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Protecting biodiversity

Biodiversity – the richness and variety of nature – is essential to the preservation of a healthy environment. Its decline reduces the pool of biological resources available to future generations.

Natural capital and ecosystem services

The Natural Value Initiative, a collaboration led by Fauna & Flora International, estimates that over 60% of ecosystem services provided by nature and biodiversity are being degraded or used up faster than they can be replenished. This loss threatens Unilever’s raw material production systems because agriculture is dependent on ecosystem services derived from:

  • soil (for example, to make nutrients available to plants)
  • water (where irrigation is used)
  • farmland biodiversity (for example, pollination services – provided by bees and other insects) and
  • large-scale ecosystems (for example, wetlands or forests providing year-round stream flows).

Farming can also have impacts on natural capital and ecosystem service provision outside agro-ecosystems, for example when agricultural pollution enters watercourses.

Unilever’s Approach

We are amongst the world’s largest users of agricultural raw materials such as tea, vegetables and vegetable oils. Growing our business – whilst conserving biodiversity – is a substantial challenge. In order to minimise our negative impacts on biodiversity (both ecosystem service provision and losses of species and habitats), we need to ensure that our sourcing activities do not encourage detrimental land use changes or practices.

This is one reason why we are taking action to avoid deforestation associated with sourcing our agricultural-based ingredients, the paper and pulp for packaging, and the extraction of non-renewable resources. Forests support a staggering 80% of terrestrial biodiversity. Around 1.6 billion people worldwide depend on forests for food, medicines and fuel, as well as their jobs and livelihoods.

In 2010 we, together with the other 400 members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), made a commitment to zero deforestation by 2020 with four commodities: palm oil, soy, paper and pulp and beef. We have since extended this 2020 commitment to our own tea businesses and supply chains, due to the importance of tea in our portfolio and the impact this commitment will make on others to act.

Unilever led the foundation of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 (TFA), a public-private partnership between the CGF and the governments of the US, UK, the Netherlands, Norway, Indonesia and Liberia. The TFA is committed to reduce and eventually eliminate the deforestation associated with the sourcing of palm oil, soy, paper and pulp and beef.

In 2013, we launched our Sustainable Palm Oil Sourcing Policy (PDF | 407KB). This is designed to drive market transformation by working with key suppliers and the industry to focus on stopping deforestation, protecting peat lands and driving positive economic and social impacts for people and communities. Our policy builds on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Principles & Criteria as a foundation.We will be updating our Policy in 2015 to strengthen and expand upon these commitments.

Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code

Protecting biodiversity is central to our Sustainable Sourcing Programme. One of the four principles in our Programme is: ‘Ensuring any adverse effects on biodiversity from agricultural activities are minimised and positive contributions are made where possible’. Biodiversity is one of our 11 core indicators that we use to measure sustainable farming practices.

The Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (PDF | 2MB) is designed to ensure that our agricultural sourcing activities minimise impacts from land use, or land use change, on biodiversity, natural capital and ecosystem services. The Code has a specific chapter devoted to biodiversity. This encompasses both functional aspects (ecosystem services) and the protection of rare and vulnerable species and ecosystems on and around farms.

We have found that many of our suppliers and their farmers have no experience of working directly on biodiversity or in partnership with conservation organisations. They are often unsure of how to start or how much work will be needed to make a significant impact. Implementation of the Code by the farmers who produce our agricultural raw materials involves a commitment to identify, and act on, local biodiversity and/or ecosystem services issues.

Experience from pilot programmes we have run with some of our suppliers has shown that it is possible to adopt better agricultural practices that are sensitive to biodiversity without harming agricultural yield or profitability. Since biodiversity issues vary widely across the world, this has resulted in a wide range of projects. Examples are showcased in our booklet, Unilever Suppliers – A Closer Look at Biodiversity (PDF | 818KB), which was published in April 2015, to encourage suppliers to develop Biodiversity Action Plans.

“We know farming cannot exist without biodiversity. Equally we know finding space for biodiversity within productive crop areas isn’t easy nor is it necessarily intuitive for farmers. But once our suppliers and farmers understand the concept and its worth, they love it. Our biodiversity booklet is our collection of practical proven tips for making space for biodiversity whilst still growing a crop and reaping economic benefits,” says Camille Chammas, VP Supply Chain Procurement & Sustainability.

Third-party certification schemes

The third-party certification schemes that we use as evidence of sustainable agriculture (PDF | 2MB) all include criteria to minimise impacts from land use or land use change on biodiversity, natural capital and ecosystem services.

For example, we have committed to certification schemes for tea and cocoa with Rainforest Alliance, and for palm oil with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. These initiatives demand a significant commitment to conservation and ecosystem services. In this way, we are buying an ever-increasing proportion of our raw materials from farms where natural ecosystems are protected and restored.

Safety & environmental assurance centre

Our Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre (SEAC) is currently developing new scientific approaches that will enhance the knowledge of our biodiversity impact. In 2012, SEAC quantified our land footprint. This is the total amount of land being used to source our top 16 raw materials, and related potential land use change. SEAC also works with leading academic scientists globally for example, the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University in the US, to develop approaches to predict the impact of Unilever’s sourcing decisions.

Ecosystem markets task force

At a policy level, we seek opportunities to engage policy makers on this agenda. For example, Amanda Sourry, our former Chairman of Unilever UK & Ireland, was a member of the Ecosystem Markets Task Force (EMTF) in the UK. The Task Force set out to develop a range of practical recommendations for businesses and government to protect ecosystems.

The Task Force’s final report, published in March 2013, affirmed that a new approach was needed by businesses to maximise opportunities and manage future risks related to their reliance on nature. We welcomed the main recommendations of the report, which included innovative solutions such as anaerobic digestion and bio-energy on farms, and nature-based certification and labelling.

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