Our approach to sustainable sourcing
We're working with farmers and suppliers to drive up social and environmental standards in our supply of agricultural raw materials.
The raw materials that make brands loved by billions
People a day use a Unilever product
Around 2.5 billion people a day use a Unilever product – and we use raw materials from around the world to make them.
Many of the raw materials we use in our brands come from farms and forests. That means we need a secure, sustainable supply of these materials for the future growth of our business. At the same time, our agricultural supply chain connects us to millions of people, which creates a pathway to achieving many of our ambitions for positive social impact. That’s why our commitment to sustainable sourcing, underpinned by our Sustainable Agriculture Programme, is a crucial part of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.
Our approach has five main strands:
- sustainably sourcing to the highest standards from our network of suppliers
- driving change through continuous improvement policies with suppliers
- raising awareness of sustainable sourcing among our consumers
- playing a leading role in the transformation of agricultural sectors relevant to our business, particularly sustainable tea and palm oil
- protecting biodiversity.
We have also moved our sustainable sourcing programme from self-assessment to third-party certification, to provide greater trust and transparency and ensure more accurate reporting. Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) continues to recognise external certification that meets or exceeds our own standards (such as Rainforest Alliance certification, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and Round Table on Responsible Soy) for many of our raw materials.
These multi-stakeholder platforms help suppliers by providing a common definition of sustainable agriculture, which makes their products more marketable to us and others.
Programmes that drive change
Since the early 1990s, we’ve pioneered a number of programmes and initiatives designed to drive the highest standards of sustainable sourcing within our operations and supply chain, developing them alongside wider industry and multi-stakeholder initiatives. These programmes and policies, notably our Sustainable Agriculture Programme, our Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) (PDF | 8MB) and our Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP) (PDF | 9MB), are at the heart of our approach.
Our Sustainable Agriculture Code
We developed the Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) to give us and our farmers and suppliers a set of rigorous standards to encourage improvements across our supply chain.
The Code defines what sustainable sourcing means in practice, using 11 social, economic and environmental indicators: soil health, soil loss, nutrients, pest management, biodiversity, farm economics, energy, water, social and human capital, local economy and animal welfare.
We’ve been working with our suppliers to help them comply with our SAC since 2010. To make the greatest progress as fast as possible, we’ve focused our efforts on a priority set of key crops and commodities, chosen for their importance to our business and our brands as well as our ability to have a greater positive impact within these agricultural sectors. These priorities include palm oil, paper and board, soy, sugar, tea, dairy, rapeseed, cereals, vegetables, cocoa, herbal infusions and vanilla.
We also place emphasis on the importance of:
- no deforestation
- human rights (including Free, Prior and Informed Consent)
- legal compliance
- migrant labour, and
- grievance processes for workers.
Our Code standards are third-party certified, to provide greater trust and transparency and ensure accurate reporting. The SAC continues to recognise external certification (such as Rainforest Alliance certification) that meets or exceeds our own standards.
Documenting positive change
Through our Sustainable Living Report we detail and update our commitments and progress on palm oil and tea, paper and board, soy and rapeseed oils, vegetables, cocoa, sugar and dairy. We also set out how we protect biodiversity as a core element of our approach, as well as describing how we’re tackling responsible sourcing of non-renewable materials, such as mined minerals.
Our Sustainable Living Report aims to give a wider view, too. Given the reach and scale of our supply chain, we are exploring how we can have positive impacts on sustainable agriculture that go beyond our SAC. Transforming global food systems describes how we’re working to achieve the transformational changes that will further improve the lives of farmers, the productivity of their farms, and the resilience of our supply chains. And in Connecting with smallholder farmers we describe how many of our sourcing initiatives aim to boost smallholders’ incomes and achieve other social impacts alongside fostering sustainable agricultural practices.
Agriculture, the livelihoods of farmers and farming communities, and the health of the planet are all dependent on the ecosystems in which crops and commodities are grown.
That means protecting biodiversity is a vital element in our Sustainable Agriculture Programme. One of the four principles in our Programme is: “Ensuring any adverse effects on biodiversity from agricultural activities are minimised and positive contributions are made where possible”. Biodiversity is also one of the 11 core indicators we use to measure sustainable farming practices.
The business case for protecting biodiversity is quite simple. Without biodiversity, there is no business.Giulia Stellari, our Sustainable Sourcing Director
Our Sustainable Agriculture Code has a specific chapter devoted to biodiversity. It covers both ecosystem services and the protection of rare and vulnerable species and ecosystems on and around farms.
Forests support 80% of terrestrial biodiversity (the variety of life forms on land), so our commitment to take action against deforestation is also critical in this area. This is described in Protecting our forests. Our work with other organisations, and the advances being made by our Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC) in this area, are described in Natural capital.
Biodiversity Action Plans
We want to inspire farmers to start their own Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPs). The scope for a BAP can range from field to landscape level in the growing area of any crop. The ideas behind the plans often come from farmers and suppliers themselves, based on the wild animals or plants they value or have observed.
Since biodiversity issues vary widely across the world, farmers’ efforts have resulted in a wide range of projects. Some are showcased in our booklet, Unilever Suppliers – A Closer Look at Biodiversity (PDF | 998KB).
Helping farmers & suppliers promote sustainable sourcing
We can only achieve a sustainable supply of agricultural raw materials by working with our suppliers and the farmers who grow our ingredients. Making that process both efficient and rigorous helps both us and them.
That’s why our SAC recognises a range of external standards used by suppliers to comply with the principles of sustainable agriculture – a full list can be found in our Scheme Rules (PDF | 634KB).
We will consider any current in-house or industry-level sustainability programmes that suppliers use, asking suppliers to benchmark their system or programme against our SAC, and agreeing with them which areas, if any, of a supplier or industry-level system are equivalent to the SAC.
However, we know that certification alone does not guarantee a solution to all problems. So we work in partnership with our suppliers and NGOs to drive sustainable practices across the entire value chain.
Our external advisers
We don’t claim to know all the answers when it comes to sustainable agriculture, and we welcome expertise from beyond our business. Our Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board advises us on issues such as climate impact, biodiversity, water stress, labour conditions, poverty alleviation and the use of chemicals.
Our Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board
Our Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board (PDF | 170KB) (SSAB) includes eight external experts, including academics and representatives from NGOs and impact investing:
- Dr Julia Balandina Jaquier, JBJ Consult, Switzerland
- David Bright, Open Society Foundations, UK
- Cristianne Close, WWF International, Brazil
- Professor Ken Giller, Wageningen University, The Netherlands
- Alan Knight, ArcelorMittal, UK
- Karin Kreider, ISEAL, UK
- Dr Ruth Nussbaum, Proforest, UK
- Dr Sonja Vermeulen, CGIAR, France.
See how our governance structures help us deliver the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.