How Unilever is crowdsourcing evidence of its non-sustainable sources

17 February 2022

Consumer goods giant Unilever has launched a new AI system for palm oil workers in Indonesia to help increase transparency in its supply chains and remove connections with deforestation.

Unilever, which owns brands including Dove, Flora and Ben & Jerry’s, has partnered with data company Premise to launch what it claims is the “world’s first” project using large-scale crowdsourcing technology for commodity sourcing.

According to the manufacturer, the technology helps mill workers and suppliers to share photos and information about palm collection points to better track the first mile of the supply chain and “verify that our sourcing is not linked to deforestation”.

Rising demand for palm oil has been cited as a “major driver of deforestation” by the World Wide Fund for Nature. Palm oil production also contributes to CO2 emissions and the destruction of natural habitats.

For Unilever, this initiative has business and sustainability benefits. 

“With consumers increasingly demanding to know where the products they purchase come from, and the prospect of potential bans on commodities linked to deforestation, we’re not only safeguarding the environment by making sure our supply chains are sustainable, but we’re also future-proofing our business,” the company said.

While some palm oil fruits are transported directly from farm to mill others are traded through an agent, where the fruits are dropped off and picked up at informal collection points.

These collection points can be far from where the fruit was grown, making it difficult to determine precisely where it was produced and under what conditions.

The new platform enables workers and suppliers to upload photos of their palm oil fruit collection points which are run through AI verification processes to verify their credibility, and to ensure collection points are not counted twice. 

According to Unilever, this process will help build “a better picture of previously undocumented parts of the palm supply chain operating in the area”.

In a trial in the Aceh province in Indonesia, the company was able to identify and document more than 5,000 collection points in a single region. “This gave us a much more informed understanding of where the oil palm that supplies us is being grown,” the firm said.

“We integrate this with the rest of our sourcing information, joining the dots for a fuller picture of our supply chain. This enables us to roll out more support for smallholder farmers or start new conversations with our suppliers.”

Andrew Wilcox, senior manager, sustainable sourcing and digital programmes at Unilever explained: “Individuals, either as consumers or as part of an organisation, can often feel helpless in the face of challenges like deforestation or climate change. Our partnership with Premise is changing that, by inviting people on the ground to help us follow the journey raw materials take in the first mile of the supply chain.

“We believe our pilot in Aceh is the world’s first case of large-scale crowdsourcing technology being applied to commodity sourcing. Technology is a powerful enabler of supply chain traceability and transparency. Unilever, and the world, urgently needs to tackle deforestation.”

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