It was back in 2010 when I had the pleasure of interviewing Marc Engel, CPO of Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever, on the subject of its Sustainable Living Plan.
The programme is quite impressive, seeking to double sales while halving the environmental impact of its products. It’s a total impact of ownership approach, if you will, starting with the sourcing of raw materials all the way through to the consumer’s use of Unilever products to cook, clean and wash.
The programme also committed Unilever to sourcing 100% of its palm oil from sustainable sources by 2015, and the company was quite transparent in admitting that it would do so by relying on GreenPalm certificates.
The body that issues these certificates is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, otherwise known as the RSPO. It certifies plantations as sustainable and awards them one certificate per tonne of palm oil they produce. This is how it works in theory but the reality is that the certificates can fall into the hands of less-rigorously run plantations where they have been traded for just a few dollars.
Last week, as part of its first-year progress report announcement, Unilever said it would meet its original target of 100% sustainable palm oil covered by certificates three years ahead of schedule, but conceded "GreenPalm scheme is only a step along the road towards sustainable palm oil, not the end-game". The consumer goods giant has now set a new target to procure all its palm oil from certified traceable sources by 2020. This means it will be able to track all the certified oil it buys back to the plantation on which it was originally grown.
When I spoke with Marc Engel in 2010, he predicted that supply markets for commodities as we know them would drastically change by 2020. The major shift might be towards buyers dealing directly with plantations while simplifying traceability.
But will companies like the Unilevers, Krafts and Nestlés of this world lead this change? In the case of Unilever, it requires working with industry peers, suppliers, traders, plantations and governments at the very least. It means making significant investments, building new infrastructure, taking on a sponsorship role, and in some cases, completely re-engineering a supply chain.
But once a company has taken the lead, it would be negligent for others not to be supportive.