Unilever eyes EU research to halve its water, CO2 footprint

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INTERVIEW / The Dutch multinational Unilever wants to boost its participation in EU research programmes to develop the breakthrough technologies it needs to cut the water use and CO2 emissions of its products by half – two of its key environmental objectives.

With an annual research and development budget of around €900 million, Unilever is not the kind of company that needs EU R&D money to get going.

Its research centres in the UK, the Netherlands, China and India employ around 6,000 people who work on developing some of the world's best know consumer brands in areas ranging from food and beverages to home and personal care.

So why would such a behemoth want to get involved in EU research projects, which typically involve small amounts of money and lots of paperwork?

Dr. Hans Dröge, senior vice president for R&D operations at Unilever, says the key is to get access to scientific networks that will help the company develop the technologies it needs to halve the environmental footprint of its products – one of its key objectives for the years ahead.

"It’s focusing on CO2, waste and water," Dröge told EurActiv in an interview. "On all three we’ve completed what we call a total value chain analysis and looked first at CO2, so where is most of our CO2 consumed. The same for water and the same for waste."

Unilever has other, even bolder environmental goals. It wants to source 100% of its agricultural raw materials "in a sustainable way" and develop products that will "help one billion people worldwide improve their health and well-being".

But that will only happen with game-changing innovations, Dröge says.

"You need technology breakthroughs, for instance in the area of cold washing so that the detergents still work at 15 degrees instead of 40 degrees. And that calls for a technology breakthrough that needs to come from R&D."

Connecting to EU research communities

This is where EU research programmes can help.

Dröge says global sustainability issues of this kind cannot be dealt with by a company alone – whether from a business or from a technology point of view.

"We want to connect to technology hotspot areas worldwide where the best scientists are sitting and can help us to resolve some of those challenges. We want to connect to our suppliers, to our partners in the value chain."

With a planned €80 billion budget for 2014-2020, the European Commission's upcoming Horizon 2020 research programme looked like an obvious starting point. Like its predecessors, Horizon 2020 is all about supporting scientific networks and closing the "knowledge triangle" by bringing science and research to concrete market applications.

But getting access to EU scientific excellence doesn't come for free. If they want to join, private companies need to be prepared to share their knowledge and the intellectual property generated by EU-funded projects.

And that means reporting and paperwork, something that has acted as a major deterrent for Unilever in the past.

Paperwork

"Many big multinational companies – not only Unilever – are not participating at the level that they should. The reason for that has to do with some of the legalities of joining consortiums – that you are as a partner responsible for the activities of the other parties as well," says Dr. Rob J. Hamer, who specialises in food and nutrition at Unilever's R&D centre in Vlaardingen, the Netherlands.

Hamer, who was involved in the EU's second framework programme for research in the late 1980s, says the amount of paperwork has gone through the roof since then. Joining an EU project consortium means lots of reporting activities, which are not directly related to research or the results generated by it.

"If you see how that has evolved from a bureaucracy point of view, it went up like this," he says. "It also has to do with intellectual property. And then on top of that you had all the process control that Brussels was instating."

One of the objectives of Horizon 2020 is precisely to cut paperwork and simplify reporting requirements for project participants. But for Hamer, the jury is still out on whether it will mark a significant improvement.

"What we are probably a bit concerned about is whether it goes far enough. Because you can do cosmetic things or you can do structural things. And we’ve seen some cosmetic stuff but we would really like to see a real structural cut in bureaucracy."

Open innovation

For private companies, one key issue is intellectual property protection.

EU research consortiums first define the scope of the project, and the topics and challenges that it will try to address. Participants all agree to share the intellectual property generated by the project, which is usually not a problem for private companies taking part as long as the scope is well defined.

What can constitute a risk is when the European Commission asks companies to share their background knowledge as well, Hamer says. "So it is not so much the protection of IP that is generated within the agreed activities – it's more the additional requirement to open up."

"If it was up to me, I would throw it out…"

In Hamer's view, a more output-based control system would be more effective and allow more freedom to participants.

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