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Human rights in our value chain

Average read time: 14 minutes

Our value chain connects us with millions of people. We have a responsibility to ensure their rights are respected – and an opportunity to harness those connections to contribute to the fairer, more socially inclusive world we want to see.

A woman checks out young plants in pots on a palm oil plantation in Indonesia

Respecting people is fundamental to good business

The success of our business relies on many thousands of partners who supply our goods and services and distribute our products.

We couldn't do business without them. At the same time, the way we do business with our suppliers and distributors is a huge opportunity to drive the change we want to see. And that change starts with our fundamental requirement that human rights are respected.

In 2021, our supply chain alone included nearly 54,000 suppliers in over 160 countries. We buy goods and services from multinational companies, start-ups and small local producers. Similarly, our distribution network includes major retailers, small stores, entrepreneurs and sales agents. Taken together, that's an impact that reaches millions of workers – every one of whom shares the universal entitlement to have their rights respected.

€35 billion Our spend on goods and services in 2021

We want to work with all our partners, including through our commitment to Partner with Purpose and our new Partner Promises programme, to use this scale and influence to contribute to a fairer, more inclusive, and more equitable way of doing business. Through our direct suppliers – who provide us with goods and services such as raw materials, logistics, advertising, professional services and much more – we can innovate, drive mutual growth and influence widespread change.

We've set ourselves ambitious goals for the positive economic, environmental and social change we want to achieve, described in Raise living standards, Climate action and Promoting diverse suppliers. These ambitions, like all our work, can only be achieved if they are underpinned by a fundamental commitment to respect and promote human rights.

That means that every day, all over the world, we're seeking to embed respect for human rights into everything we do.

Willem Uijen Image

Part of growing responsibly is making sure all Unilever’s partners work in line with our standards around responsible sourcing, sustainability and human rights.

Willem Uijen, our Chief Procurement Officer

Human rights are non-negotiable

Unilever Responsible Sourcing Policy

Our Responsible Sourcing Policy (PDF 8.25 MB)

sets out our 12 Fundamental Principles and defines the Mandatory Requirements that suppliers must meet or exceed to do business with Unilever. See Downloads for additional language versions.

Our work to embed respect for human rights in our value chain relies on partnerships – and these partnerships have to be based on a clear set of standards.

Our Responsible Sourcing Policy (RSP) and Responsible Business Partner Policy (RBPP) set out our commitment to conduct business with integrity and transparency, with respect for universal human and labour rights as well as environmental sustainability.

The RSP focuses on our suppliers. The RBPP focuses on the partners who bring our products to consumers – our distribution network.

The RSP and RBPP share a commitment to our 12 Fundamental Principles, which are set out in full in our RSP. The RSP also defines the Mandatory Requirements that suppliers must meet or exceed to do business with us.

Our 12 Fundamental Principles

Matrix listing the 12 Fundamental Principles of Unilever’s RSP and RBPP

These Principles are explained below.

Beyond our RSP and RBPP, we assess specific commodity suppliers against the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code (PDF 7.88 MB) and our People & Nature Policy (PDF 2.04 MB) , which includes Respecting and Promoting Human Rights as one of its four Principles.

Maintaining our momentum

As part of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), we set out to source 100% of our procurement spend from suppliers meeting the Mandatory Requirements of the RSP. In our Unilever Compass, we continue to aim for compliance with the RSP by all our suppliers. This is part of our commitment to respect and promote human rights which underpins all our Compass goals.

Ensure compliance with our Responsible Sourcing Policy.

This is one of our Respect human rights goals

Our aim in including this goal in the Unilever Compass is to ensure the RSP is part of our everyday way of working and builds a positive impact throughout our supply chain. That means 100% compliance with the RSP - for all our suppliers, whichever part of our business they supply. To capture this, we’ve increased the scope of our reporting against this Compass goal to include all our existing businesses and now to also cover our newly acquired businesses.

Checking our progress

Since we introduced the RSP in 2014, we’ve updated it (in 2017) and we keep it under regular review. This ensures we can build in suppliers’ feedback and that it continues to drive our need to source from partners who understand and share our respect for human rights and conducting business with integrity.

