Our sustainable agriculture programme
For more than 15 years, our Sustainable Agriculture Programme has defined our approach to working with farmers and suppliers on ways to increase their yields while improving their livelihoods and respecting the environment on which they, and we, depend.
At the heart of the programme is our Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) (PDF | 2MB). We developed the SAC to give us, and our farmers and suppliers, a set of rigorous standards which would drive improvements across our supply chain. We work with our suppliers to help them comply with our SAC and commit to continuous improvement; suppliers can comply through self-assessment and verification, or through external certification (such as Rainforest Alliance certification) that meets or exceeds our own standards.
While we are proud of our Sustainable Agriculture Programme and the impacts it has had, we recognise that systemic changes are needed to make global agriculture environmentally and socially sustainable - changes we cannot achieve alone. Details of our work with partners on transformational change are in Making sustainable agriculture mainstream.
Working on sustainable agricultural practices with our mushroom supplier in Shanghai has increased yields and quality while eliminating pesticides from the growth of a vital ingredient in our Knorr products.
With our partner Shundi Foods, we've incorporated waste organic matter from local smallholder farms into a compost soil mix which is sterilised with non-toxic steam to control pests and weeds.
Yields of mushrooms have doubled, and the programme won the Green Development Excellence Award at the 2016 Invest in Green Future Corporate Social Responsibility awards. Read more.
What sustainable agriculture means in practice
Sustainable agriculture means growing crops in ways which sustain the soil, minimise water and fertiliser use, protect biodiversity and enhance farmers’ livelihoods.
In our SAC, we define sustainable sourcing 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 also have a definition for sustainable paper and board materials.
How we help farmers and 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.
Certification is one important way farmers can demonstrate their use of sustainable practices, and strategic partnerships built on certification are a key part of our approach. Many of our raw materials are certified to sustainability standards which meet or exceed our SAC, such as those of the Rainforest Alliance, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and Round Table for Responsible Soy. These multi-stakeholder platforms help suppliers by providing a common definition of sustainable agriculture, thus making their products more marketable to us and others.
We have a number of tools in place to help suppliers with self-assessment. For example, we worked with software developer Muddy Boots to create a platform where farmers can measure their progress against our SAC, and with Control Union to support suppliers and provide training. In 2013, The Cool Farm Alliance (CFA), which includes Unilever, launched the online Cool Farm Tool that enables farmers to assess their carbon footprint.
How self-assessment works
To ensure we maintain a robust view of our progress, all the suppliers in our sustainable sourcing programme complete self-assessments with every crop cycle, to measure their progress against the requirements of our SAC. We check that these self-assessments are rigorous and credible through an independent verifier.
Sometimes suppliers and farmers believe they are in full compliance, when they are actually not. In these cases, we apply an adjustment factor to our sustainably sourced volumes. We have practised this verification methodology for a number of years and have made it part of our standard way of working.
Details of how this programme works, and when we consider a raw material ‘sustainably sourced’, can be found in our Scheme Rules (PDF | 2MB).
Demonstrating the impact of sustainable sourcing
We want to be able to demonstrate clearly and transparently that sustainable farming really does make a difference to our farmers, their communities and the environment. This will help us refine our programmes and encourage the adoption of practices that are better for people and the environment.
In 2012, we began collecting data from farmers who participate in the SAC self-assessment programme, relating to the use of pesticides and fertilisers, crop yields, land areas managed for wildlife, and other issues.
We now have data on our programme covering 2012-2016. While factors such as the variability of weather mean that this a short period in which to identify trends in agricultural data, our findings to date are positive.
For farmers who have been part of our programme since 2012, performance against most of our sustainability measures has improved, and we have started to give specific feedback to individual suppliers and their farmers. This is intended to help them to focus their improvement programmes.
Our Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board
Collaboration with partners on a larger scale is essential if we are to achieve our vision of transformational change. We set up our Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Board in 2000, replacing it in 2011 with our Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board (SSAB) to advise us on issues such as climate impact, biodiversity, water stress, labour conditions, poverty alleviation and the use of chemicals.
The SSAB includes external experts, academics and representatives from NGOs. In 2016 its members were:
- Dr Julia Balandina-Jaquier, JBJ Consult, Switzerland
- Dominique Gangneux, Rainforest Alliance, UK
- Professor Ken Giller, Wageningen University, The Netherlands
- Alan Knight, ArcelorMittal, UK
- David McLaughlin, WWF-US, US
- Dr Ruth Nussbaum, Proforest, UK
For details of our sustainability structures, see Our governance.