Tech-Driven Transformation by Unilever

The innovation approach: Heilbronn, Germany – Knorr
Photo Credit: Heilbronn, Germany – Knorr

No one sets out to waste food at home or in factories. Yet, the harsh reality persists that nearly a third of food created for human consumption needs to be used. This issue becomes even more pressing in food production, where efficiency should reign. In 2022, Unilever significantly accelerated waste reduction across its Nutrition and Ice Cream business groups. 

"It feels wrong to be wasting food in a world where nearly 10 percent of our population is still hungry," said Jennifer Han, Unilever's Chief Product Supply Chain Officer for Nutrition. 

"We have now reached a 17 percent reduction in our global direct operations versus our 2019 baseline, and our cross-functional teams are working relentlessly to improve this," Han explained, emphasising the ongoing commitment to the cause.

Tackling the intricate challenge of food waste in factories requires a holistic approach. Despite the inherent complexities, Unilever is making strides. 

"Although the complex processes in our factories mean that food still goes to waste, overall, in 2022, we have seen an acceleration of waste reduction," Han added.

The key to success lies in visibility. 

"I can't emphasise enough the importance of making waste across all the lines visible," said Han. 

This involves fostering a deep connection with frontline factory workers who witness the reality of food waste daily. Julius Mannherz from the Heilbronn factory in Germany stressed the impact of connecting this waste issue to the stark reality of global hunger.

Unilever's commitment to halve food waste by 2025 includes leveraging technology such as automation, digitalisation, and AI. 

Sandeep Desai, Chief Product Supply Chain Officer for Ice Cream, echoes this sentiment, emphasising the need to address the waste problem for ethical reasons and as a sound business practice.

"You need to take immediate action using real-time data. But this is only possible through fully deploying AI and digital tools," explained Desai. However, both Desai and Han underline that as crucial as technology is, the heart of change lies with the factory teams.

"The factory teams are the ones who manage the gaps between the issues that happen every day on the line and what we do about it. You might be surprised how often they come up with the solutions," said Desai.

Several Unilever factories exemplify the power of teamwork and innovation in reducing food waste:

  1. Heilbronn, Germany - Knorr (Innovation Approach): The Rework machine, created by a production manager, has saved 120 pallets of food from going to waste, demonstrating innovative solutions at the frontline.
  2. Heppenheim, Germany - Ice Cream (Machine-Learning Approach): A factory-wide program, including a machine-learning system, reduced food waste by 30 percent and increased reuse to 97 percent by optimising the coating process of the Magnum line.
  3. Poznan, Poland - Hellmann's (Technical Approach): Optimising the decanting machinery reduced bag residue from 100kg to just 8kg, potentially saving up to 200 tonnes of mayo annually.
  4. Corlu, Turkey - Ice Cream (Team Approach): Implementing daily shopfloor meetings and waste reporting led to a 30 percent reduction in food waste compared to August 2022.
  5. Kilbourn, US - Dressings including Hellmann's (Competitive Approach): Through a change management program and digital enablers, Kilbourn reduced waste from 3.5 percent in 2020 to 1.5 percent in 2023.

These initiatives show Unilever's commitment to marrying technology with the dedication of factory teams in the ongoing battle against food waste.