Cleaning Up Business: SDG12 and detergent supply chains

Updated: Jan 8

Article by: Susan T Jackson and Zachary Parker

Earlier, Momentum Novum outlined how the SDGs work as a group of goals and what this might mean for supply chains. Integrating the SDGs into business practices can add value to a company, for instance, by bolstering the social license to operate through decreased carbon footprint in up- and downstream supply chains and in terms of internal consumption practices.

Soaps and other detergents

To illustrate how business decisions and the SDGs intersect, we highlight SDG 12 on responsible consumption and production and the soaps and detergents sector. Though the soap and detergents markets overall are reflecting market inconsistencies due to uncertainties caused by Covid-19, pre-Covid-19 figures estimate the global market for soaps and detergents could be as high as US$207.56 billion by 2025.

This sector is significant to achieving the SDGs in general, for example, through SDG 3’s aim for good health and well-being for all. Covid-19 further reminds us of the importance of hygiene and the soap and detergents sector, not least when we see the intersection between access to cleaning supplies and disease prevention as a human rights issue. More generally, soap and water are fundamental for SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation, and the related indicator on hygiene is key to measuring progress toward this goal.

Packaging matters

Unfortunately, packaging continues to generate high levels of waste. Fortunately, there is a growing number of solutions companies are developing and implementing in order to mitigate the packaging problem. Soaps and detergents offer one example that illustrates the different solutions to packaging waste.

In some cases, large transnational detergent companies are redesigning packaging so that there is one type (usually lighter and smaller) for e-commerce purchases and another for on-the-shelf retail sales. Other companies are decreasing the amount of plastic they use by offering a variety of packaging. It might be, for example, two types of packaging (for example, a reusable bottle versus a thinner plastic refill) so the consumer can choose between different kinds of lower-use plastic containers. Another innovation is subscription plans that provide refillable, returnable bottles of concentrated products that are easier to ship and need filling less often.

These types of solutions to packaging waste address sustainability in a variety of ways. By reducing waste generation through recycling and reusing rather than discarding (per SDG 12), companies can realize a number of benefits. For example, an often overlooked cost of packaging is the transportation carbon footprint (Decarbonizing Supply Chains). As with other sectors, keeping the total weight of soap and detergent products low also can reduce the amount of transportation volume needed, resulting in lower carbon emissions. SDG 13 (climate action) is another connection, both here with the environmental problems caused by producing and discarding packaging and with ingredients in soaps and detergents, as touched on below. SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) along with its target to promote energy efficiency in the production of packaging is another area for action. However, improving sustainability for these products requires more than innovation and new approaches in other areas as well.

But is that enough?

While reducing packaging is paramount to a sustainable world, the soap and detergent products themselves need a closer look. Though it would seem to be counter-intuitive, most mainstream detergents contain a variety of oils from fossil fuel to palm oil. For example, one giant consumer goods producer announced earlier this year its goal to eliminate oil-based products from its detergents by 2030, an endeavor that will require the company to cut oil out of its supply chain. Other businesses offer soaps and other products sans packaging.

A growing number of startups and SMEs are focusing on developing and supplying natural cleaning products that are biodegradable. There also is an increasingalong with its target to promote energy efficiency in the production of packaging is another area for action. interest in not only decreasing the amount of water used in making cleaning and hygiene products, but also in removing the water altogether as a way to reduce both volume and weight. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that 90% of a bottle of mainstream cleaner is water, leaving only 10% as active ingredients. Because removing the water from the product side makes them smaller and easier to handle, companies can reduce the carbon emissions used to ship the products and virtually eliminate the disposable plastic packaging used for shipping them.

Actions for individuals and companies

In addition to the general actions we listed for sustainability practices in overall supply chains, there are circular solutions that are especially pertinent to packaging. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, recommends that we eliminate plastics that we really do not need or that are more broadly problematic. In addition, we need to innovate so that the plastics we do use are actually reusable, recyclable or compostable. When we are done with those plastics, we need a way to return them to be used in the economy rather than throw them away.

As for soaps and detergents, it is possible to reduce or eliminate the amount of plastic packaging we consume. This goes for household consumption as well as what we use in our businesses. Look for companies that are working actively toward a circular approach to plastics and use natural ingredients that are biodegradable.

that we eliminate plastics that we really do not need or that are more broadly problematic

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