Unilever and U.S. biotech company Genomatica (Geno) are working on a plan to scale and commercialize alternatives to palm oil and fossil fuel-derived cleansing ingredients.
The companies said due to growing demand for sustainably-sourced palm oil, they aim to deliver new responsibly-sourced palm oil alternatives to the market.
With $120m jointly invested in the newly-formed initiative, and with other strategic investors expected to join, the venture will develop an alternative, plant-based ingredient using biotechnology.
The innovation is relevant to cleaning and personal care products that require ingredients to lather and lift dirt. Currently, there are few viable alternatives to palm and fossil sources that can be produced at scale in order to make those ingredients.
This is why Unilever and Geno believe the efforts can tap into the combined $625 billion home and personal care markets. For Unilever, one of the world’s biggest soap and detergent manufacturers, this is the largest investment in biotechnology alternatives to palm oil to date.
Geno is already starting to scale the process to produce the ingredients. Beyond creating a newly transparent supply chain, initial estimates have shown companies could reduce the carbon footprint of palm-derived ingredients by up to 50% with this technology-driven, plant-based alternative.
Companies like Unilever, whose products are used globally by 3.4 billion people each day, are increasingly partnering with biotech companies like Geno to explore, develop, and manufacture new versions of traditionally-sourced ingredients.
Unilever said palm oil will remain an important feedstock, but alternative ingredients can play a growing role in diversifying supply chains to drive optionality, sustainability and cost management.
‘Revolutionizing cleansing ingredients’
Unilever’s chief R&D officer, Richard Slater, said: “Biotechnology has the potential to revolutionize the sourcing of our cleansing ingredients and ensure Unilever is a future-fit business – for consumers, shareholders and the planet we all share. This new venture will sit at the intersection of science and sustainability, meaning we can continue to grow our business without relying only on palm oil or fossil fuel derivatives and at the same time make our supply chains more resilient through having access to ingredient alternatives.
“We will be marrying science and nature to make sure there is no tradeoff for our consumers between the efficacy and sustainability of their products. We are building this innovative new venture to have the scale to drive real impact and change in our industry, reinventing the chemistry of home and personal care products for the 21st Century.”
Christophe Schilling, Geno CEO added: “Geno’s collaboration with Unilever builds upon its strong track record of partnering with market leaders who are committed to accelerating the commercialization of sustainable materials in their industries – from clothing to now cleaning ingredients. We’ve developed our technology in response to our planet’s urgent climate crisis and we’ve proven that biotechnology can replace traditional production methods to produce ingredients with bio-based sources that deliver both high-performance and sustainability, at scale.
“Our technology enables pathways for alternative sourcing of materials whose supply chains often have limited social and environmental transparency, by offering more resilient supply chains that are transparent, traceable and responsibly-sourced as demanded by consumers. Beyond creating new transparent and responsibly sourced-supply chains and alternatively-sourced materials, our Geno technology also represents the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100 million tons in upcoming years.”
In response to the climate crisis, Geno has spent the last 20 years developing and scaling sustainable materials derived from plant- or waste-based feedstocks instead of fossil fuels. Geno’s technology drives materials and ingredients in applications ranging from cosmetics, carpets, to home cleaners, apparel and more.
Geno converts plant-based raw materials into chemical building blocks that are key components of widely-used materials.
The company has already partnered with several companies such as Lululemon athletica, Covestro AG, Asahi Kasei and Cargill-Helm.
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