Footage by FULouGraphy

Yesterday afternoon Unilever held their AGM at their Blackfriars HQ where they put their carbon zero plans to a shareholder’s vote. Big on sustainability, they claim that by 2025 they aim to cut by half their virgin plastic use in their packaging and “achieve a more than 100,000 tonne reduction in plastic use”. They also want to “collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell” as well as increase post-consumer recycled plastic material to at least 25% in their packaging.

All this sounds great, but activists from Plastics Rebellion say it is no way near enough and that Unilever’s Rethinking plastic packaging report glosses over many issues and is effectively a greenwashing exercise.

The report claims that plastic is often the lowest carbon footprint option, but doesn’t give credit to the part that fracking plays in modern production, with methane spikes a major concern to climate scientists. Waste plastic incineration for energy is more carbon intensive than gas and second only to coal.

Unilever is one of four world’s largest users of plastic packaging along with Nestlé, Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic finds its way to developing countries where it is often burned or dumped, exacerbating the climate crisis and killing hundreds of thousands of people each year through mismanaged waste and pollution.

Plastics Rebellion want Unilever to promote zero waste as an urgent target, and pay for cleaning up the environmental damage that their products continue to cause. Recycling is no panacea, because recycled plastic is still full of environmentally damaging chemicals such as phthalates and EDTs, and it breaks down into microplastic pollution. They want to see reuse prioritised over recycling, and would like a Citizen’s Assembly to look at the evidence and set legislation on manufacture and use of plastic.

Trying to engage meaningfully with Unilever’s CEO, the group exchanged various emails in the run-up to the AGM yesterday, but CEO Alan Jope ended the conversation with the words:

OK – you win.  We suck.  All our sustainability efforts are greenwashing.  We try to hide our problems.  And none of our efforts are sincere”

This is possibly the most honest Unilever has been, but probably not what they said at their AGM.