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Tomatoes growing on vine

Sustainable and regenerative sourcing

Average read time: 16 minutes

We're building on our long-term commitment to sustainable sourcing by focusing on the agricultural crops where can have the biggest positive impact on nature.

A farmer collecting his crop on a tractor

Why agricultural crops matter to us

Around 3.4 billion people use our products every day. We use many different crops to make our products – and millions of people play an important role in providing them. Securing a sustainable supply of these materials is a key commitment in our Compass strategy.

Our approach to sustainable and regenerative sourcing

The Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) (PDF 7.88 MB) and the Unilever Regenerative Agriculture Principles (RAPs) (PDF 8.34 MB) provide the basis for our sustainable sourcing programme.

The SAC is a collection of best practice principles for farming that hundreds of thousands of farmers have used since 2010 to make their operations more sustainable. But despite years of implementation, the SAC has not been enough for us to solve all the sustainability challenges in our agricultural supply chain – from decline in soil health to biodiversity loss. We recognised a need to go further.

This is why in April 2021 we introduced the Unilever Regenerative Agriculture Principles (PDF 8.34 MB) , which provide guidance on how to nourish the soil, capture carbon and restore and regenerate the land. We aim for these to inspire our business, divisions, brands, our suppliers and peers – and form the basis for regenerative programmes for ingredients in our supply chain.

To maximise our impact, we’re building on the work we have done to date, through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) which came to an end in 2020.

Under the Unilever Compass, we have revised our Sustainable Sourcing programme to focus on an updated set of 12 key crops and agricultural commodities because of their importance to our business and our brands, and our ability to use our scale to deliver greater positive impact.

100% sustainable sourcing of our key agricultural crops.

This is one of our Protect and regenerate nature goals

Our progress on sustainable sourcing

In 2021, 79% of key agricultural materials were sustainably. Our key crops – such as palm oil, paper and board, soy, sugar and tea – make up two-thirds of agricultural raw material volumes we buy. Below we provide more detail on the actions we're taking.

Making progress through partnerships

We work with a range of stakeholders to help develop internationally recognised standards and verification systems like the Rainforest Alliance, trustea, The Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). We also work with farmers and suppliers, and with consumers to stimulate demand for sustainably sourced ingredients.

Wherever possible, we’re seeking better visibility on the ground, which gives us and our stakeholders added confidence that the crops in our supply chain are sustainably grown.

Sustainable palm oil

The palm oil industry has a number of sustainability challenges that, as founding members of the RSPO, we have been working to address.

As a major palm oil buyer, we have a key role to play in transforming the industry to stop deforestation, improve transparency and traceability, and support farmers – especially smallholders – to adopt more sustainable practices.

Visit our palm oil section to find out how we are working to make sustainable palm oil commonplace.

sustainable paper and board

Sustainable paper and board

As part of our commitment to 100% sustainable sourcing of our key agricultural crops, we aim to buy 100% paper packaging that comes either from well-managed forests or from recycled material. But sometimes we need to source virgin paper and board. For example, because of safety regulations.

When we do, we buy from certified sources with a full 'chain of custody' from the plantation to us. This gives us complete oversight of the journey our raw material has taken to get to us from its origin. We achieve this either through certification schemes, like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), or other national schemes under the framework of the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

In 2021, 97% of our directly purchased paper and board packaging materials were made from recycled fibre or came from certified sustainably managed forests.

sustainable soy

Sustainable soy

Our research shows that consumers prefer products made with sustainable oils – so sourcing our oils sustainably can help grow our business as well as reduce our impacts on the environment.

Soy oil is a crucial ingredient in our brands, such as Hellmann’s mayonnaise, enjoyed by consumers the world over. By the end of 2021, 100% of our soybean oil was sustainably sourced.

We believe transparency is essential to a more sustainable supply chain. Our soybean supplier list gives details of our direct suppliers, accounting for more than 99.9% of our soy oil purchases. Most of the soy oil we buy comes from soybeans grown in the US and Brazil - this is also where most of our engagements around soy are focused, as we have identified our priority sourcing landscapes in soy according to materiality and risk.

In each region, we work with farmers, NGOs, our suppliers, other agri-businesses and governments. We also aim to contribute to the development of international standards which recognise farmers and suppliers for their efforts to address the big issues associated with soy production, which vary across regions.

In Latin America, for example, unsustainable soy production is associated with habitat loss and deforestation. We’re collaborating with partners on long-term RTRS projects that encourage better social, environmental and agricultural practices and help us work towards ensuring our supply chain is deforestation-free by 2023.

