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.

Unilever’s impact

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity aims to preserve biodiversity and has been signed by more than 160 countries.

Human activity can reduce biodiversity through, for example, converting biodiversity-rich habitats such as forests or wetlands to agriculture, destructive fishing practices, pollution or over–exploitation of natural resources such as forests and water.

This is an issue for Unilever. Around half the raw materials we buy come from agriculture and forestry, measured by volume. We are among the world’s largest users of agricultural raw materials such as tea, vegetables and vegetable oils. Growing our business – while conserving biodiversity – is a substantial challenge. Our Sustainable Agriculture Code is designed to ensure that our agricultural sourcing activities do not encourage practices that have adverse effects on the number and variety of species found in a particular area or region, and that our suppliers and their farmers put practices into place that have positive impacts on biodiversity.

Our growth will be linked to an increase in our consumption of raw materials, which is likely to generate additional land use change. Brazil and South America (for sugar and its derivatives, as well as soy and other grains) and Indonesia and South East Asia (palm oil) are likely to be two hotspots in terms of impacts on biodiversity. The potential shift towards more bio-based materials (eg shift from oil-based plastics to bio-plastics) will also increase the pressure on land.

Sustainable agriculture

Protecting biodiversity is central to our Sustainable Agriculture Programme. Sustainable agriculture is about the sustainable use of biological resources. One of four principles in Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture 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.

Where we have owned or managed agricultural operations ourselves in the last ten years, we have developed Biodiversity Action Plans for the sites. These include Unilever tea estates in Tanzania and Kenya, our farm research site at Colworth in the UK, palm oil plantations in Ghana (formerly managed by Unilever) and our suppliers’ tomato farms.

We are now asking the farmers who produce our agricultural raw materials – via the adoption of the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code directly, or by external sustainability certifications, to protect and enhance biodiversity on and around their farms.

Creating a new supply of agricultural raw materials

Unilever has joined forces with a diverse group of organisations to help farmers in Africa to cultivate a new tree crop, allanblackia. Named after a Scottish botanist, allanblackia trees grow naturally in the wet tropical forests of Africa. They produce a large fruit pod containing seeds that are rich in oil. Its unique composition and melting behaviour makes it well suited for use in our margarines, spreads and other food products.

This collaborative project, known as the Novella Partnership, dates back to 2002. After beginning in Ghana, it has now expanded to Tanzania and, as of 2012, to Nigeria. The initiative aims to boost local incomes and give farmers access to global supply chains, while allowing Unilever to source this oil in an environmentally sustainable way.

To date, over €12 million has been invested in the partnership by Unilever and our partner organisations. These include the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and donors such as the Austrian Development Agency, Business Linkage Challenge Fund (DFID), Rivers State Sustainability Development Agency and the Dutch government. In collaboration with IUCN, we are developing and sharing appropriate business models for different crop systems, ensuring environmental sustainability through the integration of key principles for forest landscape restoration into different planting schemes.

The project is governed by the Allanblackia Strategic Executive Committee, which is chaired by a representative from outside the partnership organisations. All of the initiative’s partners share a common desire to see allanblackia emerge as a sustainable and profitable crop for African farming communities. An important part of this shared vision is the integration of allanblackia production into national government development plans. This is already the case in Nigeria.

The first phase of the project encourages farmers to harvest and sell seeds from allanblackia trees growing in the wild and on community land. The second phase addresses the limited number of wild trees by focusing on planting allanblackia trees on fallow and degraded lands, which supports biodiversity. So far, 55,000 trees have been planted, covering an area of more than 250 hectares. These trees have been intercropped with plantain, cassava and cocoa.

Success but challenges lie ahead

The project’s twin-phase approach is proving successful. Around 11,000 people are participating and benefiting from the project, either as farmers, collectors or processors of seeds. About half of these are women. Annual production volumes currently range between 100 and 200 tonnes, depending on growing conditions. In 2012, the sale of allanblackia seeds generated €100,000 additional income for farmers in our three target countries.

The project faces a number of challenges. These include securing the funding for the monitoring and evaluation aspects of the project. Financing the building up of stocks of seedlings is also an issue. However, the most significant challenges lie in the supply chain. The supply chains of the companies that currently supply allanblackia do not function in an optimal way yet. Investment capital is needed, as is training in handling techniques. In addition, the current verification system for assessing the social and environmental performance of allanblackia production may need to be modified to account for larger-scale operations. The fact that allanblackia collection takes place during the first quarter of the year provides an additional benefit for farmers. As most of their other crops tend to be immature during this period, this has previously meant reduced incomes.

In 2010, we received a Biodiversity Innovation award for our allanblackia project from the Union for Ethical BioTrade. The award recognised our work on developing a business model to promote conservation while generating income for smallholder farmers in Africa.

