Sustainable soy & rapeseed oils
Our research shows that consumers prefer products made with sustainable oils – so sourcing our soy and rapeseed oils sustainably can help grow our business as well as reduce our impacts on the environment.
Cultivating sustainable oils
The oils derived from soy and rapeseed are crucial ingredients in our brands, such as Hellmann’s mayonnaise, that are enjoyed by consumers the world over.
These crops are usually grown by family-owned farms, who sell them to the processors and suppliers who in turn sell them to us. They are grown in different ways and in different parts of the world, so we tailor our approach to have the most positive impact for each. But what’s common to our approach everywhere is our commitment to working in partnership, with the aim of making cultivation of these crops sustainable in the long term.
We believe that transparency helps us to build a more sustainable supply chain. In July 2019, we published details of direct suppliers (PDF | 105KB) accounting for in excess of 99.9% of Unilever’s soy oil purchases in 2018.
Making progress through partnerships
Our partnerships take a range of forms. For example, we work with multiple stakeholders to help develop internationally recognised standards and verification systems. We also work with farmers and suppliers, and with consumers, whose demand for sustainably sourced ingredients we aim to stimulate and meet.
Wherever possible, we’re seeking to move to physical, certified sources, which give us and our stakeholders added assurance that the crops in our supply chain are sustainably grown.
We completed an in-depth review of our sourcing strategy in 2017 which included looking at the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code, described in Our approach to sustainable sourcing. This identified soy and rapeseed as two of our priority crops. See our latest progress in sourcing them sustainably in Targets & performance.
Soy: improving standards, addressing local impacts
Most of the soy oil we buy comes from soy beans grown in the US and Brazil. 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 effort 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. Soy is one of four commodities at the heart of our commitment through the Consumer Goods Forum to achieve zero net deforestation (PDF | 167KB) by 2020. We’re also on the steering group behind the Statement of Support for the objectives of the Cerrado Manifesto. More on our work to combat deforestation can be found in Protecting our forests.
We source the majority of our soy oil from the US. Here, soil health and water quality are a particular focus, especially in the US Mississippi River basin.
The Round Table on Responsible Soy
We are founding members of the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS). Since 2010, the development of the RTRS standard has enabled farmers to improve their practices and gain accreditation.
Our purchase of some of the first RTRS certificates was an important step towards achieving our sustainable sourcing targets (for both soy beans and soy oil). In 2014 we met our target for sustainable soy beans when 100% met these RTRS standards. Since the sale of our AdeS business, we no longer use soy beans; but we still buy soy oil, see Targets & performance for our latest progress.
Working with US soy farmers
In 2012 we joined Field to Market, a US alliance that promotes sustainable agriculture. Field to Market offers a free online tool known as the Fieldprint Calculator to help growers analyse how their management choices impact natural resources and operational efficiency. Over 2014–2017, around 700 farmers took part in our sustainable soy programme, developed with Field to Market and our suppliers. With the data we collected from this work, we were able to develop programmes to increase our impact further.
In January 2018, we launched a new programme which aims to improve soil health and water quality through the adoption of cover crops. Cover crops are associated with improved ecosystems, better yields and a reduced need for agricultural inputs. The programme, managed by Practical Farmers of Iowa, has been well received by the Iowa farming community and more than 120 farmers signed up in the first year and over 240 farmers in the second year. We’re looking forward to continuing to expand this programme in the coming years.
Healthy soil, healthy soy: our cover crop partnership
Looking after the soil is one of the most important jobs a farmer can do. Not only do farmers depend on the soil for their livelihoods, but good soil practice plays a vital role in mitigating the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture. And it can help prevent erosion and other issues that affect local ecosystems, including waterways.
In Iowa in the US, we're working with soy farmers and soy oil suppliers to increase the use of cover crops as a way of protecting their soil. We believe promoting cover crops like this is an industry first - and an important way to enhance the sustainability of the soy oil used by our Hellmann's brand.
What are 'cover crops' – and why do they matter? Cover crops are usually non-commodity crops, and the clue is in the name: farmers plant them to cover the soil after harvest, protecting it until the next growing season. The plants capture carbon in the air and feed it into the soil, where microbes use carbon for energy and keep it underground instead of releasing it back into the atmosphere. There are other benefits, too – the US Department of Agriculture says cover crops can increase soil organic matter, retain nutrients, and alleviate soil compaction, among other advantages.
The programme focuses on three types of support – financial, technical and social. Farmers receive cost share from Unilever for planting cover crops; Practical Farmers of Iowa provide the technical assistance; and the group also provides a network for farmers to learn from each other and develop a social support system.
