Jan Kees Vis
Global Director Sustainable Sourcing Development, Unilever R&D, Vlaardingen, The Netherlands
"One of the great things about Unilever is that you get a chance to try new things," Jan Kees says. He has done just that, by playing a key role in Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Programme since its conception in 1996. "We have turned something that looked very vague to many people at the outset, into a practical, hands-on programme. And our efforts have been rewarded, since sustainable sourcing is now very much part of Unilever’s strategy going forward."
Jan Kees trained as a chemist. He spent six years working in research on catalysis and quality management then decided that, despite enjoying science, he did not want to spend his whole life as a scientist. He left research and joined Unilever's food company in the Netherlands to work on environmental lifecycle analysis.
Jan Kees strongly believes that Unilever's sustainability programme can help it become a better company. "Finding the right balance between economic growth, environmental improvement and social equity is an unbeatable way to operate. I think it is essential that multinational companies take this on board. We must contribute in our own way to solving global issues of poverty, malnutrition and environmental degradation."
Jan Kees's day-to-day work is diverse. He oversees Unilever's sustainable agriculture projects around the world and participates in a growing number of joint initiatives. He was elected to lead the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil at its conception in 2004. He is also co-chair of the Sustainable Food Laboratory steering group, member of the ISEAL Stakeholder Council and was a board member of the Roundtable on Responsible Soy. "About a third of my time is spent outside Unilever", he says. "This helps me to keep an external perspective on what we do."
He sees participation as key to the Sustainable Agriculture Programme's success. "For the sustainable development concept to work, you need to have three parts of society willing and able to co-operate: industry, government and society itself. All three need to understand the issues involved, and to have similar views on governance. For example, you can't discuss sustainability policies with a corrupt government.
"Agriculture is the key to many things, now more than ever. We can all see how the cost of food is rising due to growing demand in India and China. This is good news for many farmers who have access to global markets, but very bad news for people living on low incomes. If we do not want to sacrifice more forests for agriculture, we will have to help farmers improve their yields.
"Improvements to agriculture in terms of yield, environmental impacts, profitability and efficiency are necessary to address conservation, water quality, poverty alleviation, hunger and health issues. People will not be able to improve their lives without access to food, and sustainable food supply chains can deliver products with positive environmental and social outcomes.”
The launch of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 created a new focus for Jan Kees’s team. “The Plan commitments us to source all our agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources and this has given further impetus to reach out to our suppliers and help them implement sustainability programmes with their farmers,” explains Jan Kees. “This is as much about developing new business models as it is about helping farmers achieve higher yields and incomes. My team evaluates all the different agricultural standards that are being used and compares them to the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code. If they meet our own high standards, they count towards our goal.”
In 2011, his team started to look at the ‘other half’ of Unilever’s raw material portfolio: non-renewable materials from mining and the petrochemical industry. They mapped out existing sustainability initiatives in, for example, mining and product stewardship programmes. Eventually they decided to develop a specific “responsible mining code” for our suppliers of materials that we use in our detergent powder formulations. This code will be delivered early 2013.
In 2011 Jan Kees was one of 10 individuals to receive a Leadership Award for his outstanding achievements with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and his involvement in creating the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.