The project remains at a demonstration stage. The results generated over the next three to four years will help us to determine the feasibility of scaling this new tree crop. Unilever is playing a leading role in this feasibility study.

Improving practices to protect biodiversity

Experience on our own farms and those of our suppliers has shown us that it is possible to adopt better agricultural practices that are sensitive to biodiversity without harming agricultural yield or profitability.

To promote such practices, we have committed to certification schemes for tea with Rainforest Alliance and for oil palm with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. These initiatives demand a high degree of commitment to biodiversity and the conservation of high biodiversity value habitats within farms.

The full list of certifications that we work with is available as an Annex to the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code Scheme Rules. See Downloads for more. We are working with our suppliers to encourage the use of such practices within their own operations. We have found that many of our suppliers and farmers have no direct experience of working directly on biodiversity or in partnership with conservation organisations. They are unsure of how to start or how much work will be needed to make a significant impact.

In 2012, for example, we issued a guidance document ‘Unilever Suppliers: A Closer Look at Biodiversity’ to help our suppliers and their farmers improve their practices. The brochure encourages farmers to devise a Biodiversity Action Plan appropriate to their local conditions and suggests sources of help to inform these plans. It also includes a series of case studies from companies who are already preserving biodiversity. See Downloads for more.

Protecting biodiversity in Kenya

Our tea operations in Kenya provide an illustrative example of our biodiversity commitments in action. We have been working to protect the indigenous and exotic trees that cover over 10% of the Kericho tea estate. We also launched the Trees 2000 project to mark the millennium. By the end of 2012, the project had contributed 1,045,134 trees to Kenya’s landscape.

At Kericho, we have established seven tree nurseries where we grow indigenous seedlings for planting around the estate and surrounding community. The aim is to increase biodiversity and complement existing conservation and environmental protection programmes. These are designed in partnership with colleagues from Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Programme. To remind people of the need to preserve the environment, all visitors to our Kericho estate are invited to plant a tree.

The Kericho estate is also contributing to the conservation of the nearby Mau Forest, which is under threat from human activity and deforestation. Working with local non-profit Friends of the Mau Water Shed (FOMAWA), we have supplied tree saplings for reforestation projects and helped to finance staff to work on forest conservation.

Ecosystem Markets Task Force

At a policy level, Unilever seeks opportunities to engage policy makers on this agenda. We recently contributed to the Ecosystem Markets Task Force (EMTF) in the UK, for instance. Ecosystem services are the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems, such as freshwater and timber. According to the Natural Value Initiative, a non-profit body funded by the Dutch government, over 60% of these services worldwide are being degraded or used up faster than they can be replenished. 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, affirms that a new approach is needed by businesses to maximise opportunities and manage future risks related to their reliance on nature. We welcome the main recommendations of the report, which include innovative solutions such as anaerobic digestion and bio-energy on farms and nature-based certification and labelling. Unilever hopes to have the opportunity to continue the discussion with the Task Force and the UK government about possible ways forward.

To find out more about these case studies and our other biodiversity initiatives, see case studies.

External recognition

Unilever received a World Business and Development Award at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 for our work with tea and allanblackia farmers in Africa. The award recognises companies that are implementing ‘inclusive business’ models that deliver both commercial success and help improve social, environmental and economic conditions.

In 2013 Unilever was named sector leader by the CDP's Forests programme, which recognised the work we are doing with our suppliers to increase capacity to provide sustainable commodities. We were also joint sector leader in 2012 and 2011 and have disclosed our forest footprint since 2009.

These recent recognitions reflect Unilever’s on-going work to understand and improve our management of environment-related risks. Back in 2009, for instance, we scored 78% in an independent study that analysed how well companies manage their dependence and impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services. The average for our sector was 40%. The analysis was based on the Natural Value Initiative’s (NVI) Ecosystem Services Benchmark, an investor-orientated ranking. The NVI is funded by the Dutch government and made up of three organisations: conservation body Fauna & Flora; the UNEP Finance Initiative (a strategic public–private partnership between UNEP and the global financial sector); and the Fundação Getulio Vargas, a business school in Brazil. The Benchmark methodology considered five performance categories: competitive advantage; governance; policy and strategy; management and implementation; and reporting. Unilever was deemed to be strongest in the categories of competitive advantage and policy and strategy. The Benchmark results were presented to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Finance Initiative Roundtable.

Rik Kutsch Lojenga, Executive Director for the Union for Ethical BioTrade, says that allanblackia could be an opportunity for improved livelihoods and well-being for “thousands of rural African households”. He adds that the crop has “great potential” to contribute towards the conservation of the continent's rich biodiversity. “The Union for Ethical BioTrade is pleased to be collaborating with Unilever and other partners in supporting ethical sourcing of allanblackia to make this exciting opportunity come true”.