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Unilever unveils deforestation-free supply chain promise

An orphaned Sumatran orangutan impacted by deforestation. Photo: Paul Hilton for RAN.

Consumer goods giant Unilever has promised to eliminate suppliers who are linked to deforestation in the production of palm oil, soy beans and packaging as part of a broader commitment to addressing climate change.

The multinational – one of the world’s largest buyers of palm oil – says it will demand ethical and sustainable transparency from its suppliers. 

The company said it wants visibility on exact sourcing locations and will no longer rely on the so-called ‘mass balance system’ which does not allow for accurate verification of deforestation-free sourcing of derivatives from commodities.

Unilever has also teamed up with Google Cloud to capture satellite images of the forests, biodiversity and water cycles that intersect the company’s supply chain, a partnership which, according to the company, will help raise its sustainability standards and allow it to see a more complete picture of the ecosystems connected to the raw materials the company sources from around the world.

“We also recognise that ensuring decent livelihoods, good working conditions and sustainable land tenure for smallholders is key to preventing deforestation,” the company said in its newly released anti-deforestation pledge. “We want to strengthen our approach to human rights assurance, so local communities living in or near forests have their livelihoods, food security, resources and right to use or own land respected.

“We believe that transparency will help us build a more sustainable supply chain, which is why we have disclosed our direct suppliers of all of these commodity groups,” Unilever said.

Robin Averbeck, forest program director at Rainforest Action Network, said Unilever’s new policy sets an important precedent as it may drive change not just in the plantations and farms it sources from, but across each commodity sector –– commodities that are known to drive the destruction of the rainforests of Indonesia, the Congo and Amazon basins and the vast savannah of the Cerrado.

“Unilever is the first global brand to do this and others must urgently follow suit,” Averbeck said.

According to data from the World Resources Institute, up to 80 per cent of terrestrial biodiversity and more than 1 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods. And when forests are cleared, burned or degraded, they emit carbon. 

The organisation stated about 30 per cent of global forest cover has now been cleared, while 20 per cent has been degraded. Much of the remaining forest cover is fragmented, leaving only around 15 per cent of global forest cover intact.

“Most deforestation occurs when forests are cleared to grow palm oil or soy, to raise cattle or to harvest timber for the paper and pulp industries,” Unilever stated. “Demand for these commodities is soaring as the global population rises and incomes increase.”

The World Wildlife Fund estimated that deforestation contributes 15 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the global transport sector. Protecting and restoring forests will help achieve an 18-per-cent reduction in emissions.

Since making its commitment to zero net deforestation, Unilever said it has increased its work with industry partners, governments and NGOs, advocating for change across the entire tropical forest commodities sector.

“It’s only through the transformation of each commodity’s value chain and the adoption of sustainable farming practices that commodity-driven deforestation is likely to end,” the company said. 

“Over 90 per cent of globally traded palm oil is now covered by ‘no-deforestation’ pledges but these promises must be turned into action. And that requires transformational systems change across the palm oil value chain.”

The consumer goods giant has recently announced it will put its plans to improve the health of the planet to a shareholder vote, becoming the first industry stalwart to give investors a say on its climate transition action plans.

Shareholders will vote at Unilever’s annual meeting on May 5 next year on measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions from its operations to net zero by 2030, eliminate deforestation from its supply chain, to halve the environmental impact of its products, net zero emissions from sourcing to point of sale by 2039, and to preserve resources for future generations.

The largest producer of soap and owner of more than 400 brands including Dove, Lipton Tea and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, promised to release a wide-sweeping policy covering multiple commodities and mandating adherence to its rules across the entire business operations of its suppliers.

“Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time and we are determined to play a leadership role in accelerating the transition to a zero carbon economy,” said Alan Jope, Unilever CEO.

“We have a wide ranging and ambitious set of climate commitments –– but we know they are only as good as our delivery against them. That’s why we will be sharing more detail with our shareholders who are increasingly wanting to understand more about our strategy and plans.”

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