Henkel deals very carefully and seriously with all ethical questions relating to biotechnology and genetic engineering. Henkel's field of business is, however, far removed from those areas of genetic engineering that are often hotly debated in public because of ethical issues.
Our strategy is not to exploit the opportunities offered by biotechnology and genetic engineering unless they result in ecological gain, greater benefit for consumers, and economic advantages for Henkel. We limit our activities here to one sub-area of biotechnology – white (or industrial) biotechnology which, when applied as intended, does not release microorganisms. This is a set of practices that use living organisms or their cells or products to generate industrial products and processes. Modern biotechnology is mainly characterized by its targeted use of molecular biological techniques. Among other things, white biotechnology is used to produce enzymes for laundry detergents and automatic dishwashing detergents. These enzymes show significantly better environmental performance, even during their production, than conventionally produced enzymes do. This applies to the carbon dioxide emissions and wastewater pollution levels as well as energy consumption.
Our researchers and product developers therefore work with raw materials manufacturers who produce selected ingredients for laundry detergents and household cleaners with the help of white biotechnology.
Saving energy by means of enzymes produced by biotechnological methods
Enzymes are of vital importance for metabolic processes in plants, animals and humans. They make certain chemical reactions proceed very quickly. Enzymes of the protease class, for example, break down the proteins in the food we eat into their basic building blocks, the amino acids. These in turn combine to create the body's own specific proteins.
The capabilities of enzymes are also used in washing and dishwashing machines. Proteases break down soiling that contains proteins, while lipases remove fatty stains – even at low temperatures. This is why enzymes are important ingredients in laundry and automatic dishwashing detergents. During the life cycle of a laundry or dishwashing detergent – from the raw material through to disposal in a sewage treatment plant – most energy is consumed during the washing process itself. Life cycle analyses have shown that the use phase in the washing machine or dishwasher is the one that requires the most energy and hence generates the most carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, much more energy is consumed at high temperatures than at low ones. Enzymes take much of the credit for the excellent results that modern laundry and dishwashing detergents deliver even at low temperatures. It is thanks to these continuously improved enzymes that traditional household helpers have now become especially energy-saving and resource-conserving products that make an important contribution to sustainability.
Microorganisms produce enzymes
If certain bacteria, as naturally occurring microorganisms, are provided with the correct nutrients and kept under the conditions they prefer, they are capable of producing the enzymes that are so useful in detergents as metabolic products. Industrial-scale biotechnological processes have been developed to utilize this phenomenon. The bacteria grow and multiply under controlled conditions in water-filled, closed agitator vessels known as fermenters. The optimal conditions for growth are established by precisely regulating the temperature and the addition of oxygen and nutrients. This results in high enzyme yields. Finally, the enzymes are separated completely from the bacterial cells and the genetic information they contain. To ensure that the enzymes obtained can be readily and safely processed, auxiliary substances such as cellulose, starch and wax are used to develop stable enzyme granules. Since Henkel does not make any enzymes itself, the complete production process is carried out by suppliers. They partner closely with our researchers to develop the optimal enzymes for use in laundry and dishwashing detergents. We also source enzymes from raw materials manufacturers who have developed and optimized such enzymes themselves.
Other ingredients based on white biotechnology
Besides enzymes Henkel's laundry and home care products contain further ingredients based on white biotechnology – e.g. biosurfactants and citric acid. However, we do not produce these ingredients ourselves, but purchase them from our raw materials suppliers. Biosurfactants are washing active substances with a biological provenance. They are manufactured through the action of yeasts or bacteria on renewable raw materials. Citric acid is produced on an industrial scale by a special fungus.
Raw materials suppliers with special expertise
Henkel purchases ingredients made using white biotechnology from selected raw materials manufacturers who have decades of expertise in this field. These raw materials manufacturers and Henkel itself use biotechnological methods for research, in particular to find ways of developing new and improved laundry detergent enzymes. The applicable regulation of the European Union defines four safety levels for handling genetically modified organisms. The microorganisms used to produce enzymes belong, without exception, to the level of lowest concern.
Henkel subscribes to the core ethical values of EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, and conforms to its principles. The principles, which cover issues relating to genetic engineering, include statements ranging from “We oppose the use of cloning technologies to reproduce human beings” to “We support … the exchange of biotechnology between developed and developing countries, duly considering each country's cultural differences.”
It is highly unlikely from today’s perspective that we could approach the boundaries of the ethically responsible when researching new fields of application. Nevertheless, this would always be the first aspect to be thoroughly investigated before undertaking any possible future expansion of genetic engineering.