To ensure a deforestation-free supply chain, we need to be able to trace our ingredients all the way back to where they are grown. For a product like palm oil, the first mile from the plantation or farm where the oil palm fruit – also called fresh fruit bunches (FFB) – are harvested to the point where they are processed is often where we need the most visibility.
Tracing what goes on in that critical first mile is not always straightforward. Conventionally, companies have drawn a 50 km radius around the mills in their supply chain and assumed the farms or plantations in those areas are likely to be supplying the mills. FFB need to be processed within 24 hours of harvesting, so it was widely accepted that mills would therefore source from nearby farms.
However, given the complexity of palm oil supply chains, we believe that the way we monitor this needs to be improved so that we can verify that our sourcing is not linked to deforestation.
We know that, while some produce will go straight from farm to mill, sometimes the oil palm fruit is traded through a middleman, with fresh fruit bunches being dropped off and picked up at informal collection points. These collection points can be far away from where the fruit was grown, making it harder to determine whether the fruit was produced sustainably or not without concrete data.
But now, working with our partner Premise, we are creating a community of local people in Indonesia who will help us track the palm from point of origin to processing.
Putting the power in people’s hands
Our pilot recruits mill workers and suppliers to provide photos and information about collection points and ramps via Premise’s digital crowdsourcing platform. Contributors are taught, through Premise’s platform, how to collect insights in a way that respects people and property laws and in line with Indonesia’s regulations.
Premise runs the sourced material through its AI-powered quality control system to verify the credibility of the photos and to ensure collection points aren’t being double counted. This helps us to build up a better picture of previously undocumented parts of the palm supply chain operating in the area.
In Aceh province in Sumatra, Indonesia, where we ran the pilot, we were able to identify and document more than 5,000 collection points in a single region. This gives us a much more informed understanding of where the oil palm that supplies us is being grown.
We can integrate this with the rest of our sourcing information, joining the dots for a fuller picture of our supply chain and enabling us to take more targeted action to improve it – whether that’s rolling out more support for smallholder farmers or starting new conversations with our suppliers.
A united large-scale effort
We are now developing a model for scaling the project up, which will include inviting suppliers and other consumer goods companies to join in.
“Individuals, either as consumers or part of an organisation, can often feel helpless in the face of challenges like deforestation or climate change. Our partnership with Premise is changing that, by inviting people on the ground to help us follow the journey raw materials take in the first mile of the supply chain,” says Andrew Wilcox, Senior Manager, Sustainable Sourcing and Digital Programmes, Unilever.
“We believe our pilot in Aceh is the world’s first case of large-scale crowdsourcing technology being applied to commodity sourcing. Technology is a powerful enabler of supply chain traceability and transparency, and crowdsourcing and partnerships are critical to building the capabilities Unilever, and the world, urgently needs to tackle deforestation.”
With consumers increasingly demanding to know where the products they purchase came from and the prospect of potential bans on commodities linked to deforestation, we’re not only safeguarding the environment by making sure our supply chains are sustainable, we’re also future-proofing our business.