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White biotechnology and genetic engineering

Henkel deals very carefully and seriously with all ethical questions relating to biotechnology and genetic engineering.

  • The application of biotechnology and genetic engineering
  • Microorganisms produce enzymes
  • Other ingredients based on white biotechnology
  • Raw material suppliers with special expertise
  • Bioethics

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 material manufacturers who produce selected ingredients for laundry detergents and household cleaners with the help of white biotechnology.

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 material manufacturers who have developed and optimized such enzymes themselves.

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 material suppliers. Biosurfactants are washing active substances with a biological provenance. They are manufactured through the action of yeasts or bacteria on renewable raw material. Citric acid is produced on an industrial scale by a special fungus.

Henkel purchases ingredients made using white biotechnology from selected raw material manufacturers who have decades of expertise in this field. These raw material 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.