Average read time: 13 minutes
We’re working – both within our business and with others outside it – to eliminate deforestation from our supply chain, support human rights and tackle climate change.
We have to stop deforestation
Forests are essential to life. They are the lungs of our planet and help to regulate our climate. They are second only to oceans as the largest global store of carbon. As well as being home to up to 80% of land-based wildlife, more than 1 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods.
When forests are cleared, burned or degraded, they leave soils exposed, increasing erosion and the risk of landslides. They also emit carbon dioxide. Estimates show this could account for up to 15% of global carbon emissions – more than the global transport sector.
Yet, by protecting and restoring forests around the world, humanity can achieve 18% of the emissions cuts needed by 2030 to prevent catastrophic climate change.
There is a long way to go. Right now, 13 million hectares of forests are being lost every year. And climate change is accelerating the rate of deforestation due to increased forest fires and tropical storms. This is already affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people – causing major setbacks in the fight against poverty.
Protecting our forests is key to fulfilling almost all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ending deforestation within our supply chain is one of the biggest contributions Unilever can make to create a more sustainable world and maintain consumers' trust in our products.
Our goal – a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023
We’ve committed to achieving a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023. This means that by the end of 2023 our raw materials will come from places that are verified as deforestation and conversion free.
We’re focusing on our supply chains for palm oil, paper and board, tea, soy, and cocoa. This is because they make up more than 65% of Unilever’s impact on land – and are the crops that are most often linked to deforestation and conversion of natural ecosystems to farmland.
Our scale enables us to have some impact but even so, we can’t achieve the level of change needed on our own. We’re inviting the people in our supply chain to partner with us to drive systemic change together.
We’re committed to working with the industry, NGOs and governments – to form partnerships, promote advocacy and carry out work on the ground.
Our plan of action
We have learned in the past 10 years that certification won’t guarantee a deforestation-free supply chain. To end deforestation, we need visibility on exact sourcing locations. This is particularly true for that crucial first mile, by which we mean from where the commodity is sourced to where it is first processed. So we are increasing traceability and transparency through the using emerging digital technologies, working to empower farmers and smallholders to protect and regenerate the land and work with the industry, NGOs and governments on the ground.
Technology for transparency
In 2020 we became the first company to use Google Earth Engine for commercial sustainable sourcing, and one of the pioneering companies to work with Orbital Insight, using geolocation technology to trace our palm oil supply chain.
Our People and Forest First strategy lays out how we plan to combine these approaches to eliminate deforestation in our supply chain and beyond by 2023.
Our People and Forest First Strategy
Our approach for ending deforestation in our supply chain by 2023 has three pillars:
Transparency and traceability
Investing in robust systems to become a leader in traceable sourcing:
- Impact on the ground: We are working with major technology firms and innovative start-ups to get a deep understanding of the impact of our sourcing – particularly that critical first mile – from where the commodity is sourced to where it is first processed.
- Deforestation response: The latest digital capabilities will help us improve the way we monitor, predict and respond to situations where deforestation is likely to occur. This knowledge will help us identify high-risk areas and target interventions where they’re most needed.
Improving the way we source our materials:
- Simplifying the way we source: We want to work and prioritise suppliers who have the same sustainable ambitions as we do. By doing, this we will develop deeper relationships and get better visibility of our impact on the ground.
- Setting clear requirements: Our newly introduced cross-commodity People and Nature Policy, asks our supply chain partners to disclose primary and secondary processing facilities – effectively giving us traceability to where raw materials are grown.
- Low risk of deforestation: We will prioritise sourcing from areas with low risk of deforestation while working in partnership with organisations to protect and regenerate other natural ecosystems in need of protection.
Working with farmers and smallholders
Enhancing livelihoods through partnerships, training and regenerative practices:
- Positive interventions: Empowering smallholders in our supply chain by supporting livelihood programmes that improve farming operations, increase productivity, assist in diversifying income streams, and enable farmers to have a living income.
- Regenerating nature: We will drive the uptake of regenerative agricultural practices and contribute to the restoration of degraded landscapes, particularly by supporting programmes that protect natural ecosystems.
- Force for good: Advocating for the continuous improvement of standards, auditing, and assurance systems so we keep pace with increasing requirements for the protection of natural ecosystems and respect of human rights.
