Protecting our forests
Forests are vital to life but we’re losing them at an alarming rate. We’re working – both within our business and with others outside it – to eliminate deforestation from agricultural commodity supply chains like palm oil, tackle climate change and achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 15 – Life on Land.
We have to stop deforestation
Forests are essential to life. They are the lungs of our planet and help to regulate our climate. They’re second only to oceans as the largest global store of carbon. Up to 80% of terrestrial biodiversity and more than 1 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods.1 When forests are cleared, burned or degraded, they emit carbon. It’s estimated that deforestation contributes 15% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions2 – more than the global transport sector. Yet by protecting and restoring forests we would achieve 18% of the emissions cuts needed by 2030 to prevent catastrophic climate change.3
According to the World Resources Institute, 30% of global forest cover has been cleared, while 20% has been degraded. Much of the remaining forest cover is fragmented, leaving only around 15% of global forest cover intact. Most deforestation occurs when forests are cleared to grow palm oil or soy, to raise cattle or to harvest timber for the paper and pulp industries. Demand for these commodities is soaring as the global population rises and incomes increase. It’s predicted that there will be over 9 billion people on the planet by 2050 and 60% more food will need to be produced.
Governments and businesses have set ambitious goals to protect forests. The New York Declaration on Forests, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement all call for substantial improvements in forest trends by 2020. These commitments are built on private sector commitments made over the last few years. Many leading companies have made significant progress in understanding and mitigating their supply chain impacts. By early 2020, 484 companies had made 860 commitments to reduce or eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. This is a powerful market signal to the rest of the global commodities sector.
Yet despite these commitments, forests are continuing to disappear rapidly. An area of forest the size of the UK is being lost each year – and the majority of it is tropical rainforest.4 Since the New York Declaration on Forests in 2014, the rate of tree cover loss has increased by 43%.5
The loss is driven by continued expansion of land for agriculture and an increase in forest fires and tropical storms – more frequent and severe as a result of climate change. These underlying trends are expected to worsen in the coming decades. It’s clear that we must redouble our efforts with urgency and ambition. Both public and private sector action and the support of civil society are needed to enable us to produce more food, and protect forests and those whose livelihoods depend on them. We cannot succeed if we do one without the other.
Our goal is a deforestation-free supply chain
We’re one of the world’s largest buyers of palm oil so we’re focusing on playing a leadership role in breaking the link between palm oil production and deforestation. We also buy other commodities associated with a risk of deforestation, including soy and paper and board. We believe that transparency helps us to build a more sustainable supply chain, which is why we have disclosed our direct suppliers of all of these commodity groups.
89% of Unilever’s forest-related commodities are certified as sustainably sourced to globally recognised standards. However, we are still losing the battle to save forests and respect and promote the rights of the people that work in and near them. Despite numerous commitments and initiatives spanning the decade, the expansion of agricultural commodities, particularly palm oil, soy, cattle, paper and board and cocoa, continue to present the largest threats to our forests and often to the people that surround them.
To end deforestation, we must challenge ourselves to even higher standards. This means that we need to have visibility on exact sourcing locations, and no longer rely on the mass balance system, which does not allow for accurate verification of deforestation-free when sourcing derivatives of our commodities. We also recognise that ensuring decent livelihoods, good working conditions and sustainable land tenure for smallholders is key to preventing deforestation. We want to strengthen our approach to human rights assurance, so local communities living in or near forests have their livelihoods, food security, resources and right to use or own land respected.
In June 2020, we announced that we will achieve a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023. We are starting with five-key high-deforestation risk commodities - palm oil, soy, cocoa, paper and board and tea. These materials represent an estimated 65% of Unilever’s impact on land and more than 50% of the carbon emissions associated with the key agricultural ingredients that we buy.
To do this, we will increase traceability and transparency by using emerging digital technologies – such as satellite monitoring, geolocation tracking and blockchain – accelerating smallholder inclusion and changing our approach to derivates sourcing. We are also committed to working with the industry, NGOs and governments, to look beyond forests, peatlands and tropical rainforests, and to protect other important areas of high conservation value and high carbon stock which are under threat of conversion to arable land, with potentially devastating impact on the natural habitats.
We want to transform these sectors through partnerships, advocacy and committed work on the ground. Our scale enables us to have an impact but even so, we can’t achieve the level of change needed on our own.
Did you know?
