Unilever plans to use phones to track sustainable palm oil


The maker of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Dove soap will use cell phone geo-location data to track palm oil moving across thousands of supply chains and to achieve the elusive “first-mile” traceability.

CALIFORNIA: Unilever is planning to use new geo-location technology to make its palm oil supply chains more transparent and tackle a farm-to-table traceability problem that has plagued the industry for decades.

The maker of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Dove soap will use cell phone geo-location data to track palm oil moving across thousands of supply chains and to achieve the elusive “first-mile” traceability.

After a pilot test in Indonesia, Unilever is scaling up that approach to cover all palm facilities in South-East Asia, including farms, refineries and processing plants, and is looking into whether the technology can be applied to other regions.

“With a clearer picture, it’s easier to estimate the risk of issues, such as deforestation, ” says Marc Engel, chief supply chain officer at Unilever. “We want to be the first to know, and the first to act.”

The technology is another step toward making the controversial industry more transparent as growers face increasing scrutiny over production of the oil used in everything from chocolate to lipstick and shampoo. Rapid expansion of plantations in past decades, fuelled by surging demand for a cheap and versatile edible oil, has been linked to the burning of tropical rainforests, destruction of wildlife and land conflicts with local communities.

Environmental concerns have spurred the adoption of sustainable palm oil, but complex supply chains that begin with estates spanning millions of hectares make it difficult for the industry to be fully traceable. What’s more, the credibility of certified-sustainable palm oil, like that of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, has been questioned by environmental groups who say greenwashing and bad practices still take place, albeit hidden from the public.

Palm oil is one of the most important raw ingredients in Unilever’s products. The consumer goods giant purchases about one million tonnes of palm oil, palm kernel oil and derivatives annually for use in products such as ice cream, cosmetics and soaps, making it one of the world’s largest buyers. It aims to make all its supply chains deforestation-free by 2023. — Bloomberg

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