At the USLP’s conclusion, we evaluated the RSP’s impact: while we’d made significant progress in raising standards across our supply base and ensuring suppliers remediated the issues we’d identified, we knew there was more to do. We reviewed our risk assessment approach so we can better identify where specific risks occur across geographies and within different supplier types. This, in turn, will lead to more targeted due diligence and auditing for the goods and services we source.

We also analysed the issues we see as most critical for the future and will build these into the RSP. These include issues that we’ve set out in our Unilever Compass goals, such as climate and living wages. By doing this now, we’re making our suppliers aware of our future requirements and, importantly, giving them time to prepare for them – as we know from our own experience that ambitious commitments are not straightforward to implement.

With the benefit of this evaluation, we’ve refreshed our RSP to give it an expanded focus on climate, nature and living wages. We plan to introduce it later in 2022. More information on the RSP and our other policies can be found in our Human Rights Report 2020 and also in our Human Rights Progress Report 2021.

Working with like-minded suppliers

We believe that understanding the requirements of the RSP 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 new suppliers. RSP First means that we only work with new suppliers once they confirm they can meet the requirements of our RSP. This avoids the risk of starting to do business with suppliers who don’t comply with our policy.

We risk-assess all our suppliers against the RSP requirements, and those we identify as high-risk need to undergo an audit to verify they can meet our RSP requirements. See our Human Rights Progress Report 2021 for more detail on our approach to human rights due diligence.

Knowing where, and how, to take action

We want respect for human rights to underpin every business decision. That means sourcing from suppliers and business partners who adhere to our values. It also means proactively carrying out risk-mapping and ongoing due diligence, so that if issues do arise, we know where to take action to drive change.

As our latest Report shows, 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 RSP. We 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) .

We continue to support the strengthening of certification programmes, particularly their social dimensions. We want to see more focus on implementation, on the proactive identification of issues, on root-cause analysis and, critically, on the remediation of issues where they are found.

Going beyond compliance

We're clear about our expectations – but we don't want our supplier partnerships to become tick-box exercises. The RSP depends on the desire and ability of our suppliers to put its requirements into action in their operations. We’re working to help them, and to demonstrate our conviction that growth and sustainability are linked. Our RSP aims to go beyond compliance and improve conditions for workers through guidance and tips on how suppliers should progress up the ‘continuous improvement ladder’.

We expect suppliers to work with us and to make progress from the Mandatory Requirements towards the Good and Best Practices defined in the RSP. We know that moving up this ladder takes effort, and often requires changes in a supplier's and their workers’ mindset to address root causes. It can also require systemic and industry change.

We’re working directly with our partners to build skills and develop capabilities across important issues such as eliminating forced labour, avoiding child labour, paying fair wages for reasonable working hours, management systems, fire safety and the environment. We also run joint projects on responsible sourcing innovation to help suppliers.

Protecting health and safety: the RSP 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’

Focusing on efficiency for a bigger impact

We know that addressing endemic human rights issues often depends on collaborating with suppliers and others in our industry. While upholding the principles of our RSP, we collaborate with others in the industry and listen to our suppliers’ experience of working with us, so together, we and our suppliers can have the biggest impact.

We employ a ‘mutual recognition’ approach, which means recognising suppliers who have their own mature, comprehensive compliance and responsible sourcing programmes in place, and agreeing that, through their policies and procedures, they meet or exceed our RSP’s Mandatory Requirements.

Over the years, we've also expanded the ways we can monitor and verify human rights issues beyond the use of our own audit standard, the Understanding Responsible Sourcing Audit (URSA).

We now also encourage the use of industry-accepted auditing systems, as this enables suppliers to use one audit to address the needs of multiple customers. Sedex is the largest platform for sharing responsible sourcing data. Since Sedex upgraded its audit standard in 2017, we use its SMETA audits where we require an on-site audit, and use EcoVadis to evaluate suppliers where desktop assessments are more appropriate. Our RSP’s Audit Requirements set out the details of compatible approaches.

By reducing the burden of compliance without compromising standards, these approaches help us, and our suppliers, free up resources to tackle the actual issues found.

Acting on breaches

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

Raising grievances in our extended supply chain

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

While we require our suppliers 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 and their employees can contact us if they’re concerned about any breaches (by us or within their own operations) of our Code, our RSP, or RBPP. Business integrity describes our Code of Business Principles in more detail.

