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Human rights in our value chain

Our value chain connects us with millions of people. As a responsible business, we want to know the rights of these individuals – and their communities – are respected and promoted. That’s why we work to unite our global ecosystem of partners around a common ambition to conduct business lawfully, promote human rights, and protect and regenerate nature.

A woman in a lab coat sitting in front of a computer screen

Respect for human rights is non-negotiable

The success of our business relies on many thousands of partners who supply our goods and services and distribute and sell our products – and our commitment to sustainable growth means we need to be selective in who we work with.

Respect for human rights underpins all of Unilever’s Compass goals (PDF 500.49 KB) and we are committed to using our scale and reach for good by insisting on business practices that are responsible, transparent and sustainable so we can grow our business and fulfil our purpose to make sustainable living commonplace.

€43 billion Our spend on goods and services in 2022

Our partner ecosystem of suppliers includes multinational companies, start-ups and small local producers alike. In 2022, our supply chain (PDF 1.83 MB) alone included around 52,000 suppliers in 155 countries. Similarly, our sales and distribution network includes a mix of distributors, major retailers, small stores, entrepreneurs and sales agents. By uniting our partners and committing to Partner with Purpose, we can use our collective scale and influence to promote human rights and protect and regenerate nature.

People and nature, together

To meaningfully promote human rights, we must work to improve the health of the planet; improve people’s health, confidence and wellbeing; and contribute to a fairer and more socially inclusive world.

To achieve this, through the Unilever Compass we’ve set ambitious goals for the positive social, environmental and economic change we want to achieve. These include raising living standards, taking positive climate action, promoting diverse suppliers and insisting on practices that embody business integrity and ethics.

Our ambitions can only be achieved by working together with others in our value chain. Through our many suppliers – who provide us with goods and services such as raw materials, logistics, advertising, professional services and much more – we are innovating, driving mutual growth, and seeking to influence widespread change for people and planet.

Ensure compliance with our Responsible Partner Policy.

This is one of our Respect human rights goals

Responsible business is good business

Doing business responsibly is the right thing to do, and it’s central to our Unilever Compass (PDF 500.49 KB) beliefs that companies with purpose last and brands with purpose grow. By choosing to work with partners who commit to conducting business lawfully and with integrity, to respecting human rights, to keeping the people behind our products safe and to caring for our environment, we aim to strengthen our supply chain and promote the mutual growth of our businesses by mitigating risk and, most importantly, working towards fair livelihoods for workers throughout our value chain.

Willem Uijen Image

Part of growing responsibly is making sure all Unilever partners work in line with our standards around responsible sourcing.

Willem Uijen, our Chief Procurement Officer

Our Responsible Partner Policy

To help manage our partner choices, we introduced our Responsible Partner Policy (RPP) in December 2022.

Our partner requirements

Our Responsible Partner Policy (PDF 4.45 MB) brings together and replaces the supplier-facing Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP) that we’ve had in place since 2014 and the distributor and customer-facing Responsible Business Partner Policy (RBPP) we introduced in 2017.

Five years on from our 2017 revision of the RSP, our new RPP details what we expect of our partners through 17 Fundamental Principles, which are organised into three interconnected pillars: Human Rights, Business Integrity & Ethics, and Planet.

It also defines the Mandatory Requirements, Mandatory Management Systems and Future Mandatory Requirements that partners must meet – or exceed – to do business with us.

The cover of our Responsible Partner Policy 2022, featuring an illustration of two people auditing a factory

Updated to meet today’s needs

The RPP sets the standard for both our Responsible Sourcing Programme and our Responsible Business Partner Programme. It outlines our commitment to responsible business and covers every partner we engage with from packaging, goods and raw material suppliers, to service providers such as creative and media agencies, and our distributors and customers.

The terms of our RPP reflect the evolving demands of society and our planet. They address, for example, the increasing need to safeguard data privacy, acknowledge economic sanctions, and progress towards our commitments to living wages, non-animal testing, net zero emissions, and plastic and waste reduction.

Two men sort through sacks of waste in a recycling centre in Brazil

A single, comprehensive policy

Our RPP’s 17 Fundamental Principles include updated versions of the 12 Fundamental Principles of our previous Responsible Sourcing and Responsible Business Partner Policies, as well as other existing requirements that Unilever has previously presented across different policies, requirements and contractual terms.

With the RPP, everything is now in one place.

Compliance with our Responsible Sourcing Programme and Responsible Business Partner Programme is assessed against the terms of our Responsible Sourcing Policy and Responsible Business Partner Policy respectively until the end of 2022 and against our new Responsible Partner Policy from 2023 onwards.

A female factory engineer wearing a hard hat and high-visibility jacket checks her mobile phone

Get to know our RPP

Any business that wants to work with us must first confirm they can meet – or exceed – the requirements of our RPP.