Sourcing oils responsibly – like using 100% cage-free eggs – is a key part of Hellmann's approach to being 'On the side of food'. “Consumers have become more invested and educated in where their food comes from, and they reward brands who respond to those concerns,” explains Makeda Kefale, Associate Brand Manager for Hellmann’s in the US. “Hellmann’s believes in improving our ingredients from the ground up. Supporting our farmers in implementing practices that renew the land for future generations isn’t just good business sense, it’s the right thing to do, and we’re proud to be a partner in this cause."
Sustainable soy in Latin America
We’re engaged in long-term collaborative efforts to improve soy cultivation in Latin America. This is underpinned by a significant effort to persuade the farmers who grow the soy that makes our soy oil to improve their practices.
Produzindo Certo (Producing Right)
In Brazil, through collaboration with the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS) and Aliança da Terra, more than 40 farmers have gained RTRS certification. The Produzindo Certo (Producing Right) initiative with Aliança da Terra, Bayer CropScience, Santander and Yara Fertilizers aims to boost sustainable soy cultivation by supporting growers to improve their agricultural and farm management practices. Bayer CropScience provides technical services and integrated crop management advice, and Santander provides rapid credit evaluation for agricultural loans while Yara advises on best use of fertilisers. And we boost the market for sustainable soy by buying this certified soy from our suppliers.
Cintia Vega is our Sustainable Sourcing Manager responsible for our liquid oils’ sustainability programmes. She visited Brazil to see the Produzindo Certo programme in action.
"Innovative, fundamental, contemporary. That's how one farmer described Produzindo Certo to me when I met him in Uberlandia in Minas Gerais, one of Brazil’s prime agricultural regions.
Like most participating farmers, he’d already taken some steps towards sustainability before the programme started – but I found that the farmers really valued the assistance of Aliança da Terra (ADT). ADT helps farmers identify areas for improvement and then provides support to address them – areas like labour conditions, community relations or environmental responsibility. And by increasing the availability of RTRS certified soy, the programme strengthens our supply chain – as well as helping make soy production in Brazil more responsible and sustainable.
It's a great example of how partnerships can contribute to reaching our sustainable living ambition. What’s next? With all the farmers’ feedback on board, we’ll be looking at ways to enhance Produzindo Certo so it can reach its full potential."
Modelling climate change scenarios for soy oil
As part of our wider work to assess the impact of climate change on our key commodities, in 2018 we selected soy for a pilot project forecasting future yields and quantifying the impact on commodity prices of soybean oil. We chose soy for this pilot based on its importance to Unilever (we buy a large volume of soy), it being a high-profile crop in the countries where it is grown and the availability of good historical price data and climate models.
The model considered the direct risks from climate change to the price of soybean oil, such as change in yield and change in supply. There were three modelling steps: yield estimation, price relationship, and impact estimation.
Our pilot analysis showed that soybean yields may increase over the 2030 and 2050 time horizons, and that subsequent lower prices may then lead to small potential reductions in our procurement spend on soy. However, we know we need to consider a wider range of risk factors when determining our strategic response, including indirect risks to soy supply from climate change (such as catastrophic events or external policy response and adaptation).
These pilot results are specific to soy and can’t be applied to other crops. We’re continuing to explore the climate change risks to our agricultural sourcing, and are extending our analysis to two other important crops for our business - palm oil and tea - once suitable climate change models for yield predictions become available in 2019.
The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD)
Our soy analysis is described in detail in our 2019 Annual Report as part of our commitment to the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). Our Chief Financial Officer, Graeme Pitkethly, is a Vice Chair of the Task Force.
The work and recommendations of the Task Force will help companies understand what financial markets want from disclosure in order to measure and respond to climate change risks, and encourage firms to align their disclosures with investors’ needs. Its aims are to:
- develop voluntary, consistent climate-related financial risk disclosures for use by companies in providing information to investors, lenders, insurers, and other stakeholders
- consider the physical, liability and transition risks associated with climate change and what constitutes effective financial disclosures across industries.
Making progress on rapeseed oil
We continue to make good progress towards our target for sustainable rapeseed oil, see Targets & performance.
As with soy, our progress is built on the work we do with our suppliers and other partners. An example is our joint approach with our supplier Bunge in Canada. By the end of 2019, around 200 farmers in Canada were signed up to our Sustainable Agriculture Code programme. In close co-operation with our farm advisers, Control Union, these farmers have shifted their practices to meet our Code’s requirements well ahead of schedule.