October 2009: Unilever's impact on biodiversity voted 'best in class'

Unilever has come out top in a recent study of more than 30 companies, measuring their impacts and dependency on the world’s ecosystems and biodiversity.

The Natural Value Initiative logoEcosystem Services Benchmark study

The Natural Value Initiative's Ecosystem Services Benchmark study has found Unilever's agricultural sourcing to be 'best in class' over competitors within the foods, beverage and tobacco industries in the UK, Brazil, the USA, Australia, Switzerland, Malaysia, the Netherlands and France. According to the report, the foods, beverage and tobacco sectors are some of the most dependent on ecosystem services, but also have the potential to have a significant impact on biodiversity.

Unilever scored 78% overall while the sector average was 48%. Unilever came well ahead of its main rivals in the food industry, Nestlé and Danone.

The study was published in October 2009 and presented to the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative Roundtable in South Africa. The finding is set to increase Unilever's value among investors specifically looking to invest in companies with a strong leadership in sustainability, an area of increasing public importance.

Ecosystem benefits

Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems, such as freshwater and timber. The Natural Value Initiative (NVI) states that over 60% of these services worldwide are being degraded or used up faster than they can be replenished.

The report states: "Each year, it is estimated that the earth is losing ecosystem services, with an annual value equivalent to around €50 billion, from land-based ecosystems alone. This loss has important implications for the long-term viability of the businesses dependent on these services, in particular those with agricultural supply chains."

Unilever's achievements

The methodology considers five performance categories: competitive advantage, governance, policy and strategy, management and implementation, and reporting. Unilever was deemed to be most strong in the categories of competitive advantage and policy and strategy.

Thanks to Unilever's Sustainable Agriculture Programme, prime examples of Unilever's achievements in biodiversity are Lipton's work with the Tanzania Forest Conservation Group, preserving some of the world's most diverse forests, as well as Unilever Tea Kenya's conservation work on its estates, protecting near-endangered birds.

Unilever's work with the Rainforest Alliance and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil are two examples of how Unilever seeks to succeed in business by leading the industry in highlighting the importance of sustainable sourcing.

The report highlighted management and implementation and reporting as areas for improvement. Jan-Kees Vis, Director of Sustainable Agriculture, says that although Unilever is well advanced in implementing its programmes on tea and palm oil, the company still has a long way to go.

"Unilever's raw material portfolio is large and diverse, and in most raw material markets Unilever is not a significant player. Our market share in tea and palm oil is significant and one should realise that, even there, the real progress only came after years and years of preparation. Unilever will depend on others working together in order to make similar progress in other raw material portfolios."

About the Natural Value Initiative

The NVI is funded by the Dutch government and made up of three organisations: the world's first international conservation body Fauna & Flora; the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Finance Initiative (a strategic public-private partnership between the UNEP and the global financial sector); and finally the Fundação Getulio Vargas, a business school in Brazil.