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How we’re using technology to help end deforestation


Our pilot with Palo Alto-based tech company, Orbital Insight, is helping us to monitor our palm oil supply chain more accurately.

Palm oil farmer working in a plantation

We are committed to ending deforestation across our supply chain – particularly in the cultivation of crops like palm oil and soy. We were the first consumer goods company to publish a full list of the palm oil suppliers and third-party mills in our supply chain. And we are the only one to publish a public grievance report so that issues associated with our direct and indirect palm oil suppliers can be identified and acted on.

We did this because we believe that transparency leads to transformation.

At the same time, using satellite technology (such as through our partnership with World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch) and by working with Aidenvironment (transitioning to Earth Equalizer) to evolve its oil palm concession mapping platform, we’ve been advancing the ways in which we monitor the raw materials used to make our products.

We continue our partnership and support with the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch by being part of a consortium of companies to develop radar monitoring technology to detect deforestation in near real-time and with greater accuracy.

Reimagining our approach to traceability

However, the supply chains for all agricultural commodities traded on a global scale have many layers to them. To overcome the challenges associated with any supply chain, you need sight of every part of it. And the first mile – the bit from an individual farm or plantation to a mill – presents a particularly unique challenge for sustainable sourcing.

Before being processed, crops such as palm oil fruit or soy can be harvested from many different areas of land, belonging to numerous farmers, and mixed with raw material from other farms several times over before even reaching the mill.

To ensure that the land used to grow crops such as palm oil fruit and soy isn’t connected to deforestation, we’re reimagining our approach to traceability so we can do even more to protect forests.

Farmer holding a handful of palm oil kernels

A clearer picture of where our crops come from

We’re launching a pilot with Orbital Insight, a US tech company that specialises in geospatial analytics. The pilot uses geolocation data to help identify the individual farms and plantations that are most likely to be supplying the palm oil mills in our extended supply chain.

The technology leverages GPS data – aggregated and anonymised – to allow Orbital Insight to spot traffic patterns. Where there is a consistent flow of traffic between an area of land and a mill, it suggests a potential link.

This means we can get a much clearer picture of where harvested crops are coming from, even down to the individual field. This, in turn, allows us to predict the possibility of issues such as deforestation and, where found, to take action.

Enhancing our existing satellite monitoring capability

The pilot is another step towards building a digital ecosystem with a number of technology partners, which helps us to monitor our supply chain even more closely.

Satellite technology already plays an important role in monitoring land-use change. But images alone can’t prevent deforestation.

We need to be able to identify links between the mills and the farms or plantations that supply them in order to get real ‘ground truth’.

The current technique is to look at a satellite image and draw a 50km radius around the mills. We then assume that the farms or plantations in those catchment areas are equally likely to be supplying the mills. While this methodology has been used and accepted by much of the industry over past years, we believe that it needs to be improved on.

Feature image - How we’re using technology to help end deforestation
Traceability analysis of the palm oil supply chain in Sumatra

By combining tens of thousands of satellite images with geolocation data and applying artificial intelligence and scalable data science, this new system will give us unique insights by showing the predicted likelihood that a farm or plantation is supplying any given mill.

It’s a step change from the current approach and it can model supply chain linkages at scale. We’re now working with Orbital Insight to develop and finesse this into an operational methodology, and testing the technology at a small number of palm oil mills in Indonesia and soy mills in Brazil.

This approach brings a new level of sophistication to traceability – one that has the potential to work on a massive scale, for Unilever and the rest of the industry.

“Better monitoring helps all of us to understand what’s happening within our supply chains,” says Marc Engel, Chief Supply Chain Officer. “By companies coming together and using cutting-edge technology to carefully monitor our forests, we can all get closer to achieving our collective goal of ending deforestation.”

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