We couldn't make our foods without high quality vegetables and fruits from all over the world. Securing a sustainable supply is a priority for our business.
A worldwide network, supporting world-famous brands
Growers provide the fruit and vegetables we buy from 500 suppliers
A reliable supply of the best ingredients is essential to the long-term future of food brands that people can trust on taste, nutrition and sustainability.
Vegetables are a priority crop for our business. We buy significant quantities of tomatoes, onions, pumpkins, leeks, green beans, mushrooms, potatoes, celeriac, peas and carrots, as well as herbs such as basil, parsley and chives. Most of the vegetables we buy are used in the soups, sauces and other food products made by our Knorr brand.
We also buy a range of high quality fruit, including strawberries, guava, mango, raspberries and bananas. These are especially important for our ice cream brands, such as Ben & Jerry’s, Magnum, Carte D’Or and Breyers.
With such a wide range of ingredients, we need a diverse supply chain. We buy fruit and vegetables from around 500 suppliers, who in turn buy from around 50,000 growers and farmers.
Partnerships that drive sustainable change
Our expert buyers seek the best quality ingredients from growers around the world. The scale and diversity of this supply chain gives us a great opportunity to make a positive environmental and social impact. But at the same time, it creates complexity when it comes to ensuring a sustainable supply of vegetables – especially as climate change impacts production, prompting us to look for new sources for ingredients. This complexity is reinforced by the fact that currently there is limited availability of vegetables certified as sustainable.
So working in partnership with others is critical if we’re to source our ingredients sustainably.
We work closely with our farmers and suppliers to help them meet the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) standard. We also support many wider partnership initiatives to drive improvement in the sector. For example, we helped establish the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform. The SAI helps us identify links with other fast-moving consumer goods companies who buy from the same suppliers, and agree common standards.
Making progress easier for growers
Mutual recognition of equivalent standards helps us and suppliers
Our Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) is equivalent to a number of certification standards, as set out in our Unilever Scheme Rules. Equivalence benefits suppliers and our business by enabling growers to meet our sustainability requirements through achieving a standard that other companies also acknowledge. Like 'mutual recognition', (which means we accept other companies' standards provided they match our own), this cuts down duplication and helps promote best practice.
This is particularly useful in our vegetable supply chain, as we have a large number of ingredients and many suppliers, and this supply base changes over time. We’ve seen an increasing number of suppliers in Europe and the US using the SAI Platform's Farm Sustainability Assessment tool (FSA) (which has been equivalent to our Sustainable Agriculture Code since 2018).
We welcome this growth and expect this momentum to continue. We believe that supplier-led change like this is the best and most efficient way to mainstream sustainability across the industry. To find out more, see Our approach to sustainable sourcing.
The impact of climate
Reduction in GHG footprints on tomato farms using our Sustainable Agriculture Code
Climate change and unpredictable weather patterns are already having an impact on our vegetable supply chain. In Europe alone, the summers of 2018 and 2019 saw drought, high temperatures and flash flooding have a severe impact on yields. A 2019 report by the European Environment Agency projected a continuing increase in the number of extreme events negatively affecting agriculture in Europe.
As well as working to make our supply chain more resilient to these changes, we want our Sustainable Agriculture Code to make a real difference to the environmental impact of our own products − including the impact of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions created by agriculture.
In 2017, we published the findings of a ground-breaking study we conducted with researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands. This investigated the GHG emissions associated with the production of tomatoes in our supply chain and was the first to provide an integrated analysis of the variability of GHG emissions in the global production of a crop.
While any set of agricultural data is complex because of the many variables involved, the results are highly encouraging. They showed an overall 25% decrease in GHG footprints in the sampled farms in the three years studied (2013–2015).
This significant data set can help us, and others, gain insights on how farming and sourcing practices can reduce the impact of agriculture on the climate.
We want to extend this type of analysis to other crops grown by farmers using our Sustainable Agriculture Code. We're working on data collected through our Cool Farm Tool to analyse performance for other crops, including onions, garlic, carrots and strawberries.
Knorr – working closely with farmers & consumers
Knorr is sold in around 90 countries. It’s our largest food brand and one of the world’s largest brands. While Knorr has worked closely with farmers for 183 years, for the last decade it’s been working to make a positive change across the food system – from the way food is grown to the way it’s consumed.
Through its Sustainability Partnership Fund, Knorr is supporting suppliers and farmers to make change on the ground. And together with WWF-UK, Knorr wrote and promotes the Future 50 Foods, 50 of the great foods people should eat more of for their health and that of the planet.
Future 50 Foods
Only 12 plants and five animals make up 75% of what the whole world eats. But eating so few foods is bad for us and bad for the planet.
The Future 50 Foods Report states the issues the global food system faces and provides a tangible solution to enable widespread change: 50 of the foods we should eat more of to promote a more sustainable global food system. These 50 foods have been selected because they have a lower impact on the environment than animal-based foods and are nutritious.
The different ingredients grow and are available in a wide number of countries and can be the side or centre of everyday meals. These ingredients can and should be added and substituted into meals and can be used to create new types of dishes. The aim is to help increase the intake of vegetables, a wider variety of grains and more plant-based sources of protein to help improve the health of people and the planet.
