Sustainable fruit & vegetables

We have a target to source our fruit and vegetables sustainably.

Why do we need fruit, vegetables & herbs?

We are one of the world’s largest buyers of processed tomatoes, using an estimated 3% of global production volume. We buy significant quantities of other vegetables for our food brands such as Knorr. These include onions, dried garlic, potatoes, mushrooms, peas, leeks, carrots, parsley and basil. All these crops are grown under varying conditions by farmers in many different countries.

We also buy fruit for our ice cream brands.

Targets & performance

Sustainable fruit and vegetables

  • We will purchase 100% of our fruit from sustainable sources by 2015.
  • We will purchase 50% of our top 13 vegetables and herbs from sustainable sources by 2012 and 100% by 2015. This accounts for over 80% of our global vegetable and herb volume.
  • 7% of fruit purchased sustainably by end 2012.
  • 59% of our top 13 vegetables and herbs purchased from sustainable sources by end 2012.
  • achieved
  • on-plan
  • off-plan
  • %of target achieved

We bought our first sustainable fruit in 2012. In 2013, we will focus our efforts on working with our suppliers and looking for further partnership opportunities as we are a small player in this market. We have not made as much progress as we would have liked. This makes our 2015 target challenging, but we have a plan in place that makes us confident we will reach it.

To meet our target, we have been working with suppliers and their farmers around the world to identify areas for improvement and assess their progress using the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code.

We work with suppliers of onions, garlic and tomatoes in California, US and suppliers of gherkins and fruit in India. In India we aim to boost yields to at least the global average.

Meeting our target

Ensuring that our fruit and vegetables are sourced sustainably is one of our most challenging targets, as it involves a network of over 1,000 suppliers and tens of thousands of individual farmers.

There are no international certification standards for fruit and vegetables, so we have agreed to use our Sustainable Agriculture Code as the standard our suppliers need to meet. This sets out our expectations for a range of farming practices, from soil health and water management, to conserving biodiversity and respecting the rights of farmers and farm workers.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agriculture is the largest user of the world’s freshwater in most countries, accounting for 70% of freshwater withdrawals. Water management and the use of pesticides and fertilisers are the particular environmental concerns associated with the cultivation of vegetables and fruit.

Monitoring & encouraging our suppliers

We have asked our suppliers to participate in a self-assessment process to verify the standards they currently use so that we can monitor their performance against the indicators in our Sustainable Agriculture Code. Measuring the performance of more than 1,000 suppliers, who in turn source from around 50,000 growers, is challenging. We are tracking progress on a software system called Quickfire which we designed for the purpose.

We exceeded our interim target for our top 13 vegetables and herbs; more than half our suppliers had self-verified their practices according to the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code by the end of 2012. We now have 24 ‘Landmark Farms’ supplying vegetables for our Knorr brand and acting as agricultural role models for other suppliers.

See Our strategy & footprint for more.

Knorr Fund supports supplier sustainability

Among all our brands, Knorr uses the most vegetables in products such as sauces, soups and bouillons. It has been championing our efforts in this area. In 2010 Knorr established a €1 million Partnership Fund to help suppliers improve their sustainability practices. In 2011 the Fund set up 28 projects with suppliers in ten countries. These projects are already showing results.

For example, two grants were awarded to Spanish tomato grower, Agraz. As well as cutting water use, Agraz has supported biodiversity by creating an environment where birds such as white storks and black-shouldered kites can thrive. Agraz’s farm has now been designated a Knorr ‘Landmark Farm’. See Downloads for details of how Agraz has done this.

See our Supplier section to read more about the Fund.

Growing our tomatoes sustainably

Of all the vegetables we buy, tomatoes are by far our biggest purchase

Our tomatoes are produced under contract by farmers in the world’s main tomato-growing areas including Europe, the US, India, Chile and China. We are working with our tomato growers in these countries to investigate a range of sustainable agriculture practices. So far, the programmes have focused on improving soil fertility, water management and pest control.

We have found, for example, that the use of drip irrigation can halve water consumption while also improving yields and reducing fertiliser and pesticide use.

However, drip irrigation is relatively expensive and, because it becomes a semi-permanent feature, it is not suitable in all circumstances. Introduction of drip systems also changes the farm’s cropping pattern and means growers need to learn a new regime.

Knorr launches first product with sustainably sourced label

Knorr’s new Tomato and Mascarpone soup was launched in France in 2012, carrying the label ‘Made with sustainably grown tomatoes’. This is the first time we have promoted an ingredient as sustainably sourced with farmers verifying their progress in accordance with Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Code.

We have been working with tomato suppliers for the last 15 years to reach this point. Building traceability has been key – to ensure that the tomatoes that reach our packs are sustainably grown and traceable right through the supply chain and manufacturing process.

Working with farmers to self-assess their vegetables and herbs

There is currently no recognised, global standard for certifying vegetables and herbs as sustainable. To meet our target of sourcing all our top 13 vegetables and herbs sustainably by 2015, we have been working with our suppliers to help them self-assess their practices against the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC), and identify areas for improvement.

For example, we have engaged farmers in California with our supplier Olam to improve growing methods for onions and garlic. In line with our SAC, farmers aim to grow and process their crops with minimal impacts on the environment, reducing the use of water, energy, fertiliser and pesticides. Following several successful trials, Olam is now able to supply Unilever with sustainably sourced dehydrated onion and garlic.

Sustainable gherkins

Unilever supplier Mother Dairy in India has become the first gherkin supplier in the world to comply with the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC). Mother Dairy supplies gherkins to Unilever brands, Maille and Amora, the flagship gherkin brands in France.

There are many challenges in growing gherkins, as they are typically grown under contract farming methods, where agronomical practices are generally poor, through a lack of understanding and training. Unilever is working with its suppliers to implement the SAC, with a focus on improving livelihoods through proper training for farmers and enhancing the environment using conservation methodologies.

Unilever began working with its suppliers in India to improve gherkin farming practices following a decline in yields and quality in the late 1990s. India is the largest grower and exporter of small gherkins, with an annual harvest grown by over 100,000 smallholder farmers in land parcels of less than an acre (0.4 hectares).

Unilever is investing €50,000 from the sustainability fund to provide for personal protective equipment to be made available to 5,000 smallholder farmers growing gherkins for Amora. The SAC has been successfully rolled out to 2,600 smallholder farmers.

Now the aim is to ensure that all of our suppliers are fully compliant with the SAC. Our supplier, Marcatus, recently collaborated with Bayer CropScience to launch a strategic roll-out of good agricultural practices among gherkin farmers, including drip irrigation and pest management. There is also a focus on natural composting, to limit the use of fertilizer without reducing yield.

These initiatives have helped the smallholder farmers to reduce the use of fertiliser and water consumption while increasing yields, at the same time helping to improve livelihoods. Unilever will now be rolling out the sustainable sourcing programme to 10,000 smallholder farmers by 2015.