Plastic and palm oil problems: How will consumer goods giant Henkel hit its sustainability targets?

The US$22 billion chemical and consumer goods multinational has ambitious sustainability ambitions for palm oil and plastic packaging. How will it achieve them? Henkel's sustainability chief Uwe Bergmann talks about two of the most difficult sustainable business problems to solve.

Some of Henkel's top laundry and home care brands. Image: Henkel
Some of Henkel's top laundry and home care brands. Laundry and home care accounts for about one third of the company's sales, and involves two of its biggest sustainability issues: plastic packaging and palm oil derivatives. Image: Henkel

Uwe Bergmann, director of sustainability management for Henkel, the €19.9 billion (US$22 billion) German consumer goods and chemicals multinational famous for brands such as Persil, Loctite, and Schwarzkopf, does not have an easy job.

One of the hardest things about it, he told Eco-Business in a recent interview, is motivating the company’s 50,000 staff in 51 countries to support the company’s main sustainability goalto triple the economic value of the company by 2030 while maintaining the same environmental footprint.

Getting people to back a strategy is not unique to sustainability, but it is particularly difficult in this field, said Bergmann, noting that for a sustainability strategy to work, it’s not only important that staff engage with and support the cause—they need to know what the company wants to achieve and what makes sense for them.

Uwe Bergmann, director of sustainability, Henkel

Uwe Bergmann, director of sustainability management for Henkel

“You get refuseniks who understand what you want to achieve, but who think it’s rubbish and unhelpful. And you get unguided missiles who are keen to support [the strategy] but don’t really know what to do, and might be running initiatives that are ultimately unhelpful and take up a lot of resources,” he said.

Henkel has a smorgasbord of sustainability issues to deal with, from human rights and fair working conditions to energy and water consumption. But two issues are particularly pertinent at the moment, because of their visibility in the public eye.

One is palm oil, a commodity found in half of all supermarket products that has been widely blamed (particularly among Europeans) for taking orangutans to the brink of extinction.

Beaches polluted with plastic waste won’t be helped if we switched to glass.

The other is plastic, a problem that has captured the imagination of people all over the world since 2017, when a video of a turtle having a plastic straw surgically removed from its nose went viral.

In this interview with Eco-Business, Bergmann talks about how his company measures sustainability, the problem with plastics, and trying to ensure that the palm oil Henkel buys is as sustainable as possible.

How does Henkel measure its environmental and social impact?

Understanding the impact of your products along the value chain is key. It’s easiest with carbon footprinting, but gets more challenging with socio-economic assessments, and understanding how stakeholders view your organisation and its impacts. Sometimes the two are aligned. But sometimes they’re contradictory, as we see with the discussion about plastics.

How is the sustainability discussion about plastics contradictory?

If you look at the carbon footprint of alternatives, plastic often has the lowest carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of our plastic products is actually tiny. But we know that plastic is top of consumers’ minds, and at the end of the life of a product, people don’t see how efficient plastic has been along the value chain. They see a nice bottle of shampoo and it somehow feels wrong to just discard it.

If we tell consumers that the plastic bottle is burnt, that is okay as energy is recovered [in waste-to-energy plants]. But it still feels wrong, because of the idea that things should be recycled not burnt. Combine those sentiments with nasty pictures of marine litter, and people get emotionally engaged and want to see change.

But beaches in Asia polluted with plastic waste won’t be helped if we switched to glass, for instance. Imagine if beaches were covered with broken glass! It might feel good to swap plastic for an alternative, but we have to find solutions that make sense both scientifically and economically.

In 2018, Henkel announced that by 2025, 100 per cent of its packaging will be recyclable, reusable or compostable, and the company will use 35 per cent recycled plastic for its packaging in Europe. How confident are you that these commitments will be achieved?

I think we can hit our target, but it will require a lot of effort. There have always been companies with very aspirational, long-shot targets—and we were among them. But we are more realistic now. 

One key challenge is ensuring the quality and availability of recycled material at affordable prices [virgin plastic is currently cheaper than recycled plastic]. If you put enough effort into it, you could probably recycle everything. But you need systems that scale.

We also need to see more consumer education, better separation systems and new cleaning technologies for chemical recycling.

