The American Cleaning Institute (ACI)

Rising to the 1.5°C Challenge: Novonesis (Formerly Novozymes) on Fighting Climate Change with Advanced Biology


Here at ACI, we have challenged our members to align their corporate climate strategy and targets with the 1.5°C ambition, which strives to reach net-zero global emissions by 2050. Across the cleaning products industry, companies are taking bold action to limit the global average temperature rise to less than 1.5°C.

Note: This case study was originally conducted in 2021. As of 2024, Novozymes is now Novonesis.

Novozymes is combating climate change by cutting its own greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, and by finding ways to reduce the energy use and emissions associated with a load of laundry.

ACI spoke with Arlan Peters, Head of Sustainability at Novozymes North America, to discuss Novozymes’ efforts to create a more sustainable laundry detergent and how the company sees biotechnology, specifically enzymes, playing a role.




This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ACI: What is an enzyme and what is its role in laundry detergent?

Arlan Peters: Enzymes are basically smart catalysts, proteins found in all living things that make chemical reactions occur with less energy. They can make reactions occur up to a thousand reactions per second. In our own bodies, we use enzymes to do things like breathing every day, to move CO2 out of our blood and into the atmosphere. You can also find enzymes in soil, plants, and all sorts of animals. The cool thing about enzymes is that they are biodegradable, and because they're catalysts, very small amounts of them can actually do amazing things.

In detergents, enzymes are used to fight stains and to basically improve the cleaning power of detergents, so they can cut up different kinds of stains and then allow those stains to be removed in the wash.

ACI: How do you take those enzymes that are found in nature and put them into laundry detergent?

Arlan Peters: Novozymes is kind of like an explorer. We go out into nature; we find organisms that are producing the kind of enzyme that we’re looking for. We’ll isolate those enzymes, optimize them for the environment that we’re applying them in, and then produce them in large quantities and make sure that they're really applicable for the type of job that we want them to do.

One thing to note about enzymes is that they operate in certain environmental conditions. We often look for enzymes in conditions that are similar to the places that we want them to work. So, we’ll look for enzymes that are operating in very, very cold temperatures. We've even gone out to fjords in Greenland to look for enzymes that can operate in a cold-water wash, for example.

Enzymes are essentially the tools of nature. They're what allows nature to operate in the way it does. In many ways, nature has found the answers to challenges that we face in the world every day. How do you make things more biodegradable? How do you make sure that we have products that are more circular? What Novozymes is doing is looking towards nature to figure out how we can solve those problems ourselves.

ACI: How is Novozymes working to reduce its carbon footprint as it relates to production?

Arlan Peters: Sustainability is a huge part of what we do at Novozymes. We've been on this journey for a long time now and really pride ourselves in operating as a sustainable company. Our own footprint is a big piece of that. And for many years, we have been trying to reduce our environmental footprint, make sure that we're using renewable energy as much as possible. At our headquarters in Denmark, we've made significant investments in renewable energy for operations, going back to 2008 when we invested heavily in wind power to power operations in Denmark as well as biogas reactors to recycle our waste streams into renewable thermal energy.

But the climate challenge is getting even more severe and serious, and that means that we have to step up in other ways as well. We were one of the first companies to commit to a science-based target for climate change, which for us means cutting our global greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. A big part of that is trying to adopt renewable electricity in all of our operations around the world. We have goal of having 100% renewable electricity by 2030, and in the United States, we recently made a renewable electricity purchase and investment in two solar projects in North Carolina where our largest manufacturing plant is located.

ACI: How can people do their part to save energy when doing laundry?

Arlan Peters: In terms of tackling climate change, we all have a role to play, and one of the biggest things that consumers can do to reduce the environmental impact of their wash is actually turning the dial down and washing in cold water. Something like 90% of all the energy used when we're washing our clothes comes from having to heat that water up to a hot temperature. And so simply by turning the dial down, we're doing our part as consumers to reduce that impact.

For years, companies like Novozymes have been using advanced tools of biotechnology like protein engineering to optimize enzymes to make sure that even when you’re washing in cold temperatures, you still get a great cleaning performance. We ensure that the products we sell our enzymes into are able to enable consumers to wash in cold. In fact, enzyme-technology is key in making it possible for consumers to wash at lower temperatures – with no loss in washing performance.

ACI: What is the environmental impact of Americans switching to a cold-water wash?

Arlan Peters: We found that by washing in cold temperatures, you can actually save about 7 million tons of CO2, if this were adopted across the United States. It’s really the equivalent of about two million cars taken off the road in a year.

But I will say that for Novozymes it's not just about cold-water wash. Certainly, that is a behavior change we want consumers to adopt, but there are also ways to make the product itself more sustainable. We at Novozymes have an aspiration that 100% biological detergents become mainstream in the marketplace. That means we have sustainably sourced bio-based ingredients in detergents that are fully and readily biodegradable and work in the conditions and at the cost that people want them to. It also means that we have the most compact detergent possible, so we’re not just moving around more and more materials in our supply chain.

ACI: How does making detergent more compact help the environment?

Arlan Peters: Compaction is a fantastic lever that we can use to make our products more sustainable. By simply making the product smaller, more compact, we’re actually affecting the entire lifecycle of that product, meaning we're using less raw materials, which means less energy that might go into those raw materials or transporting them. And then we're emitting fewer materials into the environment, so in terms of waste disposal and end-of-life, there are huge impacts there.

ACI: What is next for Novozymes in the space of climate action?

Arlan Peters: This is a challenge that is super imminent and very, very important for all actors to do the things that they can to make a difference. We believe at Novozymes that one of the things we can really contribute is innovation in the biological space. We believe that the 21st century will be defined by advanced innovations in biology, and a big part of that is, how do we improve the raw materials that go into our products going all the way back to agriculture. We think that there is a tremendous opportunity in regenerative agriculture, in biological systems that can actually take carbon out of the atmosphere and put them into the soil or capture them in some way. We see that this could be a very game-changing area of focus for us.