App-powered electric tricycles that arrive at your door with a dispensing “refillery” for all your household cleaning needs?
Well, why not? A very cool upstart Chilean company called Algramo has partnered with global megacompany Unilever to test-market ways to reduce plastics consumption. And, obviously, refilling is key to that.
I had never heard of Algramo, but I’m well versed in travelling to outposts far, far away where residents, especially the financially disadvantaged, purchase single use or small package items out of economic necessity. José Manuel Moller launched Algramo with the idea of addressing what he calls the “poverty tax” that accompanies such purchases. By using vending machines to dispense lentils, rice and beans into refillable containers, householders can cut their costs on these items by 30 to 40 per cent. Close to 2,000 family-owned stores in Santiago now feature an Algramo dispensary.
The company next moved into detergents: consumers are meant to use one container for life as they fill up on Unilever’s Omo liquid laundry detergent. And, yes, app-powered electric tricycles with the detergent refillery are scheduled to reach the streets of Santiago next month. In September, Moller successfully pitched the idea before MIT’s “Solve” challenge in New York, winning a $200,000 (U.S.) prize in the AI innovations category.
It takes a bit of research effort, but consumers locally who care about the planet need to inform themselves about the ways in which consumer products companies comport themselves globally. If we are at a tipping point, this is the moment to start dividing those companies that are at least trying to do the right thing from those who remain rooted in outdated, pre-climate crisis thinking.
In days gone by I have championed Paul Polman when he was Unilever’s top executive, from his views on sustainable growth to his belief in the imperative of escaping the tyranny of short-term corporate thinking. In January, Alan Jope took over as CEO and early indications are that Unilever is operating on the right side of the debate, both through joint ventures and in-house driven initiatives.
Unilever’s still-new CEO this week announced the company’s commitment to cut in half its use of virgin plastics — produced from fossil fuel sources — by 2025. We need only ponder the soft climate change goals of certain political parties to appreciate that such a target is ambitious. Achieving it would mean pulling 100,000 tonnes of first-use plastic out of circulation.
Prior to becoming CEO, Jope was in charge of personal care products for Unilever. The company pushed into innovation: shampoo bars; bamboo toothbrushes; cardboard deodorant sticks. Perhaps it was Jope who did away with the silly plastic sleeve that unnecessarily enveloped the bar of Dove soap within a perfectly serviceable cardboard box. Perhaps dentists will cease their practise of offering a plastic toothbrush with every visit.
Unilever is huge, of course. Every day it sells at least one product to 2.5 billion people throughout 190 countries. And the market for environmentally conscious products is exploding. So the company is thinking pragmatically that by getting ahead of the story, at least within the league of its peers, there will be an enormous financial payoff.
The degree to which the refillable movement in personal care will be a game changer for the company is a big unknown. Last spring, Unilever Philippines test marketed the All Things Hair Refillery in three malls. Consumers could use their existing shampoo bottle or buy a new recycled bottle at the station and fill up with Dove Straight & Silky Shampoo or a Tresemmé offering.
Back to the big picture. Slashing virgin plastics is half the story. Unilever also intends to collect more plastic than it uses on the same tight time frame, playing a key role in the circular economy or, stated another way, closing the loop on plastic.
It’s boggling to even try to imagine how Unilever hopes to improve waste management infrastructure in order to achieve that goal. As soon as any company talks about working in partnership with governments I think, good luck. But maybe a kick in the pants from big business is just what governments need.
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Nevertheless it’s encouraging to note the company is committed to moving forward on plastic reduction with what Jope called “unprecedented speed and intensity.” With numeric targets set, Unilever can be held to that goal. Other consumer products giants can now be challenged on that score.
It’s not insignificant that Unilever’s announcement drew support from such groups as As You Sow and the U.K.-based Environmental Protection Agency. Ellen MacArthur, whose foundation has done groundbreaking work on the new plastics economy, lent her voice in support, calling the announcement “a significant step in creating a circular economy for plastic. By eliminating unnecessary packaging through innovations such as refill, reuse and concentrates — while increasing their use of recycled plastic — Unilever is demonstrating how businesses can move away from virgin plastic.”
Will other giants follow Unilever’s lead? I think they’ll have to.