Global Packaging Director, Germany
Colin joined Unilever in 1986 after completing a PhD in organic chemistry. He spent four years in research before moving into product development and up through the ranks of Unilever’s laundry category to become Global Packaging Director. In 2009 he switched to Unilever’s savoury category, also as Global Packaging Director, and is the unit’s R&D sustainability champion. It’s a role that cuts across the 50-plus targets that make up Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan.
“In the savoury category we look at a number of issues, from reducing salt levels to tackling our greenhouse gas emissions - but there are two big themes to our current work,” explains Colin. “The first is sustainable sourcing. Our category is Unilever’s biggest user of vegetables and spices, so we have a key role to play in meeting our Sustainable Living Plan target to source 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020. The second is waste reduction. Our target is to halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products by 2020, and this is supported by seven further goals covering packaging weight, re-use, recycling, sachet waste, and a longer term goal to achieve 100% sustainable packaging.”
Colin oversees the design of packaging materials for brands such as Knorr, Ragu, and Bertolli, and works in the category’s global design centre – the ‘nerve centre’ where Unilever develops many of the technical solutions that will help achieve the Sustainable Living Plan targets. As Colin explains, the targets force his team to face various technological and behavioural challenges.
“Our packaging targets cover the entire category, so the trick is to look at our portfolio as a whole rather than tackle each product individually,” he says. “The approach we take depends on a number of different options such as pack type and consumer habits and expectations, and we need to explore each one to identify the most suitable route.”
One avenue is to redesign packaging. “Many of our seasoning products come in individual sachets and we’re looking at ways to improve the design of the sachet itself,” he says. Stick-shaped sachets, for example, use 25% less material than conventional flat sachets.
“We’re also looking to increase the amount of materials we use that are recyclable. But many of our products have a long shelf-life, which means the packaging has to be robust enough to protect the product for a sustained period. In these instances we often have to use more complex packaging materials that aren’t recyclable, such as laminates. As well as trying to reduce the amount of these materials we use, and exploring alternatives, we’re looking at how we can recover the energy embedded in them so that they continue to have a value after they have been used by consumers.
Another solution is to reduce the quantity of packaging materials we use, a process known as lightweighting. Glass accounts for 25% of Unilever’s packaging footprint, and is the second most commonly used material after paper and board. “We can reduce the amount of glass we use in bottles and jars, but this brings additional challenges, as we need to develop new transport systems and there are limits to how thin we can make glass from a consumer safety perspective,” explains Colin.
“In some cases we can substitute packaging materials with lighter alternatives such as replacing glass with plastic. Glass is a heavy material, meaning more energy is needed to transport it. While lightweighting and replacing glass with plastic can have positive environmental benefits, we need to account for differences in consumer attitudes. We want to make sure consumers continue to associate our products with quality, so in some countries lightweighting is more appropriate than switching to plastic.”
Despite the challenges, Colin is confident that the category is on target to achieve its goals. “We’ve achieved a lot to date. We have a well-established sustainable sourcing programme and we’re making good progress on waste reduction through our design innovations and brand communications.”
Colin has seen a big change in Unilever’s approach to sustainability since he joined 25 years ago. “We’ve gone from having a very narrow focus on individual issues such as packaging weight to a much more holistic and joined up approach.”
Personally, he has changed too. “I’m much more aware of the packaging of the items I buy, but obviously I’m more aware of issues that aren’t as apparent to the average consumer. My family is playing their part as well and together we are very conscious about the choices we make. This extends beyond packaging to the ingredients in the products we buy and our broader lifestyle impacts. I’ve started to walk to work every day, and have got rid of the company car – it’s important we all play our part, no matter how small.”