Could GPS be the answer to tracking sustainability?

18 August 2020

Unilever believes it has found a solution to mapping the often elusive first mile of potentially unsustainable supply chains – by using satellite and radar technology to create an advanced picture of links between farms and mills that supply it with palm oil and soya.

By launching a pilot with specialist firm Orbital Insight, the consumer goods giant plans to use geolocation data to help identify the individual farms and plantations that are likely to be supplying the palm oil mills in its extended supply chain.

The technology leverages GPS data to spot traffic patterns. Consistent flows of traffic between an area of land and a mill suggests a potential supply chain 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,” said Unilever.

The company is working with consultancy Aidenvironment to develop its palm oil concession mapping platform and advance the ways in which it monitors the raw materials used to make its products.

It is also using satellite technology and has formed part of a consortium of companies to develop radar monitoring technology to detect deforestation in near real-time and with greater accuracy.

But Unilever said that images of the land could provide only limited help in preventing deforestation.

Instead, it is the links between mills and farms or plantations that supply them help get “ground truth”, said the company.

“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,” the company said.

The pilot with Orbital Insight is helping to create a “digital ecosystem” to monitor the supply chain more closely.

Current mapping techniques look at a satellite image and draw a 50km radius around the mills, assuming that the farms or plantations in those catchment areas are all 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,” Unilever said.

By combining tens of thousands of satellite images with geolocation data and artificial intelligence and scalable data science, Unilever believes it is getting a much more detailed image of what is happening in that crucial first mile of a supply chain.

It believes the solution could be shared with other companies and become used to prevent palm and soy-related deforestation on a wide scale.

“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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