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 1.01 MB) , which includes details of how to lodge a Palm oil grievance.

Thinking bigger: collective action

We’ve learned that to drive systemic change, we need to take action beyond 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.

Our Responsible Sourcing Policy: 12 Fundamental Principles

Our Responsible Sourcing Policy: 12 Fundamental Principles

Our RSP contains 12 Fundamental Principles based on internationally recognised standards, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It includes guidance and tips designed to assist our suppliers to improve their practices relating to all the Policy’s Fundamental Principles. The Principles are listed in full below.

1. Business is conducted lawfully and with integrity

This addresses the issues of compliance with laws, bribery, conflicts of interest, gifts and hospitality, confidential and competitor information, and financial records. It also addresses money laundering and insider trading, safeguarding information and property, product quality and responsible innovation, prohibition of any and all forms of facilitation of tax evasion, reporting concerns and non-retaliation.

2. Work is conducted on the basis of freely agreed and documented terms of employment

This focuses on the contracts or employment documents of workers, ensuring they are fair, legal, agreed and understood by the workers.

3. All workers are treated equally and with respect and dignity

This addresses the requirement that all workers are treated with respect and dignity. No worker is subject to any physical, sexual, psychological or verbal harassment, abuse or other form of intimidation. There is no discrimination in employment, including hiring, compensation, advancement, discipline, termination or retirement. Discrimination based on race, ethnicity, age, role, gender, gender identity, colour, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy, dependants, disability, social class, union membership or political views is prevented. In particular, attention is paid to the rights of workers most vulnerable to discrimination.

4. Work is conducted on a voluntary basis

This Fundamental Principle relates to the growing focus on the issues of forced labour and modern slavery. It is a Mandatory Requirement that under no circumstances will a supplier use forced labour, whether in the form of compulsory or trafficked labour, indentured labour, bonded labour or other forms. Mental and physical coercion, slavery and human trafficking are prohibited.

5. All workers are of an appropriate age

This relates to the avoidance and remediation of child labour. Under no circumstances will a supplier employ individuals under the age of 15 or under the local legal minimum age for work or mandatory schooling, whichever is higher. When young workers (below 18) are employed, they must not do work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous or harmful, or interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school. This Fundamental Principle recognises the particular importance of remediation on this issue, to avoid unintended negative consequences.

6. All workers are paid fair wages

This requires that wages are fair, legally compliant, and properly delivered and understood. All workers are provided with a total compensation package that includes wages, overtime pay, benefits and paid leave which meets or exceeds the legal minimum standards or appropriate prevailing industry standards, whichever is higher, and compensation terms established by legally binding collective bargaining agreements are implemented and adhered to.

7. Working hours for all workers are reasonable

This provides our requirements on working hours, including where there are no local legal regulations. Workers are not required to work more than the regular and overtime hours allowed by the law of the country where the workers are employed. All overtime work by workers is on a voluntary basis. This Principle also addresses aspects of forced labour.

8. All workers are free to exercise their right to form and/or join trade unions or to refrain from doing so and to bargain collectively

This addresses the rights of collective bargaining and/or trade unions. The rights of workers to freedom of association and collective bargaining are recognised and respected. Workers are not intimidated or harassed in the exercise of their right to join or refrain from joining any organisation.

9. All workers’ health and safety are protected at work

This relates to the right of a worker to have risks to their health and safety properly controlled. A healthy and safe workplace is provided to prevent accidents and injury arising out of, linked with, or occurring in the course of work or as a result of the employer’s operations.

10. All workers have access to fair procedures and remedies

This provides for workers being allowed to express their grievances. All workers are provided with transparent, fair and confidential procedures that result in swift, unbiased and fair resolution of difficulties which may arise as part of their working relationship.

11. Land rights of communities, including indigenous peoples, will be protected and promoted

This aims to avoid and prohibit issues of land grabbing. The rights and title to property and land of the individual, indigenous people and local communities are respected. All negotiations with regard to their property or land, including the use of and transfers of it, adhere to the principles of free, prior and informed consent, contract transparency and disclosure.

12. Business is conducted in a manner which embraces sustainability and reduces environmental impact

This addresses our requirements with regard to the planet and environmental sustainability. Operations, sourcing, manufacture, distribution of products and the supply of services are conducted with the aim of protecting and preserving the environment.

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