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How a multinational moved its emissions targets in production forward by 10 years to 2030

“Pioneering innovation for a purposeful future” – a series by The Guardian, sponsored by Henkel

Responsibility Feb 2, 2023

This article was originally published in 2022 on theguardian.com as part of the Henkel and Guardian Labs “Pioneering innovation for a purposeful future” campaign.

From electricity to heat generation, Henkel is cutting its carbon footprint in its own operations faster than it expected. What’s behind this ambitious transformation – and what lies ahead?

Byline: Duncan Jefferies

What does a company that aims to use 100% renewable energy in its production around the world as fast as 2030 look like? Henkel, a German multinational that produces everything from adhesives used in cars and aeroplanes to consumer products such as Persil and Schwarzkopf, is attempting to answer that question. It’s ambitious. And to limit global warming to 1.5C by 2050, ambition like this is certainly needed.

“Science is telling us very clearly that we have a climate emergency on our hands and that we need to drastically reduce carbon emissions,” says Ulrike Sapiro, chief sustainability officer at Henkel. She adds that the company is already seeing the impact of the climate crisis across its value chain through extreme weather events. At the same time, she notes Henkel is part of a sector with a large carbon footprint. “Our industry has fossil-heavy aspects in terms of its material inputs for production – we know we play an important role in tackling their impacts on the climate.”

Ulrike Sapiro, Chief Sustainability Officer at Henkel

Science is telling us very clearly that we have a climate emergency on our hands and that we need to drastically reduce carbon emissions.

Henkel’s products are used in millions of households and industrial processes every day, which means it can drive change at scale. “So, between the science, the impact and the scaling opportunity, I think that’s where we see our ‘why’ on the climate agenda,” Sapiro says. “We can actually make a difference.”

With that in mind, Henkel is addressing both its direct and indirect emissions. For example, by 2030 it aims to use carbon-neutral and renewable sources of electricity to power more than 170 of its production sites worldwide. It also plans to replace the even-harder-to-replace fuels used to generate thermal energy for manufacturing processes with carbon-neutral alternatives such as biomass, in most cases biogas, over the same period.

Its targets, which have been approved by global standard setter the Science Based Targets initiative as consistent with levels required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, are part of Henkel’s three-part framework for transforming its business model towards sustainable development. One part is the Regenerative Planet dimension, which aims to enable a circular and net zero carbon future by transforming Henkel’s business processes, products and raw materials.

Initially, Henkel hoped to achieve its climate positive production goals by 2040. But rapid progress encouraged the company to shift the target forward by a decade to 2030. In fact, CO2 emissions from production per tonne of product are already 50% lower than they were in 2010, and should be 65% lower by 2025.

Henkel has achieved this through a combination of on-site generation of green power, direct purchases of renewable energy and virtual power purchase agreements (VPPAs) that feed power from renewable energy plants into the supply grid, in an amount equal to the amount consumed. The company recently signed one such VPPA with a new wind farm in Bee County, Texas. The agreed capacity is equal to 100% of the electricity demand of Henkel’s operations in the US.

Henkel Australia has also begun using electricity generated fully from renewable energy sources at several Adhesive Technologies plants. Thanks to more than 2,000 solar panels on its rooftops and renewable energy contracts, the sites are expected to realise more than 50% savings in carbon emissions in 2022 compared with 2021.

Since the beginning of 2022, Henkel’s Laundry and Home Care production in Düsseldorf has been exclusively using renewable electricity and biogas to produce, for example, detergent products and dishwasher tabs. Henkel’s Beauty Care production site in Wassertrüdingen is also exclusively using carbon-neutral electricity and biogas for the production of hair and body care products, while the Henkel Fragrance Center in Krefeld now covers its entire energy demand in a CO2-neutral manner. Conversions of further sites around the world are well underway.

The photo shows a solar field with wind turbines in the background.

Henkel relies on a combination of different renewable energies to implement climate-positive production by 2030.

Despite these success stories, finding alternatives to fossil-based energy remains a challenge in some regions due to a lack of renewable alternatives to natural gas. “When we look at our global footprint, there are some countries or regions where alternatives [such as biogas or biomass] already exist,” says Dr Philipp Kolb, head of global environment and sustainability consumer brands at Henkel Global Supply Chain. “But there are other countries where we need to closely monitor the developments in the energy market and wherever possible try to shape the transition ourselves.

This could include working with partners to increase the number of renewable alternatives, as well as changing production processes to use less natural gas and ensure that biomass or similar alternatives can be easily incorporated once they become available. Henkel also analyses how regulations will develop over the coming years in an attempt to stay ahead of the curve, as “something that is considered sustainable today may not be considered as such a few years from now”, says Kolb.

Sharing best practice – both across Henkel business units and the wider value chain through industry partnerships like Together for Sustainability – is another important part of the company’s strategy. Industry 4.0 technologies, such as devices connected by the internet of things, are also helping to improve both energy usage and logistics and warehousing processes at many sites. “That is not only a cost and efficiency play, but also a sustainability and climate one,” Sapiro says.

An employee stands in front of a machine and checks whether the process is running as planned.

Digital tools enable the optimization of processes. In this way, valuable resources can be saved.

In addition to reducing emissions at its sites, Henkel is also working to reduce the footprint of its raw materials and packaging by 30% by 2030 compared with 2017 levels. To achieve this goal, it is working closely with its suppliers to build on its sustainable packaging and circular economy programme. It has also launched new, more sustainable brands such as Nature Box and redesigned certain elements of flagship brands. Persil Power Bars, to take one example, compress Persil detergents into little bars that come in a paper-based packaging almost entirely without plastics.

  

Ulrike Sapiro, Chief Sustainability Officer at Henkel

We cannot always anticipate what is coming around the corner. But we do see the opportunities in accelerating our near-term climate actions, which further motivates us to tackle the challenges.cience is telling us very clearly that we have a climate emergency on our hands and that we need to drastically reduce carbon emissions.

New adhesive solutions for business customers in the automotive or apparel sectors could also help to make overall product lifecycles more low carbon. And in partnership with global chemical producer BASF, Henkel is exploring how bio-based raw material ingredients could replace fossil-based ones – yet another example of the kind of thinking that should help the company meet its ambitious 2030 targets.

“We cannot always anticipate what is coming around the corner,” says Sapiro. “But we do see the opportunities in accelerating our near-term climate actions, which further motivates us to tackle the challenges.”