Earlier this year, my friends introduced me to Hellmann’s vegan mayo, a substitute for egg mayonnaise. I am not a big fan of regular mayonnaise, but the taste of this vegan dressing is surprisingly pleasant - it has a nice balance of sweetness and tanginess, but it’s much lighter than regular mayonnaise and won’t leave the feeling of heaviness in your stomach afterwards. Hellmann’s vegan mayo does not contain eggs and is healthier than regular mayo. Although Hellmann’s requires farmers and suppliers to adhere to its Sustainable Agriculture Code, the requirements are very lenient, causing me to doubt the product’s actual sustainability. It is worth noting that Unilever, Hellmann’s owner, wrote the code. Moreover, Unilever has a bad track record of meeting its environmental and social targets. I urge Unilever to be more strict towards both itself and its suppliers, as it would not be fair to hinder Hellmann’s sustainability development just because of Unilever’s bad strategies.
Traditional mayonnaise is made using egg yolk, oil, vinegar and lemon juice. Hellman’s mayo gives up the eggs in favour of other emulsifying agents like maize starch. Despite lacking key nutrients like protein and fibre, swapping out eggs gives us various other health benefits, including lowering the risk of obesity and heart diseases. Vegan mayo does not have any cholesterol, as opposed to 5mg per tablespoon serving of regular mayonnaise. Furthermore, the saturated fat content in one tablespoon serving (1g) is lower than that of regular mayonnaise (1.5g). Although this may seem like an insignificant difference, when you count in the 2-3 spoons of mayonnaise we usually add into our food without a second thought, the 0.5 g adds up quickly, exceeding the healthy range of fats in no time. Other ingredients in the vegan mayo include sunflower oil, water, vinegar, and lemon juice. Sunflower oil thickens up the dressing and multiplies the heart health benefits as it is low in saturated oil and high in fatty acid. Finally, vinegar and lemon juice bind the water and oil together, giving it a mayonnaise-like texture. All in all, vegan mayo is healthier for our health than regular mayonnaise. Even if you are not a vegan like me, switching to vegan mayo is a good way to have a healthier diet while still enjoying the nice taste of mayonnaise.
Hellmann’s mayo is a more environmentally-conscious choice than regular mayonnaise. Although Hellmann’s never disclosed the exact impact of the product, quick research shows that maize starch has a smaller environmental footprint than eggs. The carbon footprint of 1kg maize is only about 0.48 kg CO2e, while 1 kg of eggs contribute 4.8 kg CO2e. The water footprint of maize (900L/kg) is also much lower than that of eggs (3200L/kg). Eggs are more resource-intensive since chicken manure produces nitrous oxide and substantial irrigation water is used for chicken feeds.
Hellmann’s claims to source its ingredients sustainably. Since Hellmann’s is owned by Unilever, all Hellmann’s suppliers and farmers have to adhere to Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Code. The code defines sustainable agriculture by providing a list of guidelines under 11 categories, including agrochemicals and fields, soil, water, waste, etc. However, farmers and suppliers only have to fulfill 50% of the requirements under each category by self-assessment to be verified as a sustainable sourcing partner. Taking a deeper look at the requirements reveals that most of them are vague and can be easily exploited. For example, while Unilever does not encourage atomising pesticides, they are allowed if it’s an “economically viable solution,” but the definition for “economically viable solution” is not given. At the same time, some other requirements are there just to state the obvious. For instance, farmers are only allowed to use agrochemical amounts permitted by law, and are not allowed to dispose medical waste on their land unless their country’s law says otherwise. It is disappointing to realise most requirements are so lenient that farmers can easily pass the test by just complying with the bare minimum. Essentially, all farmers that are law-abiding citizens with common sense are considered sustainable partners. Unilever needs a stricter command and control system to prevent greenwashing and ensure the sustainability of its ingredients.
Hellmann’s should also enhance the transparency of their welfare protection. Hellmann’s never mention labour conditions within its supply chain, although it’s committed to ensuring that its employees and suppliers can earn a living income by 2030. This may imply that a lot of the farmers are still currently under exploitation and do not earn enough for basic needs such as food, clothes, and housing. To avoid speculation and misunderstandings, Hellmann’s should address the issue to give consumers peace of mind.
The packaging of the mayo is made from 100% recycled plastic, which saves 75% energy when compared to producing a brand new plastic bottle. The plastic bottle is recyclable too, except for the caps and sleeves of the jar. However, just because the packaging is recyclable doesn't mean consumers will definitely do so. To encourage consumers to make the best use of their empty Hellmann’s containers, the brand has started to incorporate labels on the jar that explain how to recycle. Unfortunately, recycled plastic goes through a downcycling process and loses some of its value each time. Eventually, the plastic will be too worn out to be reused again, inevitably ending up in the landfill. Hellmann’s can consider using glass jars instead, so that the packaging can be recycled indefinitely. While Hellmann’s is heading towards the correct direction to reduce waste in its packaging, I hope it can go a step further to eliminate waste by investing in technology and packaging innovations that ensure a circular economy.
A 24 oz jar of Hellmann’s vegan mayo is sold at 3.99 USD, which is only slightly more expensive than its non-vegan counterpart (3.79 USD). As America’s no. 1 mayonnaise brand in terms of retail value sales, I am excited to see Hellmann's promoting vegan alternatives at a reasonable price, allowing more people to try this gem.
Hellmann’s owner, Unilever, is an Anglo-Dutch international corporation that is active in 190 countries and has a portfolio of over 400 brands with an annual revenue of $59 billion USD in 2020. Unilever identifies three main missions: improving health and well-being, reducing environmental impact, and enhancing livelihoods. Each mission comes with concrete, quantitative goals that aim at strengthening its sustainability. The 2020 annual report boasted a drop in product waste impact of 34% and a 10% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 2010 levels. The company also enabled 2.63 million women to participate in initiatives aimed at improving their safety, skills, and opportunities. However, out of the 15 non-financial performances, only 3 categories (ensuring products’ nutrients meet the Highest National Standards, building a gender-balanced organisation, and employing smallholder farmers) reached their target. The goal of halving the water footprint of products by 2020 compared to the 2010 baseline achieved a disappointing 0%.
A quick search on the internet also shows that Unilever has made several controversial business decisions. It is the largest palm oil buyer (palm oil plantations are one of the main culprits of deforestation and habitat destruction) and conducts animal testing on its cosmetics and household cleaning products. I am dissatisfied, almost angry, at how Unilever greenwashes consumers with grand aims though they’ve never achieved most of them. As the head of many multinational brands, Unilever needs to set a better example and lead the market in a more sustainable direction. Hellmann’s progress is already hindered by Unilever as evident by the implementation of the unsustainable ‘Sustainable Agriculture Code.’ Unilever must be more strict towards its suppliers to make sure they are doing more than just the bare minimum. More importantly, Unilever has to hold itself accountable to the investors by setting achievable goals and fulfilling its promises.