In the US, soil health and water quality are a particular focus for our farmer programmes. These programmes have supported hundreds of soy farmers to improve soil health, water quality and yields by using regenerative methods such as planting cover crops.

Sustainable vegetables

We can’t make our foods without high-quality vegetables from all over the world.

A reliable supply of the best ingredients is essential to the long-term future of food brands that people can trust on taste, nutrition and sustainability.

We buy significant quantities of tomatoes, onions, pumpkins, leeks, green beans, mushrooms, potatoes, celeriac, peas and carrots, as well as herbs such as basil, parsley and chives. Most of the vegetables we buy are used in the soups, sauces and other food products made by our Knorr brand.

With such a wide range of ingredients, we need a diverse supply chain. We buy our vegetables and fruit from around 500 suppliers, who in turn buy from around 50,000 growers and farmers.

Partnerships that drive sustainable change

Our expert buyers seek the best quality ingredients from growers around the world. The scale and diversity of this supply chain gives us a great opportunity to make a positive environmental and social impact. But at the same time, it creates complexity when it comes to ensuring a sustainable supply of vegetables – especially as climate change impacts production, prompting us to look for new sources for ingredients. This complexity is reinforced by the fact that currently there is limited availability of vegetables certified as sustainable.

So working in partnership with others is critical if we’re to source our ingredients sustainably.

We work closely with our farmers and suppliers to help them meet the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) standard and our new Regenerative Agriculture Principles, or we recognise equivalent standards, provided they match our own. We also support many wider partnership initiatives to drive improvements. For example, we helped establish the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform. The SAI helps us identify links with other fast-moving consumer goods companies who buy from the same suppliers, and agree common standards.

sustainable cocoa

Sustainable cocoa

Cocoa is a vital ingredient for many of our brands. We're working with partners to source 100% sustainable cocoa so that we can meet consumer demand.

99% Of our cocoa is sourced through certification schemes such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade

Global commodities need a collective approach

Cocoa is a global commodity with a complex supply chain. Cultivating cocoa provides livelihoods for millions of people, but is also associated with issues such as deforestation, water impacts and human rights risks – issues we want to play our part in eliminating. However, we cannot change the supply chain just by acting on our own. Partnerships and collaborations are an essential part of our approach.

In particular, we work with suppliers through long-standing certification schemes like the Rainforest Alliance. These have helped drive standards across these sectors and are a powerful tool when it comes to monitoring sustainable agricultural practices.

Our 2025 cocoa strategy

We buy around 1.5% of the global production of cocoa, mainly sourced from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

We're determined to source 100% of our cocoa sustainably – but we know we need to go further to generate systemic change. This is why we've set ourselves the goal of going further, through impact programmes that complement the work of certification programmes and bring us closer to the people who grow our ingredients.

We have already mapped over 87% of our dedicated farmer group supply chain, together with our suppliers, to improve traceability and better understand where our cocoa comes from. We publish our direct suppliers in our Unilever Tier 1 and Tier 2 Global Cocoa Suppliers – direct sourcing 2021 (PDF 96.56 KB) .

By 2025, we aim to have reached at least a third of the cocoa farmers in our direct sourcing with tailored impact programmes that have three key aims:

Supporting sustainable livelihoods

Cocoa supports the livelihoods of an estimated 5.5 million farmers. For many cocoa farmers, lack of access to training and other services results in poor yields, which in turn can lead to farmers switching crops or leaving farming and moving to urban centres in search of better jobs.

We want to invest in long-term solutions to ensure that sustainable cocoa farming is supporting farmers and their communities.

Some of our work involves helping farmers prepare for certification – but we also deliver impact programmes that specifically aim to help farmers improve and build a more sustainable way of living. We help farmers with tailored business plans and access to finance and training - and we have a target of reaching 6,000 farmers with income diversification training and opportunities by 2025. We have already piloted a number of programmes that explore alternative crops and new income streams in Côte d'Ivoire.

Eliminating child labour

We’re working to eliminate child labour from all our supply chains through our Responsible Sourcing Policy.

We know that child labour exists within the cocoa sector, so we’re developing impact programmes with our partners, certifiers and suppliers to ensure that we source from cocoa co-operatives that have monitoring and remediation systems in place that assess and address child labour cases. By 2023, all the co-operatives we directly source from will have such a system in place.

