Hindustan Unilever Limited’s Prabha Narsimhan shares latest steps that the company has taken towards sustainability to achieve its goal of 100% plastic waste collection by the end of 2021
Brands can and must play their part in empowering consumers to make sustainable choices: Prabha Narsimhan, HUL
HUL has taken one more step forward towards sustainability with its latest smart refilling machine
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Hindustan Unilever Limited’s Prabha Narsimhan shares latest steps that the company has taken towards sustainability to achieve its goal of 100% plastic waste collection by the end of 2021

HUL has taken one more step forward towards sustainability with its latest smart refilling machine
  • Last week, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) launched its first in-store vending machine model, Smart Fill machine, for its Home Care products with the aim to reuse, reduce and recycle plastic.
  • We talk to Prabha Narsimhan – Executive Director (Home Care) for Hindustan Unilever and Vice President (Home Care) for Unilever South Asia about the company's latest sustainable projects, how HUL has been focusing on becoming a sustainable company at a larger level, and future goals.
Earlier this year, Hindustan Unilever Limited had announced that it would collect and process more plastic packaging waste than what it uses in a bid to achieve 100% plastic waste collection by the end of 2021. HUL has taken one more step forward towards sustainability and achieving this plastic waste neutrality goal. The FMCG giant has launched an in-store vending machine model, Smart Fill machine, for its Home Care products. It allows consumers to reuse and recycle plastic.

According to Terrin.org, around 43% of manufactured plastic in India is used for packaging purposes, and is mostly single-use plastic. India produces an estimated 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, which is likely to reach 165 million tonnes by 2030. With this growing concern around plastic pollution generated by companies, more and more brands are realising the importance of becoming sustainable and relooking at their packaging strategy. The ban on single-use plastic has also further pushed manufacturers to look at green alternatives.

So, to do its bit for the environment and undo some of the damage caused by plastic, HUL’s Smart Fill machine will allow its consumers to reuse their plastic bottles by refilling products from its brands like Surf Excel, Comfort and Vim, to begin with.

The vending machine has been installed at Reliance Smart Acme Mall in Mumbai and the project is currently in pilot stage.

Sharing how HUL is slashing its product prices to nudge consumers to switch, Prabha Narsimhan – Executive Director (Home Care) for Hindustan Unilever and Vice President (Home Care) for Unilever South Asia said, “As an incentive, consumers are being offered Rs 30 off on the MRP or effective price at the store if they get their own bottle and Rs 15 off to those who purchase the Smart Fill bottle. The flagship brands that consumers can avail these benefits on include Surf Excel liquid for Top Load and Front Load washing machines; Comfort Fabric Conditioner and Vim Dishwash Liquid Gel.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has added a safety dimension to sustainability that consumers and organisations must now balance. However, for HUL, the timing couldn’t be more perfect to launch this pilot.

Sharing why, Narsimhan said, “COVID-19 in general has been difficult for businesses and brands across sectors. After most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, we have continued our on-ground efforts with health guidelines in place, for elimination of plastic litter. All our plastic waste collection partners mobilized their resources to minimize disruption without risking the health of their staff members and partners. In fact, COVID has improved our focus on responsible disposal of waste, which is why we feel it is a good time to start this pilot.”

After gauging the response at Reliance Smart, the project will be implemented across the country.

Narsimhan said, “We believe that upstream interventions such as shifting from single use towards re-use and refill models can be one of the most impactful solutions to plastic waste from an environmental, economic, and social perspective. This project will serve as an ideal pilot to gather learnings and use them to replicate it across the state and the country. Given that this is our first initiative, we have partnered with Reliance. In fact, we had partnered with Reliance Smart across 3 cities, in 2019 to carry out an awareness drive amongst customers on the importance of segregation of waste at the household level for effective waste management. Continuing with our shared vision to manage plastic waste, we have collaborated with Reliance Smart for this pilot project as well. We are hopeful that through our awareness building exercises, we will be able to ensure mass behavioral change in the consumers regarding the role that they can play in curbing this menace. We aim to use learnings from this pilot project in Mumbai to create a scalable refill business model in partnership with prominent retailers and modern trade outlets.”

To further promote the cause and get more consumers to visit the mart, HUL has partnered with influencers in the vicinity.