We’re taking four main steps to eliminate deforestation from agricultural commodity supply chains and to make sure we maintain affordable access to sustainably produced supplies of these commodities for the long term. These are:
- Introducing a new People and Nature cross-commodity policy (PDF | 3MB) that strengthens existing mandatory requirements of our suppliers and adds new ones to ensure a clear and robust approach to deforestation and respecting and promoting human rights.
- Transforming our own supply chains: making sure the palm oil, soy, paper and board (PDF | 173KB), and tea we buy is both traceable and certified as sustainable.
- Encouraging the whole industry: it’s possible to stop large-scale deforestation while increasing food production and improving livelihoods for smallholder farmers through better agricultural practices. We’re encouraging the entire industry – growers, traders, manufacturers and retailers – to set and meet high standards, extending beyond current certification schemes.
- Working with governments and other partners: ensuring that tackling deforestation gets the political attention and financial resources it needs and deserves is a critical component of our response to climate change. In particular, we are focused on helping catalyse transformative change at the landscape or jurisdictional level in key regions of South-East Asia, South America, and West and Central Africa. We’re also using our networks and relationships to help tropical forest countries access large-scale, performance-based payments for emissions reductions from forests.
Shining a light on forests and deforestation
Much work has been done to deliver our commitment to achieve a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023 in soy, palm oil, paper and pulp and beef supply chains. But we currently stand to fall short of this target at a time when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is telling the world that we need ever more urgent action.
Lack of transparency has been one of the major impediments to meeting our targets. We have made good headway by disclosing our palm oil mill origins, for example, but this is a longer and more challenging journey. Technologies such as the Global Forest Watch Tool, Trase, Blockchain and the Accountability Framework enable more radical transparency.
We want to shine 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, soy, paper and board and tea.
We have been driving change by:
- December 2020: Introducing a new cross-commodity policy (PDF | 3MB) and respective guidelines (PDF | 2MB).
- February 2018: publishing our entire palm oil mill list (PDF | 299KB)
- November 2018: publishing a palm oil Universal Mill List, tracked with WRI and Global Forest Watch
- December 2018: working to get Wilmar to sign up to a mapping commitment with Aid Environment, to publish all third-party supplier concession maps
- July 2019: publishing our soy (PDF | 105KB) and paper and board supplier lists (PDF | 173KB)
- September 2019: publishing our tea supplier list (PDF | 494KB)
Three steps to tackling deforestation: produce, protect, restore
Increasing numbers of scientists are calling for more emphasis on natural climate solutions.6 While protecting tropical forests is essential, on its own it’s not enough. To prevent the worst impacts of climate change and safeguard the world’s biodiversity, we also need to restore and expand forested areas. We are now supporting work in five different landscape programmes across Indonesia and Malaysia, which includes restoration.
Sabah, a State of East Malaysia, is home to critically endangered species, such as the Bornean orangutan and the Bornean elephant. It has already lost half its tropical forest, mostly to industrial agriculture of oil palms, and to protect against further losses, the State government wants to see all palm oil producers achieve certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) by 2025. According to the WWF, this will reduce GHG emissions by 17 million tonnes by 2030.
As part of the WWF Living Landscapes programme led by WWF Malaysia in collaboration with the government, industry, and other NGOs such as PONGO Alliance and Forever Sabah, we will be supporting the RSPO-certification of 60,000 hectares of oil palm plantations. By doing so, we plan to supply the market with some 1.1 million tonnes of sustainably grown oil palm fruit bunches, and to help make sustainable palm oil commonplace.
We will also be supporting work on replanting of two wildlife corridors, to restore wildlife forest habitats and improve the connectivity between fragmented forest blocks. This enhances wildlife movement, to ensure healthy breeding populations which are better able to adapt to climate change impacts. Two riparian (riverside) reserves will also be restored in order to improve river water quality.
We’re moving our agricultural commodity sourcing to areas with sustainable forest management and working in partnership to help balance social, economic and environmental objectives. Our ultimate ambition is to help drive a sustainable palm oil industry. Through these projects, we are contributing to the achievement of SDG 15, Life on Land – specifically to target 15.2 on promoting sustainable forest management, halting deforestation and restoring degraded forests.
