Why Does Unilever Corp. Want to Help 500,000 Small Farmers? - Modern Farmer

Why Does Unilever Corp. Want to Help 500,000 Small Farmers?

Why the third-largest consumer products company in the world is the willing to put its money where its mouth is to help small farmers.

If your first answer is “good PR,” you might want to check some cynicism at the door. Unilever’s initiative is more than hollow corporate do-goodery — just ask community activist Hal Hamilton.

Hamilton is a former dairy farmer, certified Master Conservationist, and the recent winner of a James Beard award for his work towards sustainability. Also: he believes in Unilever.

“With a lot of these companies, it starts off real PR-ish,” Hamilton says. “They’re worried about looking bad, so they commission some big study on sustainability. That’s when it starts to get real.”

‘This is not philanthropy. It’s smart business.’

Hamilton directs the Sustainable Food Lab, a Vermont nonprofit committed to shoring up our global food supply. His group pushes big corporations — e.g., PepsiCo, WalMart, Heinz — to become engines of sustainable farming.

It’s easy to believe these companies are just grubbing for consumer dollars, wooing us with a perception (“Honey, let’s buy the sustainable toothpaste.”) But this is more than a case of green-washing — Hamilton says his corporate partners actually believe in sustainability. It’s in their own best interest.

Take Unilever, a company that traffics heavy numbers in vanilla, tea, and chocolate (it’s the biggest ice cream maker in the world). These products are often grown by small-scale farmers in developing nations. Smallholders are vital in keeping Unilever products on the shelves, yet their farming practices may be outdated, inefficient, damaging to soil quality. The Unilever website explains its motives:

“If we help smallholder farmers improve their practices, by giving them access to better-quality seeds, training and fertilizers, they can significantly increase their yields ”“ often double or even triple. This benefits Unilever.”

There you have it. If the company invests in their small farmers now, they will grow to provide more reliable products, in more robust quantities. It’s simple pragmatism. “This is not philanthropy,” Hamilton notes. “It’s smart business.”

Unilever does certainly stand to gain an image boost from its sustainable endeavors. When its Lipton Tea brand was “Rainforest Alliance-certified,” Hamilton says sales hit the roof. “(Certification) helped them refresh the brand,” he says. “Soon they were beating Tetley.”

But in a sense, does the company’s motivation actually matter? Whether Unilever is trying to bolster its supply chain, boost its image, or some combination thereof, the result is surely good. If 500,000 farmers, mostly in developing countries, are given tools to improve their livelihood, it’s hard to take issue.

No, Wal-Mart probably doesn’t offer organics from some nobility of purpose. McDonalds isn’t actually the patron saint of family farmers. Applebees and IHOP aren’t boycotting inhumanely treated pigs sheerly out of animal love. But the net gains from these corporate initiatives can be huge.

For Unilever, the next step is to determine how best to assist smallholder farmers. This question may vary greatly from country to country, crop to crop. So the corporation is currently sending out census-style employees in Kenya, Madagascar and Indonesia (to start). They will poll farmers on a battery of questions, ranging from training and supply access to gender issues and food security.

The results of these surveys will be parlayed into action. And by 2020, Unilever vows to have improved the lives of a half million farmers. That’s a lot of real-world change — no matter what prompted it.

Photo credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Note: Unilever was unable to provide someone to speak on its small farmer initiative.

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