Knorr's Sustainability Partnership Fund
Knorr’s Sustainability Partnership Fund supports sustainable farming projects with suppliers to help nature by improving soil health, water use and biodiversity. In 2019, 17 projects were running across 10 countries.
A number of the Fund’s projects have supported better irrigation – both to improve yields and to increase resilience, as we see farmers having to adapt to droughts as rainfall becomes more unpredictable and groundwater aquifers run low.
One example is the contribution to a major infrastructure project to construct a reservoir and pipeline in Belgium, which uses wastewater from a vegetable supplier to irrigate the fields of 47 vegetable farmers who currently have to fall back on transporting water by truck in times of shortage. Other examples include support for drip irrigation projects in areas where water can be scarce and promoting better water quality by protecting waterways.
Clearer streams, better pumpkins
It makes good agricultural sense to rotate crops – giving farmers more control over their soil management, and reducing the risk of disease.
For Cedenco, which supplies pumpkins from Tologa Bay, New Zealand for our Continental brand, that meant growing grass for animal grazing on the pumpkin fields. Unfortunately the presence of livestock on the fields had an impact on the surrounding waterways – including the risk of algal bloom caused by the nutrient-rich run off water.
To help protect the waterways, Cedenco fenced off 52 hectares of land to stop the animals entering the water, and planting 5,700 native trees and shrubs between 2014 and 2016. Test results have shown that creating these buffer zones has contributed to a significant improvement in water quality, including a 31% reduction in ammoniacal nitrogen - and part of the area is providing an educational resource for local young people.
Improving biodiversity is core to our Sustainable Agriculture Code and a priority area for the Knorr Partnership Fund.
Sweet return of the dark bee
Bees have been essential to farming for millennia, acting as pollinators to crops and providing a vital element of biodiversity in farming ecosystems.
Protecting that biodiversity is a core aim of our Sustainable Agriculture Code – and one shared by our supplier Steinicke, which supplies herbs and vegetables to Knorr from farms in the Wendland area of Germany.
In 2019, Steinicke began an ambitious project to bring back the dark bee to Wendland – restoring the area's native bee species, which had been largely displaced for decades.
Working with beekeepers in Germany and Norway, the project reintroduced nine colonies of pure dark bees while improving their habitat. If the bees continue to thrive, the hope is that many more hives will flourish among the flower strips and farmland from which we source our ingredients.
Looking after the soil
Of the world’s soil is degraded
Looking after the soil is one of the most important jobs a farmer can do.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, a third of the world’s soil is now moderately – to highly-degraded. Promoting the health of soil is a mandatory requirement of our Sustainable Agriculture Code and Knorr supports a number of partnership initiatives to get suppliers to improve soil health.
Eyes in the sky manage vegetables on the ground
Dig down into the subject of soil and it quickly becomes obvious that no two samples are exactly the same. Texture, organic matter content, nitrogen content, and many other factors can vary widely, even in a single field.
And that matters to the farmers who grow our ingredients – because to get the best from the soil, they need to know precisely what each area needs to nurture and fertilise it. Too much of any input could be wasteful or even harmful; too little could reduce the soil's productivity.
Our vegetable supplier Ardo has embraced innovative techniques in a bid to solve this issue and develop a 'precision agriculture' approach in Belgium. Alongside soil scanning equipment, Ardo has used a combination of satellite imaging and the use of drones to get an overhead view of the fields in which its farmers grow peas, spinach and broad beans for Knorr.
The results in 2019 were promising: farmers in the project have reduced their inputs, achieved equal or increased yields, and improved the quality of their crops. Farmers needed 5–6% less seed and 11–13% less plant protection products as a result of using the new technologies and Ardo intends to expand the programme so that more farmers, and Knorr consumers, enjoy the benefits.
Partnerships that enhance livelihoods
Unilever developed the Enhancing Livelihoods Fund (ELF) in 2015, in partnership with Oxfam and the Ford Foundation, to drive investment in innovative projects in our supply chain. These projects aim to improve the agricultural practices, skills, and livelihoods of smallholder farming communities, with a specific focus on empowering women and training. The fund provides a mix of loans, guarantees, and grants. It aims to incentivise investment in new processes that make a difference to communities while improving sustainability and crop yields. See Connecting with smallholder farmers to enhance livelihoods.
Using mobile channels to boost gherkin crops
One of the first suppliers to receive support from the Enhancing Livelihoods Fund was Marcatus QED. It used this investment alongside its own funding to research and develop a gender-inclusive responsible farming curriculum. Its aim was to help double the yield in its Indian gherkin supply chain within three years.
The Marcatus Mobile Education Platform used simple technology to help families learn about sustainable agricultural practices through locally-made farmer videos.
The project reached around 19,500 people in total. It has now concluded and was evaluated in 2018. The results demonstrated a 63% adoption rate of practices shown through group video screenings; 20% average increase in yields compared to a group of non-participants; and a 24% increase in net income compared to a group of non-participants.
We’ve continued to work with suppliers to develop ways to help gherkin farmers improve their yields. One project delivers vital weather forecast data through text messages to gherkin farmers using the Crop In management platform. It’s an initiative that recognises that while farmers urgently need information, they may not always have the technology or budget to use mobile tools extensively. So Crop In sends simple and timely messages to alert farmers to the arrival of the monsoon or the best dates to sow crops, helping them deal with changing weather patterns.