Unilever is using geolocation data and satellite imagery to check for deforestation in its supply chain

  • Tracking the “first mile” of a supply chain, from farmer’s field to the processing plant, has historically been difficult for large corporations, according to Unilever’s chief supply chain officer Marc Engel.
  • Unilever is using geolocation data and satellite imagery to identify places where deforestation may have occurred in a pilot with tech company Orbital Insight.
  • Consumers also want to understand more about product sourcing, including information on fair pay, carbon footprint and animal welfare.
Unilever’s Dove bath foam in a Beijing supermarket. Zhang Peng | LightRocket | Getty Images

LONDON — Unilever is using a combination of advanced satellite imagery and geolocation data to help it understand exactly where some of its raw materials come from for its products, which range from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to Axe deodorant.

It has historically been hard for the firm and other multinationals to trace the exact origins of those ingredients down to the individual farm or field, according to Marc Engel, the company’s chief supply chain officer.

“When you traditionally look at these supply chains, they’re very long and they’re very un-transparent … You are at the end of it, when you consume your cup of tea or you wash your hair with Dove or you eat a Ben & Jerry’s, you’re at the end of that chain. And then at the beginning of the chain is usually a farmer or a company that uses the land. And then there’s a whole host of parties in between,” Engel told CNBC by phone.

Palm oil, an ingredient in grocery products from biscuits to shampoo, has become a hot topic, because of the risk of deforestation where trees are cleared to make way for more lucrative oil palm plantations. Unilever has stated that it will “achieve a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023.”

In 2018, Unilever published details of its palm oil suppliers, refineries and mills, and, like other manufacturers, had relied on verification by third parties to certify sustainable sourcing for it and other commodities like cocoa to confirm where crops are grown. “But, as a company, I still don’t know where it exactly came from,” Engel told CNBC.

Food company Napolina has worked with tech platform Provenance to provide consumers with information on products’ origins.
Napolina | Provenance

It has just launched a project with Princes Group, a food manufacturer that makes Italian brand Napolina, which has a “transparency initiative” across the company that covers sourcing and supply chains. As part of this, Napolina wanted to communicate information and reassure shoppers about its canned tomatoes, especially in light of investigations into the exploitation of migrant agriculture workers in Italy. It has worked with Provenance to provide QR codes on cans linking to sourcing details and the product’s journey from farming co-operative to the grocery store.

When using Provenance, businesses must provide proof of each claim, and the complex process of uncovering information sometimes reveals issues, according to Baker. “Because our framework requires proof to back up what’s being shared with customers, this is often where brands realise that there isn’t enough — or it doesn’t meet the standard,” she said. “But through (the) process, our clients are better educated around the things to think about in their supply chain,” she added.

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