Working with our suppliers
In the fight against deforestation, working closely with our suppliers is crucial. They help us get closer to the people who grow our crops, which, in turn, helps us ensure they come from sustainable sources.
Our work on this is covered in our new People and Nature Policy (PDF 2.04MB) (Opens in a new window). This policy combines our previous Palm Oil and Paper and Board policies into a single document. It covers all our conversion-risk crops (palm oil, soy, paper and board, tea and cocoa) and updates and builds on our previous commitments.
This policy is based on the principles of NDPE (no deforestation, no development on peat, and no exploitation of people and communities) and covers both environmental and social objectives.
Along with our Responsible Sourcing Policy (PDF 8.25MB) (Opens in a new window), this policy includes criteria which aim to address prevailing and systemic human rights issues in our supply chains. This includes respect for land rights, which are critical for people's food security, and for inclusive social and economic development.
Our four principles for sustainable sourcing
- Protecting natural ecosystems from deforestation and conversion
- Respecting and promoting human rights
- Transparency and traceability
- Being a force for good for nature and people
These principles are set out in full in our People and Nature Policy (PDF 2.04MB) (Opens in a new window).
Making our suppliers public
We’re shining a light on issues in supply chains so that they can be remediated, which is why we have now published our full supply chains for palm oil (PDF 283KB) (Opens in a new window), soy (PDF 104KB) (Opens in a new window), paper and board (PDF 173KB) (Opens in a new window) and tea (PDF 493KB) (Opens in a new window).
Dealing with grievances
We want to be the first to know and act when issues like deforestation are identified within our supply chain. We have now expanded our palm oil grievance procedure to include all our forest commodities. If you have a palm oil grievance, you can email us at email@example.com (Opens in a new window).
We monitor our supply chain via a regular Deforestation and Burnt Area Monitoring Report through our partnership with Aidenvironment and we have made a recent investment to support the earlier detection of deforestation using radar detection, which will be made publicly available through WRI’s Global Forest Watch (Opens in a new window) platform.
We suspend suppliers linked to deforestation. If they later succeed in meeting our requirements, we will give them the opportunity to join our suppliers list again in the future.
Working with our suppliers to halt deforestation
Our suppliers can help us get closer to the people who grow our raw materials – so we can ensure they come from sustainable sources.
We’re working with the Indonesian government-owned palm oil plantation company PT Perkebunan Nusantara (PTPN) on a joint plan to support local mills and smallholder farmers to produce palm oil according to the standards of No deforestation, No development on peat, and No exploitation of people and communities (NDPE).
As part of the partnership, PTPN is giving Unilever access to its mills and its supplying farmer base. This means we can support the mills and farmers to become certified by providing a combination of dedicated resources, funding and technical expertise. Participating smallholder farmers are better positioned to enter the palm oil supply chain – and they will be able to increase their productivity while producing palm oil to the approved standards.
Making a difference on the ground
Today, Unilever needs approximately four million hectares of land for all its agricultural raw materials to be produced. Around 65% of that area, close to three million hectares, is related to five key commodities – palm oil, paper and board, tea, soy and cocoa.
That’s why our efforts to address deforestation are initially focused on these five crops, as they present the highest risk of ecosystem loss and damage as well as more than 50% of the carbon emissions associated with our ingredients.
Deforestation-free palm oil
We have an extensive programme to transform the industry to protect the forests as well as the livelihoods of those who depend on its production.
This is not something we can do alone. Governments, NGOs and businesses must work together to ensure the palm oil industry finds the right balance between economic, social and environmental objectives. As a founding member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), we have helped to lead efforts to change the way the industry works for over a decade, but there is still much more to be done.
By continuing to work with our stakeholders, we can eliminate deforestation, protect peatlands, support smallholders and drive positive impacts for people and local communities.
Deforestation-free paper and board
We use paper and board for items like folding cartons, customer packaging, aseptic cartons and ice cream sticks.
Our aim is to buy 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. That is achieved either through certifications schemes like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or other national schemes under the framework of the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).
Through the Global Traceability System, we contact our estimated 320 suppliers with a questionnaire to collect information on volumes, sustainability status and traceability to the country level on a quarterly basis.
