‘The planet is in crisis’

Deforestation is a complex issue, and it’s not going to be solved by one company alone. Rebecca Marmot, Chief Sustainability Officer at Unilever, and Veronika Pountcheva, Global Corporate Responsibility Director at METRO AG, in a double interview about the responsibility and scope of action of companies – and what each individual can do.


Veronika, Rebecca – where does the world stand today when it comes to deforestation?

: It is a very urgent topic, because deforestation has a major impact on the people and wildlife living in the deforested areas, and it is a driver for climate change, which we are all experiencing now, worldwide. The recent Covid-19 crisis also emphasized the importance of fighting this issue, especially in high risk areas such as South America or South-East Asia.
: The planet is in crisis, and we urgently need to take decisive action to restore its health. As a business, and through our Unilever brands, we have a responsibility to play our part. We take this very seriously and want to use our purchasing power to drive transformation– through partnerships, advocacy and committed work on the ground.

Why is this topic on the agenda of METRO and Unilever?

: We are connected to deforestation, since we purchase and sell products that can contain ingredients that might have caused it – for instance products with palm oil or soy in it, or paper from cut down trees. This is why we aim for transparency about ingredients and their origin, for example to only sell sustainable palm oil until end of 2020.
: As a significant buyer of palm oil, as well as of other commodities associated with a risk of deforestation, we have a responsibility to take action. We have a target to have a deforestation free supply chain by 2023. To do this, Unilever is focusing our energy on three key areas: traceability and transparency through digital technologies such as satellite monitoring; secondly, accelerating smallholder inclusion, for instance with agronomic training programs; and third, our changed approach to derivates sourcing.



How does deforestation happen?

Rebecca: Forest loss is driven by continued expansion of land for agriculture and an increase in forest fires and tropical storms – more frequent and severe as a result of climate change. For our business, the relevant commodities that are associated with the risk of deforestation are palm oil, soy, and paper and board.
Veronika: In addition to those mentioned by Rebecca, cattle is another relevant driver in our business. Forests are cleared to make way to raise cattle for meat and to produce soy as animal feed for example for poultry and pork meat production. Which is why we’re about to introduce a specific Meat Policy.


Photo: Veronika Pountcheva

You both mentioned palm oil, which is the subject of controversial discussions. What is your opinion about it?

Veronika: Palm oil is a very valuable ingredient – if sustainably sourced, and not causing deforestation. It is not as simple as ‘palm is bad and other oils are good’. We need to work together in the chain to make sure we use the right land, and to make sure all included farmers are paid well to prevent deforestation. This is why we focus on using sustainably produced palm oil instead of prohibiting it in our products. We are responsible to transform this industry.
Rebecca: Palm oil is one of the most land-efficient vegetable oils available. To get the same amount of oil from soybeans, you’d need seven times more farmland compared to oil palms. Also, the production of palm requires less energy, as well as fewer fertilizers and pesticides. The challenges with palm oil are around how it’s sourced, not the crop itself. That is why we have committed to source 100% of it sustainably. In 2019, 99.6% of our palm oil was sourced sustainably against the target set out in our Sustainable Living Plan, and this continues to be a top priority for us.

Rebecca Marmot

Photo: Rebecca Marmot

How can consumers help to fight deforestation?

Rebecca: Consumers increasingly care about environmental issues. They can play their part to help protect and enhance the health of our planet by paying attention to their everyday shopping choices – they can check where the products come from, how products are produced and manufactured, and whether ingredients are sourced sustainably

What can professional customers do?

Veronika: They can check whether the product ingredients were sourced sustainably and deforestation free, because the product is certified for instance. They can also check if the meat they buy comes from areas linked to deforestation. This is why we provide them with guiding information on such topics. And we support them in talking about the topic, in their restaurant for instance or by informing guests in their menu – overall, it is a topic that is high on consumers’ minds in an increasing number of countries.

How do hospitality customers feel about sustainability? METRO investigated this question with an international survey. The results show: many of them are engaged in sustainability, but implementation is still being fine-tuned.

Raw Material Sourcing is also one of the 8 strategic focus areas of METRO's sustainability strategy. More about it in the Corporate Responsibility Report 2019/20.

Is there any advice for restaurateurs, hoteliers and caterers?