This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals
Creating a movement for sustainable forest management
Deforestation is a complex issue, and one that isn’t going to be solved by companies acting alone. Since making our commitment to zero net deforestation, we have increased our work with industry partners, governments and NGOs, advocating for change across the entire tropical forest commodities sector. It’s only through the transformation of each commodity’s value chain and the adoption of sustainable farming practices that commodity-driven deforestation is likely to end.
Over 90% of globally traded palm oil is now covered by ‘no-deforestation’ pledges but these promises must be turned into action. And that requires transformational systems change across the palm oil value chain. As a step towards this, we joined with Marks & Spencer in 2015 and declared our joint intention to prioritise sourcing from countries or regions that have adequate ‘no-deforestation’ policies in place. This will enable agricultural production and human development goals to be achieved side by side while protecting the environment and communities.
We’re focusing now on developing partnerships which demonstrate the success of this approach, such as our work with Indonesian NGO INOBU and the district government of Kotawaringin Barat in Central Kalimantan to take a ‘village-by-village’ approach to certifying palm oil smallholder farmers.
One of the most significant challenges is that financial benefits from transforming forests into agricultural land often far outweigh those from preserving forests. In 2017 we were the first corporate investor in the &Green Fund, which aims to kick-start investments in deforestation-free agriculture in countries that are working to reduce deforestation and peat degradation.
The Fund aims to protect over five million hectares of forest and peatlands by de-risking private capital investments into large-scale deforestation-free production, protection and inclusion initiatives. With a capitalisation goal of $400 million and an aim to trigger $1.6 billion in private capital investments, this Fund is an exciting opportunity to jointly shape solutions to mitigate deforestation.
Working collaboratively to drive transformational change on deforestation
Our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) is a bold ambition to achieve change. However, we are just one company among many and the problems our society faces, such as climate change, are urgent, large and complex. Our transformational change agenda combines direct action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with partnership and external advocacy on public policy to create change on a systemic scale – while unlocking business opportunities at the same time.
Tackling deforestation through multi-stakeholder initiatives
In September 2018, we announced that we’re working with Walmart – as part of its network of suppliers – to tackle deforestation. Walmart has launched a platform to mobilise its suppliers to support locally led, multi-stakeholder initiatives that are tackling deforestation in key commodity-producing regions where they purchase soy, beef, palm oil and timber. As part of this project, the WWF, Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy are working with Walmart and its suppliers to facilitate these connections and advise on how best to engage in each geography.
These jurisdictional approaches align producers, local governments, global companies and others within a single geography around a shared vision for balancing production, protection and restoration, and the inclusion of local communities. Partnerships like these can overcome challenges that no one entity – be it government, NGO or business – could solve alone. Our new partnership in Malaysia is also an example of this approach.
We are members of many multi-stakeholder groups working to halt deforestation. These include the Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA), which was brought about by the Consumer Goods Forum commitment to mobilise resources to help its members achieve zero net deforestation by 2020. TFA 2020 comprises the governments of both tropical forest and donor/consumer countries, NGOs, representatives of indigenous people, and businesses spanning the commodity supply chains.
We are represented on the steering group of the companies behind the Statement of Support for the objectives of the Cerrado Manifesto (PDF | 40KB). Signatories of this initiative are committed to working with local and international stakeholders to halve deforestation and native vegetation loss in the Cerrado savanna eco-region of Brazil. We also support Global Forest Watch, a World Resources Institute initiative that provides an online forest monitoring and alert system. This empowers people everywhere to get involved in protecting forests.
In 2018, we became a signatory of a new public–private partnership called the Cocoa & Forests Initiative (CFI) which was organised by the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), IDH – The Sustainable Trade Initiative and The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit (ISU) with the aim to end deforestation and promote forest restoration and protection in the cocoa supply chain.
By signing the Frameworks for Action for Côte d’Ivoire, Unilever has defined its core commitments and actions for a deforestation-free and forest-positive supply chain. Our Action Plan (XLSX | 24KB) was drafted based on our role in the supply chain, our cocoa sustainability goals and our corporate strategic priorities. Our progress is set out in the CFI Annual Progress Report (PDF | 268KB).
1 World Resources Institute: https://www.wri.org/our-work/topics/forests
2 World Wildlife Fund: https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/deforestation
3 UN IPCC Special Report, October 2018
4Climate Focus, New York Declaration of Forests Progress Report, 2019
5Climate Focus, New York Declaration of Forests Progress Report, 2019
6 UN IPCC Special Report, October 2018