Our Fundamental Principles in the Human Rights pillar

We respect internationally recognised human rights in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and we are embedding them throughout our business.

Accordingly, we base our human rights commitments in the Fundamental Principles of the RPP on the International Bill of Human Rights (consisting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and we support the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Appropriate age

8. Appropriate age

All workers are of an appropriate age and young workers are protected.

Freedom of association icon

11. Freedom of association

All workers are free to exercise their right to form and/or join trade unions and to bargain collectively.

Health and safety

12. Health and safety

All workers operate in a safe and healthy work environment that identifies and reduces risks to prevent accidents, injuries and illnesses.

Land rights icon

14. Land rights

The rights and title to property and land of the individual and local communities are respected.

Our Fundamental Principles in the Business Integrity & Ethics pillar

We are committed to doing business with integrity, consistently demonstrating high global standards and fighting corruption in all its forms.

We expect our business partners to adhere to values and principles consistent with our own.

Our Fundamental Principles in the Planet pillar

We embrace sustainability and strive to increase our positive impact on the environment. This includes managing our operations, the sourcing, manufacturing and distributing of our products and the supply of services in ways that protect and preserve the environment.

Our Fundamental Principles for the Planet align with the areas where Unilever has the greatest opportunity to minimise negative impact and maximise positive impact.

Climate action icon

16. Climate action

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are reduced in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Our Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (PDF 7.88 MB) and our People & Nature Policy (PDF 2.04 MB) offer further details and guidance on how our raw material suppliers can fulfil certain RPP Mandatory Requirements.

Our Responsible Sourcing and Responsible Business Partner Programmes

An illustration of rural and city life. A woman at a supermarket, a man picks crops, a man on a bike, a farmer in a field

Our Responsible Sourcing Programme and Responsible Business Partner Programme govern the implementation of our RPP’s 17 Fundamental Principles and its Mandatory Requirements, Mandatory Management Systems and Future Mandatory Requirements.

Our Responsible Sourcing Programme focuses on our suppliers, while our Responsible Business Partner Programme focuses on the partners who bring our products to consumers – our customer and distribution network. Through these programmes, we gather insight into our partners’ business practices, gain positive assurance from our partners of their ability to meet the requirements of the RPP, conduct due diligence, evaluate any risks we are exposed to and, where necessary, validate our partners’ alignment with the RPP using appropriate auditing tools.

A mutual recognition approach

a palm oil farmer collecting palm oil

We employ a ‘mutual recognition’ approach, which means recognising suppliers who have their own mature, comprehensive compliance and responsible sourcing programmes in place. For this reason, we do not expect our partners to ‘sign up’ to our RPP, or adopt our policies, but instead to confirm they can – and do – meet or exceed the RPP’s Mandatory Requirements and Mandatory Management Systems through the application of their own policies and practices and, where necessary, validate these with industry-recognised auditing methodologies. This approach aims to reduce the complexity of auditing and increase its impact.

Importantly, we also require that our partners cascade equivalent requirements within their own supply chains. By doing this, we hope to inspire industry-wide change to respect human rights, improve wellbeing for people, and protect and regenerate nature.

Verifying RPP alignment

We want respect for human rights to underpin every business decision. That means sourcing from suppliers and working with business partners who adhere to our values.

Supporting suppliers towards compliance

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We frequently monitor the issues we see as most critical for the future, such as those we’ve set out in our Unilever Compass goals, including climate and living wages. The insights we gather help to inform our Future Mandatory Requirements, which offer our suppliers foresight of our impending requirements and, importantly, gives them time to prepare for them. Our Future Mandatory Requirements are published on our Becoming a Unilever Supplier page.

We take a continuous improvement approach to our risk assessment too and undertake regular risk-mapping so we can accurately identify where specific risks occur across geographies and within different supplier types. This leads to more targeted due diligence and auditing for the goods and services we source and ensures we know where to act to drive change if issues arise.

To reduce the burden of compliance on suppliers, we encourage the use of industry-accepted auditing systems so suppliers can use one audit to address the needs of multiple customers. Sedex is the largest platform for sharing responsible sourcing data and we use Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA) for on-site audits. Where desktop assessments are more appropriate, we use EcoVadis to evaluate suppliers. Our Responsible Sourcing Programme Audit Requirements (PDF 115.67 KB) set out the details of what we expect when validation is required.

Our third-party audit process plays a crucial role in identifying issues and driving up standards in our supply chain. Each year, we provide detailed breakdowns of our audit findings against our eight salient human rights issues: health and safety, wages and working hours are the most common issues of non-conformance with our Responsible Sourcing Programme. We require our partners to put remediation plans in place for every issue identified.

