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Unilever partners with Google Cloud to bolster supply chain sustainability

Consumer goods giant Unilever is drawing on Google's cloud technologies to help it achieve its goal of finding sustainable sources of palm oil, and reduce the risk of its operations leading to deforestation

Unilever is expanding its technology tie-up with Google Cloud as part of a wider push to boost the sustainability of its supply chain and its product sourcing strategy.

The consumer goods giant will draw on Google’s public cloud product portfolio to make better use of its business data so that it can make informed decisions about how to improve the eco-friendliness of its operations.   

As a starting point for this work, the pair will draw on the search giant’s public cloud-powered Google Earth Engine service to shape Unilever’s ongoing sustainable commodity sourcing strategy.

This work has so far focused on finding sustainable sources of palm oil, which is a raw material featured in many of the company’s products that is known to be a major contributor to deforestation and habitat destruction in forests across the world.

To combat this, Unilever will tap into Google Earth Engine’s multi-petabyte repository of satellite imagery and geospatial datasets, and combine this with the company’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology to accurately map the areas of the Earth that intersect with its supply chains.

This will mark the first commercial application of Google Earth Engine, the companies confirmed, given it has predominantly been used up to now by academics, researchers and civil society-focused organisations to carry out planetary-scale image analysis.

According to Unilever, this work will play an important role in helping the firm pinpoint areas where its activities may contribute to deforestation so that corrective action can be taken.

“Google Cloud and Unilever will work with a broad range of technology partners to build a centralised command centre,” the two companies said, in a joint statement.  

“This will provide a more complete picture of the ecosystems connected to Unilever’s supply chain and create a better mechanism for detecting deforestation – leading to greater accountability – while simultaneously prioritising critical areas of forest and habitats in need of protection.” 

While this work will initially target finding sustainable sources of palm oil, Unilever has committed to expanding the focus of these efforts in due course to a wider range of raw materials so that it can achieve its goal of having a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023.

“This collaboration with Google Cloud will take us to the next level in sustainable sourcing,” said Dave Ingram, chief procurement officer at Unilever.

“We will now be able to process and combine complex sets of data like never before. The combination of these sustainability insights with our commercial sourcing information is a significant step-change in transparency, which is crucial to better protect and regenerate nature.”

Rob Enslin, president of Google Cloud, said sustainability is something the company “strives to build” into everything it does, and has been a core focus of Unilever’s business for many years now.

The two firms have also been technology partners for some time now, with the duo going public in 2019 with details of how Unilever is using Google’s AI technology to inform its social media marketing campaigns.

“Together, we’re demonstrating how technology can be a powerful tool in aiding businesses who strive to protect the Earth’s resources. It will require collective action to drive meaningful change, and we are committed to doing our part,” Enslin added.

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