Global consumer brands company Unilever announced that it is launching a pilot program with geospatial analytics company Orbital Insight to enable monitoring of the “first mile” of supply chain of agricultural commodities to tackle sustainability issues such as deforestation.

Marc Engel, Chief Supply Chain Officer, said:

“Better monitoring helps all of us to understand what’s happening within our supply chains. By companies coming together and using cutting-edge technology to carefully monitor our forests, we can all get closer to achieving our collective goal of ending deforestation.”

Unilever has been active in efforts to fight deforestation in its supply chain, particularly regarding the cultivation of crops like palm oil and soy. According to Unilever, it was the first consumer goods company to publish a full list of the palm oil suppliers and third-party mills in its supply chain, and the company has worked with numerous organizations, including World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch and Aidenvironment to use satellite technology to monitor its raw materials sourcing.

Unilever’s new program is aimed at targeting the more difficult to track early stages of its agricultural supply chain. At that level, crops linked to potential sustainability and deforestation issues are often sourced from many small suppliers and farmers, making current tracking techniques insufficient.

The new system uses aggregated and anonymized GPS data, enabling Orbital Insight to spot traffic patterns to find consistent flows of traffic between an area of land and a mill, suggesting  potential links between farms and mills. This data should enable Unilever to develop a clear picture of where harvested crops are coming from, even down to the individual field, to predict the possibility of issues such as deforestation and, where found, to take action.

Unilever stated that it is currently working with Orbital Insight to develop and finesse this system into an operational methodology, and testing the technology at a small number of palm oil mills in Indonesia and soy mills in Brazil.