Unilever’s new chief procurement officer Willem Uijen has outlined how the company is using its sourcing strategy and supplier collaboration to “raise industry standards”.
Uijen, who started the role in September, said in a blog suppliers who demonstrated action taken on sustainability standards would be prioritised.
“At Unilever Procurement, we have big ambitions,” he said. “Our Procurement with Purpose vision seeks to ensure we are a purpose-led, value-driven and future-fit organisation that creates growth while delivering on Unilever’s commitments to make sustainable living commonplace.”
He added: “We encourage and support our suppliers on their own sustainability journeys and prioritise those who demonstrate shared values of respect and responsibility for people and planet by committing to our standards around responsible sourcing, sustainability and human rights. We believe that, by combining the expertise and integrity of our partners with our own, we can raise industry standards.”
Unilever has a €33bn procurement spend across food, packaging and commodities. “Our work [in procurement] touches every part of the business, putting us in a unique position to make a positive impact on people and planet,” he said.
Uijen continued: “We seek to combine our own technology expertise and insights with our partners, to support the creation of disruptive sourcing strategies and supplier-led innovation that respond to ever-changing consumer needs quickly, flexibly and effectively.
“Partnerships play a big role in our success. Every partner in our value chain has a role to play in creating the value, capacity and capability we need to deliver brands and products that consumers love and that support the wellbeing of people and planet. We’re committed to collaborations that generate value and growth for Unilever and our partners.”.
Uijen, who has worked at Unilever for 23 years, was previously head of the supply chain at Unilever South Asia and Southeast Asi and Australasia. Reginaldo Ecclissato was announced as chief supply chain officer in January.
In a report Unilever outlined how it is using technology and its procurement strategy to tackle deforestation to meet its commitments to eliminate deforestation in its supply chains for palm oil, paper and board, tea, soy and cocoa by the end of 2023.
Uijen said: “The latest digital capabilities will help us better identify high-risk areas and target interventions where they’re most needed. Technology will also be a force for good as we leverage these capabilities to help us understand areas that need protection and those that have high potential for regeneration.”
He said the firm was testing technology solutions to drive “traceability and transparency” in its supply chains, as well as partnering with suppliers, governments and NGOs.
How Unilever is using tech to tackle supply chain deforestation:
1. Anonymised data signals
Unilever is using anonymised data signals from mobile devices to spot traffic patterns between farms and mills, which can track potential sourcing links and identify extended supply chains. “This insight helps us to understand who’s sourcing from whom,” it said.
2. Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence is being used to detect changes in tree coverage and provide deforestation alerts. This is particularly useful in regions including southeast Asia, which have significant cloud courage. Such technologies can estimate the amount of carbon stored by forests and therefore estimate the associated climate threat when deforestation occurs.
Unilever launched a crowdsourcing pilot earlier this year which trains and allows suppliers to share photos and information about palm collection points – where it is traded informally – to better verify its sourcing is not linked to deforestation.
Such collection points can be far from where palm oil fruits are grown, making it difficult to determine precisely where it was produced and under what conditions. Tracking the collection points allows greater transparency of where palm oil is being sourced.
The company is “exploring the use of blockchain to build a permanent digital record of a commodity’s journey through the value chain, compiling data about the mills, refineries and processors where it is handled,” it said.
“The idea is to make sustainability credentials traceable and immutable, even when the material is mixed with that from another source.”
The technology mirrors the flow of the palm oil throughout its supply chain and can help identify the oil’s origin.
5. Collaborative approach to data sharing
Unilever, in partnership with the US Agency for International Development, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Resources Institute and NASA, announced at the COP26 climate summit in 2021 the creation of a data-sharing system for deforestation data.
The Forest Data Partnership (FDP) creates a “common approach” to collecting and analysing data about sourcing areas and forests, making this information available to drive action against deforestation.
The data focuses on the Amazon basin, southeast Asia and west Africa.
Commenting on the FDP, Julian Fox, team leader of national forest monitoring at the FAO, said: “Data is at the heart of all landscape monitoring, restoration and impact reporting efforts. In order to drive system-wide change, we must address the key challenges posed by the current data landscape, which is fragmented and complex.
“This is a unique initiative purposefully designed to harness existing data, increase alignment, and develop broad consensus across the ecosystem.”
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