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This issue relates to the following Sustainable Development Goals

  • Climate action
  • Life on land

Regenerating nature

Average read time: 6 minutes

We’re pioneering an ambitious approach to restore the health of our planet, both in our supply chain and beyond.

Our ambition

The planet is in crisis, and we must take decisive action to reverse the damage. At Unilever, we want to make sustainable living commonplace – and we simply can’t do that unless we protect and regenerate the natural world.

It takes 4 million hectares of land to grow the raw materials for Unilever products, which are used by 2.5 billion people every day. Despite many years of working with sustainable agriculture standards in our supply chain, this has not been enough to reverse some very worrying trends such as soil depletion, biodiversity decline and poor water quality. And time is running out. More than 1 million species are threatened with extinction, threatening the very ecosystems on which we depend for life. And this ecological decline is set to get worse with climate change.

The only option now is systemic change – transforming the way we use land everywhere. This crisis calls for a paradigm shift in everything about the way we approach our relationship with nature and the way we design our agricultural systems.

At a farm level, this means adopting regenerative agriculture techniques – which is why we’ve developed a new set of Regenerative Agriculture Principles (PDF 8.34MB), designed to enhance our existing Sustainable Agriculture Code.

It also means being more ambitious than ever before by looking outside of the farm boundary and aiming to protect and regenerate natural spaces, both in our supply chain and beyond it.

planting a tree

Our approach to regenerating nature

The Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) has been one of the major tools in our sustainable sourcing programme since 2010. Through it, we have reached hundreds of suppliers and hundreds of thousands of farmers, helping them implement the principles of sustainable agriculture.

However, we see this has not yet reached the level where the overall decline in soil health and biodiversity has been stopped or reversed, farming has become more profitable, water quality has been improved, or where farming has become truly climate resilient.

So, we need to acknowledge that the compliance-oriented approach has not been effective enough and introduce a new way of working. We need to urgently scale up the use of technologies and agriculture practices that can protect soils, increase water efficiency, manage on-farm vegetation and crop diversity and reduce emissions while maintaining yields.

To do this, we’re working with a wide variety of stakeholders on targeted programmes to implement regenerative farming practices and protect, conserve and restore natural ecosystems. A big part of this is engaging and supporting the farmers and smallholders who are vital to the maintenance of these environments. This means working not just within the boundaries of the field or the farm where our raw materials are grown, but looking more broadly on the impact that farming can have on nature.

Introducing our Regenerative Agriculture Principles

We have created a set of Regenerative Agriculture Principles (PDF 8.34MB), which now sit alongside our existing Sustainable Agriculture Code (PDF 8.34MB).

The Unilever Regenerative Agriculture Principles are agricultural practices focused on delivering positive outcomes in terms of nourishing the soil, increasing farm biodiversity, improving water quality and climate resilience, capturing carbon and restoring and regenerating the land.

Our Regenerative Agriculture Principles

We support the implementation of agricultural practices that:

  1. Have positive effects on soil health, water and air quality, carbon capture and biodiversity
  2. Enable local communities to protect and improve their wellbeing and environment
  3. Produce crops with sufficient yield and nutritional quality to meet existing and future needs, while keeping resource inputs as low as possible
  4. Optimise the use of renewable resources while minimising the use of non-renewable resources

Regenerating nature in practice

We’re setting up a number of Lighthouse Programmes to test implementation of the Regenerative Agriculture Principles in practice. We use the word ‘Lighthouse’ because they signal the way to a positive future.

These programmes will help us understand the kind of support suppliers and their farmers need to start using regenerative practices. Together with a network of soil and farming experts, we’re helping suppliers to identify which practices will deliver the overall most positive impact, and supporting them to develop tracking and measurement systems. As we do this, we’ll continue to use our Sustainable Agriculture Code (PDF 7.88MB) as the basis for our sustainable sourcing programme.

Healthy soil, healthy soy: our cover crop partnership

Traditional farmstead in midwestern USA along a rural road with soybean fields

Looking after the soil is one of the most important jobs a farmer can do. Not only do farmers depend on the soil for their livelihoods, but good soil practice plays a vital role in mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture. And it can help prevent erosion and other issues that affect local ecosystems, including waterways.

In Iowa in the US, we're working with soy farmers and soy oil suppliers on a regenerative farming project. This is introducing cover crops as a way of protecting their soil, in what we believe is an industry first.

But what are 'cover crops' – and why do they matter? Cover crops are usually non-commodity crops, and the clue is in the name: farmers plant them to cover the soil after harvest, protecting it until the next growing season.

The plants capture carbon in the air and feed it into the soil, where microbes use carbon for energy and keep it underground instead of releasing it back into the atmosphere. There are other benefits, ­­­too – the US Department of Agriculture says cover crops can increase soil organic matter, retain nutrients, and alleviate soil compaction, among other advantages.

The programme focuses on three types of support – financial, technical and social. Farmers receive cost share from Unilever for planting cover crops; Practical Farmers of Iowa provide the technical assistance; and the group also provides a network for farmers to learn from each other and develop a social support system.

Regenerating nature beyond the farm

The farms in our supply chain are a key focus for our nature regeneration work. But to do all we can to protect and regenerate nature, we must look beyond the farm and consider the wider impact of agricultural and industrial practices. Where we see an opportunity, we will work with suppliers and farmers to apply regenerative principles to restore natural ecosystems too.

Here the opportunity is in working with local governments, technical organisations, NGOs, suppliers and peer companies to educate farmers and build capability and capacity for the protection of natural ecosystems.

For example, thanks to a joint project with WWF Malaysia, we are supporting the RSPO-certification of 60,000 hectares of oil palm plantations in Sabah, East Malaysia, home of critically endangered species like the Bornean orangutan and the Bornean elephant. The project involves replanting two wildlife corridors to restore wildlife forest habitats and improve the connectivity between fragmented forest blocks. This allows for wildlife movement, to ensure healthy breeding populations which are better able to adapt to climate change impacts.

Regenerating nature requires a whole systems approach, and we are continuing to look closely at our role in the system, and the different places we can play our part.