For details of our approach to supplier auditing, see our Human Rights Report 2020 Supplier Audit Update (PDF 1.67 MB).

More information on our Responsible Sourcing Programme can be found in our Human Rights Report 2020 (PDF 7.13MB) and also in our Human Rights Progress Report 2021 (PDF 2.81 MB).

The following case study demonstrates the critical role our RPP can play in advancing human rights for workers in our supply chain.

Promoting workers’ rights: the RPP in action

In an audit of one of our suppliers in Malaysia, we found that migrant workers were being forced to hand over their passports to management and pay fees to gain employment. This means workers cannot leave employment of their own free will and may carry a debt for years.

We raised our concerns with our supplier and arranged for workers to be reimbursed and have their passports returned. The supplier has addressed the root cause of the issue and changed its recruitment process to prevent any recurrence. It’s also trained workers to better understand their rights and is working to improve its grievance mechanisms to ensure workers can raise concerns with management and seek fair resolution.

An aerial view of a man pulling a trolley through a warehouse loading bay

A commitment to continuous improvement

Our RPP’s Mandatory Requirements represent the minimum threshold we expect our partners to achieve to do business with us. We’re working to demonstrate our belief that growth and sustainability are linked, by offering RPP Implementation Guidance (PDF 3.07 MB) on how to achieve the Mandatory Requirements and progress toward Leading Practices.

We expect partners to work with us and to make progress from the Mandatory Requirements and Mandatory Management Systems towards the Future Mandatory Requirements and Leading Practices defined in the RPP. We know that moving up this ladder takes effort, and often requires mindset changes from our partners and their workers to address the root causes of any issues. It can also require systemic and industry change.

We’re working directly with our partners to build skills and develop capabilities across critical issues such as eliminating forced and child labour, paying fair wages for reasonable working hours, creating and implementing management systems, practising fire safety and protecting the environment. We also support suppliers by facilitating joint awareness initiatives on responsible sourcing innovation.

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Working with like-minded partners

We believe that committing to the requirements of our Responsible Partner Policy is the starting point in building our relationship with third parties. That’s why in 2021, we introduced our RSP First programme to enhance our compliance process for suppliers. RSP First means that we only work with suppliers once they confirm they can – and do – meet the requirements of our Responsible Sourcing Programme. This avoids the risk of doing business with suppliers who can’t meet – or remain compliant with – our terms.

Raising grievances in our value chain

Alongside worker representation, effective grievance mechanisms play an important part in hearing the voices of workers throughout our value chain.

While we require our partners to provide their workers with their own robust internal procedures to raise issues, our Code of Business Principles support line is also open to third parties. That means our suppliers and distributors, their workers, or other affected stakeholders can contact us if they’re concerned about any breaches of our Code (relating to the actions of our employees) or of the RPP (relating to the actions of our partners). Business integrity describes our Code of Business Principles in more detail and how to raise a concern.

We also have channels available for specific sectors and industries. For example, our palm oil grievance mechanisms can be accessed by third parties in our value chain or those who support or represent them. This is described in our Palm oil grievance procedure (PDF 1.01MB), which includes details of how to lodge a Palm oil grievance.

Acting on breaches

We expect our partners and their employees or contractors to report actual or suspected breaches of our RPP. We will investigate any non-conformity reported in good faith and discuss findings with the partner. If remediation is needed, we work with the partner to identify the root causes of the issue and to develop a time-bound corrective action plan to resolve the failure effectively and promptly.

By working together with partners to overcome any issues, we support the betterment of their business and, most importantly, promote respect for human rights.

Protecting health and safety: the RPP in action

During an audit of one of our deodorant suppliers in India, we found fire sprinklers were not installed in the factory. This meant the supplier was in breach of our RSP’s Fundamental Principle 9 and was putting its workers and the operation of the factory at risk.

Poor practices like this count as a ‘key incident’ and require urgent action. We raised the key incident with the supplier and agreed a remediation plan to fix the issues.

Just after the installation of a sprinkler system was completed, there was a fire at the factory. Thanks to the newly installed sprinklers, the fire was contained and no one was injured.

Pipework with a valve and tag saying ‘inspected’

Industry-wide transformation

We’ve learned that to drive systemic change, we need to take action beyond the boundaries of our own business and supply chain. For example, we’re members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) Social Sustainability Committee, having led the creation of its ambition on the eradication of forced labour and the creation of the Priority Industry Principles. We support the CGF’s Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative (SSCI), which is working to benchmark and recognise sustainability standards. The SSCI sets a standard for the content and governance of the responsible sourcing audit standards, to increase confidence in using mutually recognised standards.

As members of AIM-PROGRESS, we also work with our industry peers to support the co-creation of impactful sustainability solutions and share best practices to drive and scale positive industry-wide transformation.

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