partner of COP26 in Glasgow this year. Following the summit, Sebastian Munden, EVP and General Manager for Unilever UK & Ireland, shares his experience at COP26 and discusses the future of sustainability at Unilever UKI.

There were many words spoken at COP6 over the past few weeks, but some that really hit home for me were from Al Gore who stated simply, “We need to stop treating the earth’s atmosphere like an open sewer.” This gave me a lot of energy for the urgency of the action we need to take.

For some COP26 did not deliver on expectations and was met with cynicism, and indeed we all would have liked some ambitions to have gone further, however I believe there was much to feel energised by. The discussions and debates in the main events - but also in smaller pockets and venues of the summit – were an encouraging reminder of how many organisations working together are already taking action with scale impact to bend the curve towards 1.5 degrees.

Centre stage of COP this year was the inequitable impact the climate crisis is having on countries who contribute least to the climate change but who are hardest hit. What once were hypothetical consequences are now the reality for many people, as the natural world continues to unbalance, and at the heart of it is the error that no economic value is assigned to nature.

Alongside many of my colleagues, my focus during my time in Glasgow was to work with other businesses and organisations in the UK to mobilise action right now to help limit global temperature rises.

Regenerating Nature

Nature must be part of the solution – we set up our Climate & Nature Fund to enable our brands to invest in projects that help protect nature, lower emissions and build resilience to climate change impacts. Through a new partnership with Google, we are able to identify deforestation risk in our supply chain in near-real time. Not only will this lead to greater accountability in our supply chain, it will also help us to better detect deforestation and prioritise any areas of forests or habitats in need of urgent protection.

Throughout my time at COP, it was great to connect and meet with the leaders of our retail partners, including Sainsbury’s and M&S, to discuss how we can work together to accelerate consumer behaviour change for more sustainable actions, and how we can influence global supply chains to value nature, leaving it better than we find it.

I was privileged to be asked to co-host an event with Sainsbury's which kicked off Nature Day and also invited to speak with them at an event with Defra ministers and the Council for Sustainable Business (CSB), which aimed to highlight how nature-based approaches can deliver for biodiversity, water, climate, and people. The CSB’s ‘Get Nature Positive’ campaign asks businesses to declare their commitment to protect nature and following the event over 100 businesses had signed up.

Ad Net Zero

As chair of Ad Net Zero, I opened and closed the first Ad Net Zero Global Summit which was live-streamed from Glasgow, where advertising and marketing colleagues from all over the world discovered the simple 5-point plan to get the advertising industry carbon free by 2030, and the actions that can be taken today for any agency, production company, media owner or client – big or small – to start their decarbonisation journey. The event was watched by 2000+ attendees from 30 countries – an amazing achievement – and a great way of really galvanising the advertising industry to play its role.

As well as decarbonising production, advertising has a huge responsibility to help shape more sustainable behaviours and lifestyle choices. Every piece of work produced by the industry can be another nudge in the right direction to a circular economy and a better way of living for our planet. All advertisers and marketeers have a role to play in this.

Supporting sustainability at home

Image shows Seb Munden and The Vegetarian Butcher

At Unilever we are using our scale to tackle global issues, but also to help nudge the small sustainable behaviours that can be taken every day at home. During COP26, our brands Hellmann’s, The Vegetarian Butcher and Knorr helped to raise public awareness of the impact food and our diets can have on the environment. For instance, our study in Canada showed that switching one meal per week to use up leftovers in the fridge (helped by the right condiments, herbs and spice mixes of course) can reduce food waste at home by 30%. Imagine if everyone did that.

Offering a range of our brands and products in refillable multi-use stainless steel bottles, we are continuing to test refillable products at scale. I visited our Glasgow-based partner, Re Bottle, who is supporting the circular process required to bring our trials of refillable products to stores and shoppers across the UK – helping us to scale faster to our commitment to halve our use of virgin plastic. Using insight collected across these trials, we will refine the winning formula for a model which works for our business, our retail partners, and for shoppers too. These trials are in 18 stores across the UK, with Tesco, Asda and Co-Op, which is an amazing effort from the whole team.

Where do we go from here?

Our commitment at Unilever to help tackle the climate crisis has never been stronger. We’re eliminating emissions from our operations by 2030, and working with our brands, suppliers, retailers, and consumers to reach net zero across our value chain by 2039. We have reduced our manufacturing carbon footprint in UK and Ireland by two thirds since 2018, four of our sites are carbon neutral, and we use 100% renewable grid electricity.

Looking ahead, we will continue to act across our full value chain and use our business and reach to influence others. For shoppers who feel far removed from the ability to make a difference to a climate crisis of such magnitude, we will continue to innovate and improve our products and packaging, to help them make more sustainable choices: refillable bottles, using more recycled materials, eating more plant-based meals, or reducing food waste at home, our brands will actively contribute to a net zero future.

Only time will tell how effective COP26 has been in stopping climate change. While the political and legislative frameworks can help speed up the process, it’s businesses that will have to deliver and lead on many of the solutions: the bolder companies can be, the faster the transition.We will only get one shot at this. So let’s make it count.