Unilever to dump microbeads from soap

Bottles of Unilever shampoo are displayed at a supermarket in Beijing. Unilever says it will stop adding tiny plastic beads that act as exfoliants to its soap products by 2015.

The British company Unilever announced this week that it will remove tiny plastic beads from its soap products by 2015. It’s Unilever’s latest move toward sustainability, and it might also be good business, according to analysts. The personal care industry calls these bits of plastic "microbeads."

“They range in size from almost microscopic so you can hardly see them to something a little bit bigger -- maybe the size of a pinhead,” said Angela Griffiths, a research director with UL Environment. "They’re very, very small.”

Companies like Unilever have increasingly used plastic beads in soaps to improve their exfoliating properties, Griffiths said. The problem is they go down the drain, sneak past water treatment plants, and end up in the ocean.

Girffiths added: “There are a few studies out there that microbeads may be finding their way into the aquatic environment. So I think Unilever is taking the precautionary approach, and that’s a good thing.”

Even some in the business world are praising the move. Pablo Zuanic follows Unilever for the U.K. investment bank Liberum Capital.

“It makes good business sense,” he said. “And I think it’s good for the world.”

The analyst said the microbeads announcement falls in line with a bigger strategy at Unilever, where an environmental message has become an important part of the marketing strategy. The company is hoping to influence its competition, Zuanic said.

“They say if they achieve their sustainability targets, and no one else follows they will have failed,” he explained. “So their objective is that other organizations, nonprofits as well as the competition will eventually follow.”

Plus, Zuanic said if Unilever is the leader on issues like this it may attract money from investment funds looking to back companies with sustainable business models.

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