Narsimhan shared the marketing plan with us. She said, “One of the key aspects to draw visibility to the vending machine is in-store branding. Our effort would be to make sure that as more and more consumers visit and experience this model, they will be able to help us spread the awareness through word-of-mouth, which we plan to amplify further. We have also tied-up with a few influencers in the catchment areas around the store that will help us create surround sound around the Smart Fill. As the initiative scales up further, we will look at a more broad-based digital campaign that will help us further spread the message across consumers.”

Millennials and GenZ today are much more conscious of the brands they choose. Their choice usually depends on how much of an effort a brand is making towards helping the environment and society at large. While Narsimhan agreed that young people are more likely to be the first adopters of refilling, HUL is trying to target all age groups.

She said, “Millennials and Gen Zs are by far one of the most conscious consumers we have witnessed in the last two decades. Born in a digital age, this generation is socially aware, more health-conscious and understands the impact of their actions on the environment. All our sustainable interventions are designed to not just cater to their sensibilities, but towards the larger goal of driving real, on-ground impact that is accessible. As for the ‘Smart Fill’ project, we are catering to consumers across demographics including Millennials and Gen Zs. Since Reliance Smart is a retail outlet that garners footfalls across age groups; we intend to bolster awareness and empower our consumers to make smarter decisions when it comes to the issue of plastic waste generation.”

But this isn’t the only sustainable effort that the FMCG giant has taken in this year.

Walking us through the past action-filled 6 months, Narsimhan shared, “We have substituted commodity polymers with performance-based polymers, optimized the packaging designs and changed the packaging formats of our products to consume less plastic. For example: Pond’s Talc was recognized at the 24th DuPont Global Packaging Award for reducing packaging through innovation. We have developed coating technology to replace the polymer coating in our soap cartons. Our soap bar range cartons in skin cleansing are plastics free. We have started migrating to recyclable flexibles across our portfolio starting with pilots in few brands like soap wrapper of Lux and Lifebuoy, Sunsilk shampoo sachets and Pond’s tubes. We have also started using rPET (80% recycled PET) in our blister packs for personal care brands such as Pepsodent toothbrush, Vaseline lip care. We have launched Vim liquid bottles having 50% rPET. We have initiated use of rHDPE (25% recycled HDPE) in our personal care bottles like Tresemme, Sunsilk, Surf Excel Laundry liquid and Comfort fabric conditioner.”

Brands play a huge role in bringing about change in society and Narsimhan said that brands should use that to empower consumers to make better choices.

She said, “Consumers relate to brands that resonate with their own way of thinking. Brands that don’t just advocate such ideas but put them into measurable, result-oriented action. Therefore, brands can and must play their part in empowering consumers to make sustainable choices. And one of the key aspects of this empowerment journey is by offering choices that are accessible and hassle-free. With our plastic waste collection initiative and now the refill machine, we are encouraging and empowering our consumers to be a part of this solution. These small changes that consumers make on a day-to-day basis can lead to a sizable impact overall.”

When it comes to sustainability, we often hear the three popular R’s – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle in every marketing campaign. Many companies have promoted only recycle and reuse. However, reduce hits at consumption. As a result, HUL has also formulated long-term goals to focus on reduction of plastic. It has committed that by 2025 100% of the company’s plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable and halving use of virgin plastic by reducing the absolute use of plastic packaging and accelerating use of recycled plastic.

Shedding some light on HUL’s larger sustainability efforts and vision, Narsimhan said, “We are committed to accelerating a transition to a circular economy, moving from the linear take-make-dispose model to a regenerative approach, which keeps materials at their highest value for as long as possible. We recently announced that from 2021 onwards, we will collect and facilitate environment-friendly processing of more plastic packaging waste than the plastic we use in our packaging. Since 2018, we have facilitated safe disposal of more than 1.5 lakh tons of post-consumer use plastic waste with the help of collection and disposal partners across India. We are also working closely with the government and other partners such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Xynteo for end-to-end pilot projects for plastic waste management. Apart from this, the Education Department of Maharashtra, HUL and Xynteo have rolled out a digital school curriculum focused on the importance of segregation, collection and safe disposal of waste. The programme reached nearly one lakh children in Maharashtra during its pilot last year and is currently being scaled across the state.”