January 2009: Wal-Mart turns to Unilever for water sustainability advice

Tomato pilot provides insights to water conservation

"It proves that when it comes to sustainability, we want to be judged on our actions not our words"

The world's largest retailer has joined forces with Unilever to leverage the business's expertise with water sustainability. Wal-Mart is creating a supplier score card to rate their suppliers on water sustainability, requiring suppliers to develop a proven water metric that measures water-use efficiency during growing.

David Pendlington, Unilever's Sustainable Agriculture Programme Coordinator, explains that this created an opportunity within Unilever's supply chain to accept the challenge of identifying and testing a metric, or measuring system, using its field expertise and capabilities.

Comparing water usage

Unilever's representatives and farmers, worked with experts from both the US Department of Agriculture and University of California to devise a tomato irrigation pilot where farmers measured their water usage during the 2008 season to see whether improvement in water conservation could be achieved.

To do this, six tomato fields had their water usage measured, three using drip irrigation and three using furrow or flood irrigation. The team found that, on average, the drip-fed fields used less water and had a higher crop yield.

David explains, the project not only helps the environment, but made perfect business sense for everyone involved: "This adds value to us because our biggest customer came to us asking for help, and we delivered. It proves that when it comes to sustainability, we want to be judged on our actions not our words."

As consumers increasingly want to know where ingredients come from and the subsequent impact to the environment and community, this project also creates value for brands such as Ragu, Bertolli and Knorr, for which tomatoes are a key ingredient.

The farmers found it useful to compare farming methods and water measurement - something they had never done before, even with neighbouring farms.

The next step for the group is to finalise the drip irrigation metric and work with growers to ensure they have the tools they need to improve their irrigation systems. David explains this will involve developing a robust data set of at least 30 farmers.

Farmer training

Unilever has also agreed to sponsor a training programme starting in March 2009 for Spanish-speaking irrigators, run by the University of California. The programme will give irrigators recognised training credentials and ensure principles of water efficiency are understood. The programme also creates potential brand sponsorship and customer marketing opportunities for Unilever.