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Unilever touts supply chain mapping pilot to tackle deforestation

The project involves combining satellite imagery with geolocation data to build a more complete picture of the firm's supply chain.

Aerial view of a palm oil plantation.

Aerial view of a palm oil plantation.

Unilever is to partner with U.S. tech company Orbital Insight to help eliminate deforestation and other environmental threats in its agricultural supply chains, announcing a pilot project aimed at overcoming the challenges of tracing the difficult "first mile" of a commodity's journey.

Global agricultural supply chains can be highly complex, with many layers between a manufacturer such as Unilever and the original land on which the commodities it uses originate. Before being processed, crops such as oil palm or soy can be harvested from many areas, belonging to numerous farmers, and mixed with raw material from other farms before even reaching the mill.

However, if a firm is to be sure that its purchasing power isn't driving abuses such as deforestation, it must have oversight over every part of their supply chain, as forest is usually cleared to make room for the original crop, according to Unilever.

As such, the consumer goods giants' pilot project with Orbital seeks to overcome these difficulties, principally in the context of palm oil, a commodity that has fueled rampant deforestation in Indonesia and across southeast Asia, as well as soy.

Unilever said it would use geolocation data and satellite imagery to identify the individual farms and plantations supplying the palm oil mills in its extended supply chain. It then aims to leverage GPS data from mobile phones or sat-nav systems in order to spot traffic patterns. Where there is a consistent flow of traffic between an area of land and a mill, Orbital will be able to flag to Unilever that there is a potential link from that area of land and its supply chain, the firms explained.

Unilever said the insight gained from the project would help it develop a clearer picture of where harvested crops originate, and so pre-empt potential issues such as deforestation or — where they are identified — take action, the firm said.

Unilever said it would use geolocation data and satellite imagery to identify farms and plantations supplying the palm oil mills in its extended supply chain.

"Better monitoring helps all of us to understand what's happening within our supply chains," says Marc Engel, Unilever's 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."

The project aims to build on current techniques to monitor commodity supply chains, which largely involve taking satellite imagery of the mills that supply a firm and drawing a radius around it, assuming that any farms or plantations within that radius are equally likely to be sending fruit to the mill, Unilever explained. By drawing on Orbital's data science expertise, it said it aims to deepen its traceability capacity by modeling supply chain linkages at scale.

The technology is set to be tested at palm oil mills in Indonesia and soy mills in Brazil, and Unilever hopes the initiative will join its established supply chain monitoring projects, which involve partnerships with the World Resources Institute and Aidenvironment.

Deforestation for commodity production, along with the degradation of other carbon-rich environments such as peatlands, is estimated to be responsible for a massive 13 percent of humanity's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IPCC. Many of the world's biggest food, drink and consumer goods have made pledges to eliminate their contribution to driving deforestation, with Unilever currently committed to doing so by 2023, as part of the firm's $1.18 billion investment in reaching net-zero emissions across its value chain by 2039.

However, previous deforestation goals set by Unilever and other firms have been missed, with environmental groups calling on multinational firms responsible for the bulk of global deforestation to do more to tackle the issue. Unilever's partnership with Orbital is the latest such initiative, aiming to build up a comprehensive set of approaches capable of finally eliminating the firm's contribution to current catastrophic global deforestation rates.

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