96% By the end of 2020, 96% of the directly-purchased paper and board packaging materials we used were made from recycled fibre or came from certified sustainably managed forests.
We are the world's biggest tea company, buying around 10% of the world’s black tea. We source tea from our own tea estates, our suppliers or from smallholder farmers around the world. This means we support the livelihoods of more than 1 million people in 21 countries.
Our long-standing partnership with the Rainforest Alliance supports smallholder farmers around the world to adopt more sustainable practices – and our project with The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) is helping to reverse deforestation and as a result, improve rainfall, to support tea growing.
We’ve taken an important step forward in transparency by publishing a list (PDF 493KB) (Opens in a new window) of all our global suppliers of black and green tea – a list we'll update annually. By the end of 2020, 86% of all our tea was sustainably certified by Rainforest Alliance, or trustea Verified. For both standards, deforestation is a critical non-conformance and leads to de-certification.
Soy oil is a key ingredient in many of our products – like Hellmann’s mayonnaise. As a founding member of the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), we’ve worked with NGOs, governments and suppliers for a number of years to develop an international standard for sustainable soy.
Most of the soy oil we buy comes from soybeans grown in the US and Brazil. Unilever is a signatory of the Cerrado Manifesto (Opens in a new window), which calls for a halt to deforestation and native vegetation loss in Brazil's Cerrado. Through the manifesto, signatory companies commit to working in collaboration with local and international stakeholders towards environmental protection and good governance. Our efforts include a programme in Southern Cerrado which resulted in 250,000 hectares of sustainably managed lands, including more than 25,000 hectares of protected native vegetation.
We believe transparency is essential to a more sustainable supply chain. Our published supplier list gives details of our direct suppliers, accounting for more than 99.9% of our soy oil purchases.
Did you know…
In 2020, we shifted 400,000 tonnes of soy sourcing from high-risk areas to lands with a low risk of deforestation in 12 different markets, representing 93% of our soy volumes.
We buy around 1.5% of the global production of cocoa, mainly sourced from Ivory Coast and Ghana. Partnerships and collaborations are an essential part of our approach. In particular, we work with suppliers through long-standing certification schemes, like Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade and UTZ, to help manage risk and to audit our suppliers to monitor compliance.
In addition, we partnered with 35 other companies as part of the Cocoa & Forests Initiative (Opens in a new window) to end deforestation and restore forest areas. To build on this commitment, we have already mapped 92% of our direct cocoa supply chain together with our suppliers, to improve traceability and better understand where our cocoa comes from. This mapping will enable us to better define deforestation risk and to identify issues on the ground that require remediation.
100% Of our cocoa (and 99% of our cocoa for Magnum) is sourced through certification schemes such as the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ and Fairtrade
Working with cocoa smallholders
Helping farmers diversify their crops – and therefore boost their income – is an important way to give them financial security and secure land tenure. These are key factors in sustainable production as farmers are less likely to have to resort to illegally deforesting more land to support their families.
Our recent project in southern Côte d'Ivoire helped 448 smallholder cocoa farmers grow maize as well as cocoa during 2019. It aimed to make smallholders more resilient, with a particular focus on women farmers. Despite severe droughts during the project, yields of maize were higher than on control fields – and 79% of the farmers reported that they were positive about their maize harvest. Our target is to reach 6,000 farmers with income diversification programmes and opportunities by 2025.
Our deforestation-free promise
At Unilever, our purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. This means bringing a positive impact on people, the environment and everything that we do as a business. To do so, we need to collaborate and share our best practices. Partnerships are critical, and not just between our suppliers and providers, but across the wider industry.
If we only achieve a deforestation-free supply chain ourselves but fail to tackle the wider systemic issues driving forest loss, this will leave a poorer world for future generations. We must continue to advocate for the transformation of global supply chains towards more sustainable models. This requires that businesses, governments, civil society, and the people who live and work in forested landscapes, work in partnership to achieve sustainable development while valuing and conserving forests and building truly sustainable economies that support livelihoods.
Our work is far from done, but we are committed to ensuring healthy, thriving forests which will contribute to achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 15. We promise to make every tree and every action count. We promise to be #PeopleandForestsFirst.