What sort of success has Henkel had in trialing alternatives to plastic for packaging?

We’ve tried plenty. One of the main benefits of plastics is the barrier function. If you compare it to paper, it’s pretty obvious. Plastic is an effective moisture and odour barrier and it’s lightweight. If you compare it with glass or metals, plastic also has crash resistance. You could make a shampoo bottle from glass, but it would be heavier and if you drop it in the bathroom it wouldn’t be pretty.

We do use metal packaging for products such as deodorant. Recycling metals works well, but I’m not sure we want to scale it up. Metal is not transparent, it’s more expensive, and heavier.

We’re experimenting with packaging-free products, such as shampoo bars rather than liquid shampoos, and we use cardboard to protect the product in-store.

When there was clarity, we have made tremendous progress.

We are also experimenting with new refill solutions. My colleagues tried it with milk in the 1990s, but retailers always ran into hygiene issues. We have offered refill pouches for trigger sprayers for cleaning products for a long time, but consumer uptake over the last 20 years has been moderate. 

And we’re experimenting with alternative refill formats that might be more attractive, because typically if you go into a store [the consumer experience] is about the presence of a product, and the refill bag doesn’t catch your eye as much as a nicely designed trigger spray bottle. 

How are you designing new products to ensure that they can be fully recyclable?

Our packaging colleagues are in intense dialogue with waste collection and recycling companies with a view to understanding their requirements and technologies better.

We’ve combined all of that knowledge to create an online tool called EasyD4R. It’s a spreadsheet that gives a comprehensive understanding of how design influences recyclability, and provides feedback to our product developers. It asks questions such as: are you using just one material, are you using different materials for the bottle? Can you separate the materials, and what kind of material are you using?

If, for instance, you use clear packaging, you can convert it into any colour [when it’s recycled]. If you have black (packaging), you face two issues: sorting technologies cannot recognise black unless you use a special pigment. We’ve now developed an alternative colour so that sorting equipment can recognise black. But black material still cannot be recycled into clear, so a clear bottle is always better than a black bottle.

How likely is Henkel to hit its palm oil targets for 2020one of which is to source 100 per cent Mass Balanced certified oils (a mix of oil from uncertified and certified sources that is not traceable to the source, but where the miller keeps track of how much sustainable palm oil it is producing and selling)?

We don’t source palm oil directly, we source surfactants, and they’re based on palm kernel oil [which is extracted from the palm seed rather than the fruit]—and that’s an even more complex supply chain than palm oil. 

Last year, our aim to get to 100 per cent Mass Balanced certified oil by 2020 stalled a bit, as we had to incorporate a few large acquisitions. We’ve made good progress, but we won’t get to 100 per cent—and don’t do any Book and Claim compensation [to offset the shortfall of sustainable oil by buying sustainable palm oil credits] as we believe that it is fairly meaningless. 

We are also working with partners to train smallholder farmers in sustainable practices and boost productivity. The programme has reached more than 30,000 farmers, and we’ve seen the RSPO [Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the lead certifier globally for sustainable palm oil] really taking up the smallholder topic.

What about traceability, an issue that many palm oil buyers struggle with?

One issue is, how do you track traceability? You could use real-time satellite data, but you still need to do checks on the ground, for instance the use of pesticides and labour conditions. Also, there are conflicting tools [for supply chain traceability], and challenges with RSPO’s new principles and criteria, which have raised standards for what is defined as sustainable palm oil. We’re struggling to see the right way forward, but we’re engaging with different stakeholders to get a better idea of a workable scenario for the next five years.

How hopeful are you about the world hitting targets such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 10-year carbon budget deadline?

It’s helpful to look back at what we have already achieved. When there was clarity, we have made tremendous progress. Now, businesses and consumers are more engaged than ever before. Sustainability reporting is commonplace, and the level of interest from the financial markets is now tremendous. 

There are lots of signs that there is enough interest to drive change. The next key step is to ensure real alignment around key climate targets at the next Conference of Parties [COP] meeting [in Glasgow in November].

Did you find this article useful? Join the EB Circle!

Your support helps keep our journalism independent and our content free for everyone to read. Join our community here.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →