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How we’re using tech for more transparent, traceable supply chains

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Groundbreaking solutions like satellite imaging and artificial intelligence are helping us better understand areas at risk of deforestation and those that have high potential for regeneration.

River bordered by rocks running through rainforest with trees rising up on either side.

Protecting the world’s forests is an important solution to fighting climate change. Which is why, at Unilever, we’re committed to achieving a deforestation-free supply chain for palm oil, paper and board, tea, soy and cocoa by the end of 2023.

We have learnt we need to go beyond certification in order to verify that our supply chain – and in particular, the most important first mile – is deforestation-free.

Our plan to achieve this has three elements: building greater traceability and transparency of our supply chain; focusing our sourcing on suppliers who share our sustainability ambitions; and empowering the farmers and smallholders in the communities and landscapes we source from.

Our focus on these areas means we continue to build the skills, capabilities and networks to progress towards our goal and beyond.

Technology: the key to supply chain visibility

The visibility that technology gives us into our supply chains means we can make them increasingly more transparent and traceable. It allows us to better see and understand what’s happening to forests globally, including the critical ‘first mile’ from where raw material is grown to where it is first processed – as this is where the greatest risk of deforestation lies.

We’re collaborating with partners to trial and adopt state-of-the-art technology including satellite imaging, artificial intelligence and geolocation data.

By providing new insights and data, our ecosystem of tech solutions – which we’re piloting in our forest-risk supply chains​​​​ – allows us to predict where forests are at risk of deforestation, so we can take proactive and preventive measures to protect forests, ecosystems and livelihoods.

“The latest digital capabilities will help us better identify high-risk areas and target interventions where they’re most needed,” says Willem Uijen, our Chief Procurement Officer. “Technology will also be a force for good as we leverage these capabilities to help us understand areas that need protection and those that have high potential for regeneration.”

Pile of palm oil fruit at a collection point by the side of a road running alongside a plantation.
Image credit: Premise

A range of groundbreaking solutions

67 million hectares of forests mapped

We’re using anonymised data signals from mobile devices to spot traffic patterns between farms and mills. A consistent flow of traffic suggests a potential sourcing link and therefore a potential link to our extended supply chain. This insight helps us to understand who’s sourcing from whom.

We’re applying artificial intelligence to satellite imaging to detect changes in tree cover and provide deforestation alerts. This ‘eye in the sky’ solution – built for regions with a lot of cloud cover, like South East Asia – estimates the amount of carbon stored by forests and quantifies the associated climate threat when trees are felled.

77,000 villages assessed to support sourcing from low-risk smallholders

We ran a crowdsourcing pilot in Aceh, Indonesia, to train contributors to take photos and videos of oil palm fruit collection points – where it is traded informally – and upload them to a digital platform. This gives us a more informed view of previously unseen parts of our supply chain.

We’re also exploring the use of blockchain to build a permanent digital record of a commodity’s journey through the value chain, compiling data about the mills, refineries and processors where it is handled. The idea is to make sustainability credentials traceable and immutable, even when the material is mixed with that from another source.

3,960 palm estates analysed to direct suppliers to deforestation-free sources

Google Cloud, our ‘command centre’, gives us a full picture of what’s happening in our supply chain, especially in the first mile, combining almost 40 years of continuous satellite imagery with powerful data storage and machine learning to produce new insights. This means we can monitor the mills, landscapes and farms in certain geographical areas and estimate which farms/plantations are supplying those mills.

At COP26, together with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Resources Institute (WRI), NASA and Google, we announced the creation of the Forest Data Partnership. The aim is to create a common approach to collecting, analysing and storing data about sourcing areas and forests, making this information available to everyone to help drive collective action against deforestation. The key focus regions for this partnership include the Amazon Basin, South East Asia and West Africa.

Willem says: “We continue to test and scale technology solutions for greater traceability and transparency in our supply chain, so we can partner with suppliers, governments and NGOs, to help protect and regenerate nature for generations to come.”


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