Sustainability is something that has to be approached holistically and built into new product development, Unilever's Prof Dr Rob Hamer told delegates at the European Federation of Food Science and Technology (EFFoST) conference in Montpellier, France this week.
Unilever has a stated objective to double the size of the company, while simultaneously shrinking its environmental impact by half - a goal that refers to the whole of the supply chain, from production to consumer use. Part of that involves sustainable sourcing, and the company has a target to source all of its raw materials sustainably by 2020. Hamer, vice president, R&D Foods at Unilever, said he personally hoped the company would reach its goal by 2017.
However, the company also brackets social and economic benefits to communities together with environmental impacts, and all these effects may often be linked.
"I strongly believe that sustainability is something that has to be approached much more holistically," Hamer said. "...You can't solve the fact that we are currently using 1.5 times what our planet can deliver without a real systems change."
Therefore, he said, a major question in new product development needs to be 'how can we halve the environmental footprint?'
"This creates a very fertile breeding ground for new innovations to help us achieve those targets," he said.
Taking Unilever's spreads business as an example, Hamer said the company was looking to strike a healthy balance between saturated and unsaturated fats at a reasonable cost, thereby making it easier for consumers to make healthier choices. However, the margarine manufacturing industry had reached the limit of what it could do with existing technology.
The company developed a new process called Supercritical Melt Micronisation (ScMM), which uses high pressure spray crystallisation to mix oil with water and solid milk fat particles.
"This creates a very efficiently stabilised interface between oil and water because the particles are so small," he said.
The technique produces a margarine that is much more stable at 30 degrees Celsius than other margarines, and it is lower in calories and has about 80% less saturated fat than butter.
So what does this mean for the environment?
Hamer said that the fact that it uses less saturated, animal-sourced fat means that associated greenhouse gas emissions are about 30% lower and land occupation is down more than 50% compared to previous margarines.