To ask their meat and fish suppliers – do they know with what ingredients the animals were fed? Where does the soy in the animal feed come from, is it deforestation free? Our customers can check the origin of meat products with the METRO app ‘ProTrace’. To make use of the information we provide on topics such as deforestation, explaining why it is critical, and suggesting alternatives to reach out to their customers. But it is a topic that is not always very direct on consumers’ minds. It is the whole supply chain that needs to bring about the big change.

So what are Unilever’s and METRO’s concrete actions to push that change?

A critical path to ending deforestation is to drive greater transparency and traceability. We are already achieving this in several ways. One example is palm. We’ve invested in a major oleochemical plant in North Sumatra to process palm oil. Here, we work with the Indonesian government-owned plantation company, PT Perkebunan Nusantara (PTPN), to support local mills and smallholder farmers to produce sustainable palm oil. Through Unilever’s involvement, 29 out of PTPN’s 40 mills have already been certified. We are also developing and deploying technologies that we believe hold the potential to radically transform supply chain transparency. We are building a digital ecosystem with a number of technology partners, which provides us with a clearer picture of where our harvested crops are coming from and helps us monitor deforestation risks in our supply chain. For instance, our partnership with Orbital Insight, a US tech company that specialises in geospatial analytics, helps us identify the individual farms and plantations that are most likely to be supplying the palm oil mills in our extended supply chain. We also continue our work to support training for smallholder farmers. They account for 40 % of all production, which means if we do not include smallholders and bring them along with us, we will not be able to end the issues associated with the industry.
Veronika: We have policies on palm oil, soy, paper and wood and an upcoming policy on meat, which all touch the topic of deforestation. To implement these policies and work towards ‘zero deforestation’, we engage with our suppliers to discuss with them how for instance to move to sustainable soy in their animal feed, to ask their suppliers for this, or to look for alternatives. We certainly cannot tackle deforestation alone, which is why we are also involved in alliances like the Consumer Goods Forum Forest Positive Coalition of Action or the Cerrado Manifesto Statement of Support Group.

What’s the advantage of participating in the Consumer Goods Forum Forest Positive Coalition of Action?

Like METRO, Unilever is a member of the CGF Forest Positive Coalition of Action, a collection of ambitious companies committed to working together to end commodity-driven deforestation and achieve a forest positive future. Lessons have been learned from both the progress and challenges of the CGF’s 2010 commitment to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020 for palm oil, soy, beef and paper and board. One of the clearest lessons was that strategies rooted in remediating individual supply chains, often through certification, could achieve only limited impact. The coalition’s new strategy is focused on systemic change and underpinned by two main pillars: supply chain management and integrated land use approaches. This means that as a group we are setting higher expectations for traders to act across their entire supply base, and we are working together to drive transformational change in key commodity landscapes. The coalition members want to remove commodity-driven deforestation from individual supply chains. It’s a combination of individual and collective action that we are confident will have real impact.


The Consumer Goods Forum

The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) brings together about 400 member companies of consumer goods retailers and manufacturers. The organization has a global reach and addresses challenges including environmental and social sustainability, health, food safety and product data accuracy. The Forest Positive Coalition of Action is a coalition of several partners to drive collective action on creating a forest positive future.  

Working together with a common goal

Another topic where the companies collaborate is the metro-water-intitiative: Unilever supports METRO’s One Drop initiative which is designed to address Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) challenges in India. With Unilever’s portfolio of WASH related products, such as Domestos and Lifebuoy, and the company’s commitment to help improve the health and well-being of more than 1 billion people by 2020, support for hygiene and sanitation programs is one example of how to drive impact at scale through collaboration.

How much power do companies have to change things?

Veronika: The only way to solve the global problem of deforestation is working together. As members of the CGF, both Unilever and METRO are collaborating and working on an action plan to stop deforestation. This plan includes discussing with suppliers and traders how we can work differently, working with farmers in Brazil, Asia and other areas with deforestation to make sure they receive a fair price for their soy and palm, so they can invest in more sustainable products. We’re also working with NGOs and governments to bring changes in the regulation around deforestation.
Rebecca: Deforestation is a complex issue, and one that can’t be solved by companies acting alone. The transformation of global supply chains requires governments, the private sector and NGOs to all work together. Working in partnership is not limited to just deforestation but includes partnering on a host of other global challenges to drive transformational change at scale on issues of mutual interest. Moving forward, we will continue to work together to deliver joint value to society and to our respective businesses.

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