When the UK government set out its Net Zero Strategy in October 2021, it talked about 'a global race to develop new green technology.' The countries that captured the benefits of the evolving green industrial revolution would enjoy unrivalled growth and prosperity far into the future, it said.
But what exactly does that ‘capturing’ process involve? And is it happening in the UK to a greater extent than elsewhere? In the manufacturing arena, who is already doing things differently and helping the UK to get ahead in the race to net zero?
We can find our answers in the Liverpool City Region, where a ground-breaking partnership between Unilever, the University of Liverpool and the £68m Materials Innovation Factory (MIF) is set to revolutionise FMCG products by helping to eliminate fossil-based carbon and non-biodegradable ingredients.
The initiative is grounded in helping Unilever to develop high performing, greener, more sustainable products, without pushing costs up for consumers. It will play a major role in helping Unilever to realise its ambition to replace ingredients in its cleaning products that are derived from fossil fuels with alternatives from renewable or recycled sources by 2030. And beyond that, it will help to accelerate the decarbonisation of the global chemical and materials supply chain.
Net zero ambitions
Falling under Unilever’s Clean Future strategy, the collaborative project focuses on discovering next-generation sustainable materials for consumer products, through disruptive innovation in the current chemical supply chain.
Jonathan Hague, Head of Clean Future Science and Technology for Unilever’s Global Homecare Business explains: “We are looking to harness leading materials science to help us move away from fossil fuels, where much of the chemical make-up of cleaning products currently derives from. We want to replace any carbon-heavy formulation ingredients with non-petroleum sourced materials designed for environmental degradation.
“The project will deliver new scientific platforms for designing and inventing renewable and bio-degradable materials, and new routes to make them. This fundamental research will greatly benefit the UK and global scientific communities in the development of net zero aligned chemistries.
“We are looking at many sources of carbon that are already above the ground, including waste plastic, many forms of biomass and even capture of carbon from industrial emissions. Ultimately, we’re seeking alternative raw materials, that will eradicate fossil-based carbon from our supply chain.
“Right now, we’re dependent on a linear, global supply chain, which can’t produce the sustainable materials we want on a large enough scale. This project will also help us to realise our vision of a fully circular, sustainable carbon-free economy. Our goal is to achieve net zero emissions for all of our products from sourcing to point of sale by 2039 – 11 years ahead of the Paris Climate Agreement deadline.”
The initiative is testament to the quality of academic expertise, cutting edge-facilities and public-private collaborations located in Liverpool.
A collaboration between academia and industry
The MIF itself, a world-leading academic institution for materials science located on the University of Liverpool campus in the Liverpool Knowledge Quarter, was part funded by Unilever and provides a collaborative workspace for academics and industry to share open innovations, robotic tech and digital capabilities.
Jonathan is also Chair of the Liverpool City Region Innovation Board, the first dedicated sub-regional body of its kind in the UK, which is dedicated to boosting research and development in the city region. It’s all evidence of a supportive ecosystem that drives innovation, supports the development of pioneering sustainability projects and moves organisations closer to net zero, faster. Change can only come when the government, industry, and research institutions work together – and in Liverpool, this is clearly happening.
Billions of pounds have been ploughed into LCR innovation infrastructure in recent years and live projects include the STFC Hartree National Centre for Digital Innovation, a national AI solutions centre, and Glass Futures – a global glass industry-led R&D, innovation and training hub, aiming to evolve into a wider industrial decarbonisation campus.
Having a major global Research and Development Centre based in the LCR and being part of wider innovation ecosystem continues to be a winning formula for Unilever, as it strives to transform its processes and products. Jonathan added: “Unilever has a long-standing relationship with the University of Liverpool, going back 100 years, and we have always recognised the importance of having such a strong academic partner on our doorstep.
“The intellectual and scientific assets based here in the Liverpool City Region are second-to-none for the things we are trying to achieve, and we have been able to harness and complement those assets in a joint bid to advance material science and sustainable technology.
“We invest more on R&D in the Liverpool City Region than in any other single location in the world. Our investment into the Materials Innovation Factory was our single biggest R&D partnership investment when it took place back in 2014. But that financial commitment has really paid dividends.”
The Clean Future project isn’t the only innovative, manufacturing-focused initiative that Unilever is currently involved with in the LCR. Having recently entered into a ten year partnership with the LCRCA, the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) is developing a new Digital Manufacturing Accelerator (DMA) facility in the region. The DMA provides a physical and digital testbed environment together with the engineering expertise to explore cutting edge digital manufacturing technologies. Unilever is working with the DMA to develop ultra-efficient manufacturing processes to serve ever more sophisticated consumers with environmentally conscious products. There’s no doubt that Unilever and the Liverpool City Region are deeply committed to catalysing the ‘green industrial revolution.’ Both provide a blueprint for effective collaboration aimed at driving carbon efficiency.
This approach can be replicated across manufacturing and supply chain companies, cities and countries on a global scale, added Jonathan, but it needs to be mandated for by big government. “We are seeing regulation for the fuel industry that mandates the use of renewable carbon; we need to see similar regulation applied to the embedded carbon in manufactured products to level the playing field for the markets for renewable carbon.
“As an industry, we have to break our dependence on fossil fuels, including as a raw material for our products. Eliminating virgin fossil fuels from our cleaning formulations is better for the planet, better for consumers and better for our business. We hope to demonstrate what can be achieved when a business sets the elimination of fossil carbon in its targets and are proud to be doing so with the support of our partners in the Liverpool City Region.”
Sustainability will be a key theme at Digital Manufacturing Week, also taking place in Liverpool on 14-18 November.
To read more stories around Sustainability click here.
Jon is currently Head of Clean Future Science and Technology for Unilever Homecare, a position held since January 2018. Jon also heads the Clean Future programme for Unilever Homecare – which intends to eliminate all fossil-based carbon from Unilever s Cleaning products by 2030. Prior to this he was Unilever’s first Vice President Open Innovation, and successfully embedded a unique innovation model in the company, which generates several hundred million Euros of impact each year. His 30+year experience in Unilever R&D includes two international postings, to Jakarta Indonesia from 1997 to 2001, and to Chicago Illinois from 2001 to 2006, both in Unilever’s Beauty and Personal Care business.
Outside Unilever, in addition to being Chairman of the Liverpool City Region Innovation Board, Jon is also Chairman of Penrhos Bio, a start-up biotech company that licences technology to eliminate harmful biofilms and is also Chairman of the UK Chemistry Council Innovation Committee.