‘As consumers we all have tremendous impact’: why becoming climate positive is the business world’s greatest challenge

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Izzet Noyan Yilmaz/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Izzet Noyan Yilmaz/Alamy Stock Photo

Ever-increasing global temperatures and warnings that we have just nine years to alter the path we’re on if we’re to avoid rising sea levels and mass extinctions make it clear that things are getting serious. Unless you’re a climate science denier, you’ll be familiar with – and anxious to see something done about – a pretty bleak prognosis for the planet.

For all the good that many small businesses are doing on a local level to source more sustainable products and reduce global emissions, the importance of bigger, multinational companies leading by example cannot be overestimated. Although too few companies have yet pledged to become climate positive – going beyond achieving net zero carbon emissions to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – the ball has been set rolling by the likes of Ikea, BrewDog, Microsoft and Henkel, the company behind familiar products such as Schwarzkopf, Right Guard and Loctite. Each of these businesses faces its own challenges and is coming up with its own solutions.

Ikea can lean on the fact that many of its products are climate positive, being made principally from wood. Trees breathe in carbon dioxide, trapping the carbon element; it’s from logging, through production and transport to disposal, that the product accumulates its carbon footprint. The “natural carbon storage” of the trees, in tandem with a drive towards using only renewable energy, better forestry management and enabling customers to live low-energy lifestyles (via home solar panels and LED lights, for example), will help it reach its carbon-negative goal.

Microsoft’s target is even more ambitious. Carbon-neutral since 2012, the company plans to balance out all the emissions it has ever produced by 2050 by investing in sustainable technologies such as carbon sequestration. And in August of 2020, beer brand BrewDog announced it had achieved its climate positivity targets by switching to wind power for its breweries.

Their methods may differ, but if these trailblazing companies share one thing, it’s a desire to stand up and tackle the problem. And that is true, too, for Henkel.

“For us, it’s a mindset,” says Uwe Bergmann, director, global sustainability at Henkel, which produces and markets adhesive technologies, laundry and beauty products in more than 100 countries, and is committed to being climate positive by 2040. “We decided it was better to be positive about this great global challenge, rather than aiming to be merely neutral or less of a problem. We’re embracing the challenge.”

To be climate positive, a company needs to draw more carbon from the atmosphere than it creates through its operations – ideally from raw material extraction through production, logistics and transport and consumer use, to disposal and recycling. It can achieve this by making concrete changes such as switching to renewable energy, or through more abstract ideas such as purchasing or generating energy credits or offsetting emissions through tree-planting initiatives.

For most companies, it’s the raw materials and consumer-use phases that account for the lion’s share of carbon emissions, and Henkel is no different: raw materials account for 26% and consumer use 67% of its emissions.

The fact that these are outside the company’s direct influence presents challenges. “It’s hard to make reliable long-term commitments along the entire value chain when you rely on many actors,” says Bergmann. “Take our shower gels or body wash, for example: we can’t force you to limit your time under the shower or run the water a bit cooler. We can’t make you switch your energy supplier. But it’s in our interest that you are aware of how you can contribute to climate protection and continue to have showers and enjoy our products in the future.”

Despite production accounting for only a small proportion of Henkel’s global carbon footprint – just 2% compared with Ikea’s 11%, for example – the company is doing everything it can to refine its processes so they become ever more efficient, says Bergmann, for whom conversion to 100% renewable energy sources is a given. “Once we’ve converted to renewables, we will still want to become more efficient.”

Although the company has some on-site solar power generation at its sites – both thermal and photovoltaic – any ideas of having a wind turbine at its Dusseldorf headquarters were quickly scotched by zoning restrictions. Biomass combined heat and power plants, however, remain part of the company’s plans.

“If we have the right energy infrastructure in place – similar to the combined heat and power biomass system we have in Montornès del Vallès in Spain, for example – we will have more and more surplus renewable energy available for others,” says Bergmann. Passing this surplus energy on to third parties will enable Henkel to stride into climate-positive territory – so long as emissions are minimised elsewhere.

Man at home doing laundry, putting clothes in the washing machine.
Modern concentrated detergents require far less to be used, thus saving bulk and raw materials. Photograph: RoBeDeRo/Getty Images

The company works with its suppliers to reduce the energy expended at the raw materials stage, but simultaneously seeks to develop smarter ingredients that use less energy and optimise its formulations. “When I was growing up, you had huge boxes of detergent and you dosed maybe 250ml-270ml of powder into a wash,” says Bergmann. “Today, with the most compact forms, that can be 35ml of concentrated liquid detergent. It’s quite a dramatic progress.” Less bulk equals less raw materials and less carbon emitted during transport.

One thing Bergmann is keen to stay clear of is offsetting: “The classic tree-planting offset is not part of our strategy. It sends the wrong signal and it’s too easy to do right now.” Critics of the system say a company can buy its way to carbon neutrality or negativity without seriously examining its own processes for every possible inefficiency and enacting every improvement. “The capacities of the planet for offsetting are limited,” Bergmann says.

At Henkel, the approach is to look for efficiencies and changes within. “We have a programme to help smallholder palm oil farmers way upstream in our supply chain improve their activities and switch to sustainable production that prohibits deforestation and therefore has a biodiversity and a climate benefit: the more productive farmers are, the less forest area you need to produce palm oil,” says Bergmann.

Related: Coming unstuck: can glue that lets go solve the global packaging problem?

He points out that many products in the Henkel portfolio actively enable emission reductions in other industries: “Our products help to insulate buildings, make cars lighter and make pumps and solar panels more efficient. All of these things help our customers – and ultimately consumers – save energy and carbon.”

To help individual consumers quantify their carbon footprints, and encourage improvements in behaviour, Henkel has developed a carbon footprint calculator. Spend a few minutes answering basic questions about your lifestyle and you’ll get a detailed analysis of where improvements or compromises might be made. “You, me, all of us as consumers have a tremendous impact: how long to shower, what to eat, how to live, how to heat,” says Bergmann. “Do I trade my SUV against a large flat with tall ceilings, can I balance that by eating vegetarian?”

The latest calculator update takes into account new patterns of behaviour that may not be such obvious threats as driving a car or keeping your home cosy. “Video-conferencing and streaming services make up an increasing share of the global energy demand, especially with Covid-19,” says Bergmann.

Not everyone will be up for kicking their habits, but other decisions require less sacrifice. “Laundry won’t complain if you wash it cold, so that’s easier. Your clothes will last longer and your electricity bill will be lower,” says Bergmann, adding that decades of research has enabled Henkel to produce detergents that function at these lower temperatures. “It’s about generating a good value proposition – the behavioural change will follow.”

For all the company’s good work on a macro level, Bergmann believes fatalism on an individual level remains a threat. The first step to combating this is having a clear breakdown of our own carbon footprints. “This transparency enables us to make informed choices,” he says. “We all need to take gradual steps, rather than just seeing an overwhelming target that we’ll struggle to achieve.”

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