Empowering women is critical for child labour prevention. We want to reach 2,000 women in cocoa households through training and income diversification opportunities to support this work. We are also committed to increasing the number of village savings and loans associations in the communities we source from, since we believe that they are critical in tackling child labour and helping cocoa farmer households improve and sustain their livelihoods.

Deforestation- free cocoa

Unilever has committed to a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023 – and cocoa is one of the five priority crops we are working on. Certification schemes like Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade and UTZ help us to manage risk. We also partner with 35 other companies as part of the Cocoa & Forests Initiative to champion forest protection and restoration.

We aim to source 100% of our cocoa from low-risk deforestation sources by 2023 by mapping our suppliers and running projects with cocoa smallholders to help them diversify their crops and boost their income. This will help them become more resilient and reduce the risk of them resorting to illegal deforestation practices.

Sustainable sugar

We buy beet sugar and cane sugar from countries spanning Asia, the Americas, Europe and Africa, each of which can have very different supply chains and challenges. While we’re proud of the progress we’ve made, in the longer term, our aim is to help create a global supply of sustainable sugar.

We believe the best way to achieve this is to harmonise the sustainable sourcing codes of the food and drink industries and forge them into a single standard, which can have an impact at scale. That’s why we have helped develop the Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA) through the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform, which has been agreed by many businesses in the food and beverage industries and gives farmers a single, simplified sustainability framework to work to assess and improve their farm performance.

Sustainable dairy

Dairy farms are important parts of our brands' ingredient supply chain, particularly for our ice cream business. We encourage high standards among the farmers we source from – including standards of animal welfare, greenhouse gas reduction and biodiversity management.

See Farm animal welfare for more on how we’re working to achieve higher welfare standards for farm animals.

Relationships with farmers are crucial

Suppliers and farmers around the world are achieving Unilever’s sustainable dairy standard.

But farming is rarely the same in two places – so while we have a shared set of standards, our approach can look very different from one farmyard to another. Our dairy ingredients come from large farms, from cooperatives and from smallholders who might own between two and five cows – so one size does not fit all.

We’re now working on a model to roll out this programme, including through flagship farms which demonstrate the improvements for other farmers.

With the Dairy Farmers of America, we’re also trialling an approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while improving animal health and welfare. Over the last few years we have explored the benefits of a probiotic feed additive with one of our suppliers, with the aim of reducing emissions of methane.

Working with our supply chain

At the same time as working with farming groups and individuals, we want to collaborate across the sector to achieve higher sustainability standards. We work with the Dairy Sustainability Framework, developed by SAI Platform, which seeks to create a holistic approach to sustainability in the global dairy value chain and align the goals of buyers and producers.

This has led to the launch of the Sustainable Dairy Partnership (SDP). The SDP is what is known as a 'business-to-business' sustainability model, bringing us together with other buyers, and with suppliers representing 30% of global milk volume. It’s built on the Dairy Sustainability Framework (DSF) and its 11 criteria addressing sustainability issues. The SDP also requires all milk processors to address the prevention of deforestation, the protection of animal welfare and human rights, and compliance with local legislation.

Supporting regenerative farming in dairy

Regenerative farming requires system-level changes to the way farmers manage their land. Ben & Jerry’s Caring Dairy initiative aims to encourage and support practices like this on dairy farms. It has helped cooperatives supply ingredients for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Europe and the US since the brand co-founded the initiative in 2002. It aims to support thriving livelihoods for farmers and farm workers, excellent care for cows, and a flourishing ecosystem that combats climate change through building soil health and sequestering carbon.

Farmers who manage to improve are compensated, based on a third-party audit. Beyond meeting Caring Dairy’s Basic Requirements, farmers can reach Silver or Gold level performance, with increasing reward for each level.

sustainable tea

Sustainable tea

Our long history as one of the world’s largest tea companies gives us a deep understanding of the tea industry. While we’ve announced the sale of our ekaterra global tea business, we’ll retain our Pepsi Lipton ready-to-drink joint venture, as well as our tea businesses in India, Nepal and Indonesia where we’ll continue to make a positive impact on the industry and the people whose lives depend on it.

Our Unilever Compass commits us to create a deforestation-free supply chain for a number of key crops by 2023. That means our tea will come from estates and factories that are verified as deforestation- and conversion-free. Increasing the proportion of certified tea we buy is crucial to helping us reach our goal – as certified tea gives us a traceable source of supply back to the farmer.

By the end of 2021, 86% of all our tea was sustainably certified by Rainforest Alliance, or trustea verified. Both of which offer us traceability and allow us to stipulate a fully segregated supply chain.

