Unilever pins cleaning hopes on biotech ‘game-changer’

Unilever is working with San Diego-based biotechnology specialists Geno in a $120 million venture which seeks to produce plant-based alternatives to feedstocks like palm oil and fossil fuels which are used in cleaning products.

According to Unilever, the partnership could be a game-changer for the combined $625 billion home, beauty and personal care markets.

It will also help to strengthen supply chains by creating cost-competitive alternatives and reducing our dependence on a small number of feedstocks that can have high levels of volatility, the company added.

Using advanced biotechnology, Geno has established a fermentation process that uses sugar to convert microorganisms into an ingredient needed to make key cleaning agents called surfactants. These are integral to all cleansing products – across the home, personal care and beauty industries – to help them foam, lather, and lift dirt.

While offering effective cleansing properties, these ingredients are predominately made using fossil fuels and palm oil with few viable substitutes that can be manufactured at scale.

Initial estimates have shown the new process could reduce the carbon footprint of palm-derived ingredients by up to 50%.

Richard Slater, Unilever chief research & development officer explained: “Biotechnology has the potential to revolutionise the sourcing of our cleansing ingredients and ensure Unilever is a future-fit business – for consumers, shareholders and the planet we all share”.

“We’ve developed technology in response to our planet’s urgent climate crisis and have proven that biotechnology can replace traditional methods to produce ingredients with bio-based sources that deliver both high performance and sustainability,” added Christophe Schilling, CEO of Geno.

“Creating new bio-based materials will help us make the planet positive personal care products of the future,” adds Fabian Garcia, President of Unilever Personal Care.

“Collaborating with scientific partners is essential to accelerating our progress, bringing to market cutting-edge, cost effective and sustainable solutions that our business and consumers will benefit from.”