Sustainable soy & oils

We have set targets to source all our soy, sunflower and rapeseed oils sustainably by 2020.

How do we use soy?

We purchase around 1% of the world’s soy, most of which is grown in the US, Brazil and Argentina. We use soy oil in spreads such as Flora and Becel, and in dressings and mayonnaise such as Hellmann’s, the world’s leading mayonnaise brand. We also use a soy protein derived from soy beans in our AdeS drink in Brazil.

Soy cultivation is expanding to meet rising demand, but in some regions of the world this expansion has been linked to deforestation and loss of biodiversity. So sourcing soy from sustainable sources is vital to protect the environment.

Our approach

We began our sustainable soy journey in 2010 with our Hellmann’s brand, for which soy oil is a core ingredient. Leslie Leinders, Sustainable Sourcing Manager, explains Unilever’s approach: “We believe the way to make soy cultivation sustainable in the long term is for us to work closely with others on developing internationally recognised standards and verification systems.

To this end, we work with farmers, NGOs, our suppliers, other agri-businesses and governments. These standards and systems will recognise farmers and suppliers who are continuously improving yield, while tackling the big issues associated with soy. These issues include the loss of the Cerrado, a vast tropical savannah in Brazil, and nutrient impacts on the Mississippi River basin in the US.”

Unilever is a founding member of the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS), which has defined sustainability criteria for soy production. In 2012, we joined Field to Market, a US alliance that promotes sustainable agriculture, with membership drawn from producers, agribusinesses, food companies and conservation organisations. It offers a free downloadable tool known as the Fieldprint Calculator which helps growers analyse how their management choices impact natural resources and operational efficiency.

Scaling up in the US

The US is the source of much of our soy oil. However, there is no large scale coalition addressing the problem of sustainable soy production at a regional level.

In 2013, in partnership with our supplier ADM, WWF, the United Soybean Board (USB), Iowa Soybean Association and the Field to Market Alliance, we developed a pilot to source sustainable soy, using Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) as the cornerstone of our approach.

In its first year, the pilot exceeded our expectations. ADM enrolled 41 farmers in Iowa, with their farms making up 44,000 acres. These farmers were more successful on yield, soil erosion and conservation tillage techniques than the average for the state.

Over 2014–2015 we scaled up the programme: the number of farmers rose to over 400, representing over 400,000 acres, and the programme extended to Illinois and Kansas.

We have expanded the programme to include our supply partners, Cargill and AGP. Together we are committed to ensuring that 1 million acres are covered by our sustainable soy programme in the US by the end of 2017, thus delivering 100% of our sustainable soy requirements in the US. Although market conditions are difficult, we are confident that we will achieve this ambitious goal.

A double first for sustainable soy in Latin America

In Latin America, we buy soy oil for Hellmann’s and soy protein for AdeS. We are the first global food manufacturer to make a commitment to source 100% of our soy sustainably.

We are also the first company to label our soy drinks as sustainably sourced using the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS) logo. This means that from 2015, our AdeS consumers in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil can see our commitment to sustainable farming practices on our packs.

Underpinning these commitments has been a significant effort to persuade soy bean farmers to change their practices, which has not been easy. However, through collaborative efforts with RTRS Brazil, Aliança de Terra and Cargill, our first three farmers were audited in November 2014 to the RTRS standard.

We have launched a new initiative in Brazil with Bayer CropScience, Santander and Yara Fertilizers, called Produzindo Certo (Producing Right). This will boost sustainable soy cultivation by supporting growers to reach RTRS certification. We started the programme in Uberlândia, Minas Gerais, and Rio Verde, Goiás in 2015. It is aligned with the Stockholm Convention, which regulates the use of agrochemicals, and is managed by NGO Aliança de Terra.

“The initiative is powerful because each organisation brings complementary skills to support farmers,” explains Terence Baines, our Sustainable Sourcing Manager. “Bayer CropScience provides technical services and integrated crop management advice; Santander provides rapid credit evaluation for agricultural loans; Yara advises on best use of fertilisers; and Unilever boosts the market for sustainable soy by committing to buy certified soy from the programme.”

Sector standards are vital to transforming soy production

Agreeing common standards is critical to driving change, and the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS) has played a central role in this. Our employees have contributed their knowledge and experience of implementing standards for other crops to RTRS’s expert chain of custody certification group.

Since 2010, the development of 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. From 2011-2015, Unilever was the single largest Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company purchaser of RTRS certificates: next to the physical volumes achieved we almost doubled our achievement in 2015 through another 85,000 credits.

Sustainable sunflower & rapeseed oil

We purchase around 2% of the world’s supply of sunflower and rapeseed oils, for use in our spreads and dressings such as Flora and Hellmann’s.

We aim to source all our sunflower oil sustainably by 2020 and continued to make good progress in 2015. In Europe and South Africa, we are close to finalising our programme with all our suppliers and their growers. In Latin America, we have engaged our main partners, assessed the current situation on the ground, and are jointly setting up a roadmap which aims to make a step change during 2016 and 2017.

Our sourcing of sustainable sunflower oil is based on a self-assessment approach, following our Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) and based on a mass balance supply chain. Mass balance allows for mixing self-assessed, sustainably sourced sunflower oil, which we can track back to its origin, with conventional sunflower oil. This approach encourages the industry to move towards sustainable farming practices without the additional complexity associated with segregating smaller quantities of material. Importantly, it helps build the necessary economies of scale for mainstream adoption.

We also aim to source our rapeseed oil sustainably by 2020. We have made significant progress in Europe where over 70% of our oil was sustainably sourced by 2015. We have now turned our attention to North America, where a joint approach with our partner Bunge has already delivered its first achievements. More than 100 farmers have signed up to our SAC programme in Canada. In close co-operation with our farm advisers, Control Union, these farmers have transitioned their practices to our requirements well ahead of schedule.

Our progress in sustainably sourcing sunflower and rapeseed oils feeds into the choices consumers make every day when they pick our products from the supermarket shelf. Our research shows that consumers prefer products made with sustainable oil. As a result, we are increasingly communicating with consumers about the benefits of sustainability through our spreads, such as Rama and Flora. We are doing this through brand communications, factory open days and healthy recipes where we highlight sustainable sourcing.

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