Unilever CEO Schumacher Lays out Plastics Roadmap

By Steven Downes & Sean Ashcroft
Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher
Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher sets out a roadmap to a Global Plastics Treaty, in wake of controversy that saw company criticised for watering down ESG goals

Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher has set out a roadmap to a Global Plastics Treaty – warning that there is “no time to waste”.

Schumacher was representing the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty at the latest round of negotiations in Ottawa, which failed qachieve a significant breakthrough.

Afterwards, he wrote a straight-talking blog on the company website, in which he spelled out why a treaty is “exactly what business needs”.

Schumacher wrote that the negotiations are at a “critical juncture”.

He added: “Unilever and the Business Coalition are calling for global rules because voluntary initiatives alone will not solve the crisis. Furthermore, at Unilever, we know that for us to deliver on our plastic packaging commitments, we need all actors to pull in the same direction.”

Schumacher made a plenary speech in Ottawa, where he urged governments to put in place policies that level the playing field.

In his blog, he pointed out that "business responds to regulatory certainty but the reality is we're facing a fragmented policy environment for packaging from country to country", and added that a treaty can "harmonise this landscape and help simplify supply chains, scale existing solutions and spur further innovation”.

Clearing up plastic

What is the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty?

The Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty is a group of over 200 organisations from across the plastic value chain which believe a legally binding treaty is the best way to tackle the plastic pollution crisis.

The policy working group includes:

  • Allison Lin, Global VP Packaging Sustainability, Mars.
  • Ben Jordan, Senior Director, Environmental Policy, Coca-Cola Company
  • Carolyn Panzarella, Associate Manager, Global Environmental Policy, PepsiCo.
  • Patrick Shewell, Global Sustainability Packaging, Mondelez International
  • Tom Smith, Global Government Affairs, Walmart.
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Schumacher said he was encouraged that the treaty text is being streamlined, while measures across the full life-cycle of plastic remain.

The Business Coalition’s priority areas are included – restrictions and phase-outs, product design and extended producer responsibility.

Hein said: “Agreeing global rules in these areas is not only achievable, it will also accelerate the voluntary work already being done by the industry.

“Furthermore, the mandate for intersessional work is very significant. This will allow for much-needed technical discussions, improving the chances of text alignment ahead of INC5.”

Plastics reduction 'quickest way to cut plastic pollution'

Schumacher said plastics reduction is the “quickest way to cut plastic pollution.

“But how the treaty will seek to reduce virgin plastic production remains unclear. The same can be said for how it will help scale reuse and refill models.

“I was encouraged to see growing momentum behind calls for reduction policies, including the proposal from Peru and Rwanda for intersessional work in this area – something we support. With just a few months to go, this crucial element still does not have a clear path forward.

“We believe governments should prioritise discussions on upstream measures such as phasing out problematic and avoidable plastic products in a globally coordinated way, and harmonising design criteria for plastic packaging.”

He added: “While these will be the more difficult conversations to have, global rules in these areas will provide business with the certainty needed to scale existing solutions, spark innovation and mobilise investment.”

He ended the blog on an upbeat note, saying there are g"rowing signs at INC4 that a treaty with global rules on upstream and downstream measures is within reach".

Unilever's recent input on plastics reduction follows recent controversy, after Schumacher announced a scale-back of its ESG goals, including watering down key targets in the area of plastic usage.

That shift in approach comes amid growing pressure from shareholders in global corporations to cut costs and focus more on stock market performance than ESG.

With the provocative headline: ‘Defining a new era for sustainability leadership’, Hein announced the company "has learned from experience we need to be more focused in our allocation of resources to make tangible progress on the big, complex challenges we face”.

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