Traceable tea

To improve traceability of tea supplies, trustea is piloting tracetea in Assam and South India, a mobile application incorporating block chain technology to track tea from smallholder farmers’ fields to the factory gate. It will increase the visibility of tea from smallholders, who provide a substantial proportion India’s tea.

We also want consumers to understand where their tea comes from, because transparency is a key ingredient in our ambition to make the tea industry fairer and more sustainable. Greater scrutiny of our supply chains helps us work more effectively with partners and suppliers to bring about positive change. We took an important step towards this in 2019 when we began to publish an annual list of all our global suppliers (PDF 493.34 KB) of black and green tea.

2022 will see the introduction of the trustea seal on some of our brand packs, another important move in assuring our consumers that the tea they choose is produced with care for the environment, safety and livelihoods.

The importance of certification and transparency

We’ve long believed certification is one of the important ways to drive positive change in tea supply chains. We’re India’s largest tea business and a founding member of trustea, the Indian tea industry collaboration on sustainability.

trustea covers all aspects of tea manufacturing, supporting sustainability and competitiveness by improving productivity, quality and safety standards. Through its Sustainable Tea Programme, both smallholder farmers and tea estates are encouraged to adopt more sustainable practices. Nearly 60% of India’s tea production was trustea verified in 2021, and we buy both trustea verified and Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM tea.

Tackling social issues in the tea supply chain

We know there are many deep-rooted and longstanding issues in the tea industry. Our aim is always to respect and value the human rights of tea workers and smallholder farmers, and work to improve their health and financial security while protecting and nurturing the land they rely on. We’ve learned that we can only achieve the systemic change required if we work in partnership with others, from tea growers, suppliers and NGOs to local and national governments and the wider industry.

Tea workers and farmers depend on the land to grow their tea – and we're committed to nurturing it so that future generations will continue to benefit. With our suppliers, we work on nature-based projects like smart agriculture, water conservation and pesticide reduction. Together, we're building programmes that implement sustainable and regenerative farming practices including improving soil, crop quality, biodiversity and reforestation.

In the tea industry, there are worrying incidences of human rights abuses, including violence against women, and worker wages are often low. We’ve put innovative programmes in place to tackle these issues, working with others to promote change across the sector.

In our Unilever Compass we’ve set a strategic goal on living wages and living incomes for our suppliers. Following our analysis of where the gaps to achieving living incomes are largest, we’re piloting our Global Living Income Programme in our tea supply chain.

Working with IDH - the Sustainable Trade Initiative, the programme is seeking to boost incomes for around 1,000 trustea smallholder farmers who supply four factories in Assam. IDH is educating suppliers and supporting them to innovate across their business alongside identifying farmer field projects to co-fund. It’s designed to be a measurable approach that can be taken to scale with further suppliers to uplift wages across the state.

Non-renewables sourcing

By working with our suppliers and the extraction industry on traceability and standards for responsible sourcing, we aim to increase our positive social impacts while building trust in our brands' supply chains.

Many of the raw materials we use each year to make our products are classified as non-renewable. Around 6 million tonnes of these originate from minerals or metals extracted from the earth – around half the non-renewables we buy originate in India and China. However, the extraction and processing of minerals are sometimes associated with human rights issues. Our Responsible Sourcing Policy guides us in managing our risks to ensure we have supply chains that consumers can trust.

We have a three-part approach to sourcing these non-renewable materials:

  • developing traceability in our supply chain down to individual extraction sites
  • working with industry to co-create standards for responsible extraction, and
  • making a positive impact on the livelihoods of those who work in the non-renewables supply chain.

As we’re not a major player in the area of mineral extraction, we work with suppliers and other industry players to collectively drive responsible sourcing of these materials. We’ve been working on this area for a number of years, which culminated in the creation of the Code for Responsible Extraction (CORE) that we co-created in 2015 with the NGO Solidaridad, as well as supplier and industry partners.

CORE offers a globally acceptable and credible assurance to buyers and other stakeholders that industrial minerals are extracted in a responsible way. It’s independently audited and helps suppliers make continual improvements towards five objectives:

  • Governance and legality: enhance compliance with legal requirements and improve governance
  • Labour and employment: improve working conditions and ensure labour rights are protected
  • Occupational health, safety and security: provide safe and healthy workplaces
  • Environment and ecosystem: avoid or minimise adverse impacts on the environment
  • Community and stakeholders: respect the rights and aspirations of affected communities.
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