Holding Unilever responsible for its conflict palm oil

We’re taking action to demand that the multinational company Unilever severs ties with Indonesian palm oil giant Astra Agro Lestari, unless it makes amends to local communities. We’ve spoken out and Unilever is listening.
  Published:  18 May 2023    |      Last updated:  14 Dec 2023    |      3 minute read

Unilever’s palm oil is harming people and planet

From Magnum ice cream to PG Tips teabags, from Dove shampoo to Persil detergent, Unilever products are everywhere. But while this consumer goods company claims to be a leader in sustainability, many of its brands contain palm oil. The UK’s consumption of palm oil is a key driver of tropical deforestation. And we’re especially concerned about Unilever’s ties to the second largest palm oil company in Indonesia, Astra Agro Lestari (AAL). 

AAL and its subsidiaries are responsible for numerous environmental and human rights violations on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. These include land conflicts with local communities, illegal deforestation, and soil, air and water pollution. Indigenous People have had their land taken. When they’ve protested, these communities have been met with paramilitary intimidation, and in several cases have been arrested and imprisoned.

Four men holding a large a banner calling on various companies to push AAL to return their land
People from Kabuyu calling on companies to push AAL to return their land
Credit: Kabuyu community

Alongside Sulawesi communities and our sister organisations WAHLI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia), Friends of the Earth US and Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands), we’ve been calling for international companies to take a stand. While several multinationals such as Nestlé and L'Oréal have heeded these calls, Unilever has so far failed to do so. This is despite its “Responsible Sourcing” and “People and Nature” policies, which outline zero tolerance for land grabbing and promote the protection of community and Indigenous land rights.

How we’re demanding action from Unilever

It's vital that we hold UK companies like Unilever to account. As an international giant, Unilever has the power and influence to transform supply chains for the better. It should set standards for other businesses to follow. And AAL is a daughter company of Jardine Matheson, another UK-owned conglomerate. To prevent businesses on our doorstep from wreaking havoc abroad, we must ensure they put people and planet before profit. 

Demonstrators holding a banner that reads "People and planet over power and profit" and other placards
Action against Unilever's links to palm oil and human rights abuses
Credit: Friends of the Earth

We've shown Unilever the problem and asked face-to-face what it's going to do.

In November 2022, alongside our allies in Indonesia and the Netherlands, we demonstrated at Unilever’s London and Rotterdam headquarters and at its Port Sunlight factory near Liverpool. We delivered letters from Indigenous People living in Kabuyu, Polanto Jaya, Rio Mukti and Nort Morowali, which are all Sulawesi communities affected by AAL’s operations. They called for their lands and rights to be returned and respected, and for Unilever to stop buying conflict palm oil.

We lost our land, we lost our only source of livelihood.

Letter from the Nort Morowali community

With no response to the communities’ letters from Unilever, in May 2023 we attended the company’s AGM. Our presence included over 40 young activists from Milieudefensie and 3 members of Climate. Youth. Society, our mentoring programme for racialised, working class and/or disabled youth activists. We asked the board to explain how it’s ensuring that its supply chains and operations are free from environmental and human rights abuses.

By participating legally and on equal terms with other shareholders, we were granted a voice, and our concerns were heard.

Sathe Miah, Climate. Youth. Society. activist

When challenged about specific cases of land grabbing and conflict we’ve documented, Unilever’s outgoing CEO Alan Jope expressed surprise, definitively stating this wasn’t acceptable in their supply chains, and asked to review our information directly after the meeting.

Once the AGM ended, we were met by Unilever’s senior sustainability team to discuss the measures Unilever needs to take to promote justice for the affected communities. 

I'm glad I was able to give the Indigenous communities a voice at the AGM and bring to light information the CEO has said he'll take action on as a result of my question.

Noama Chaudhry, Climate. Youth. Society. activist
Person at a demonstration holding a placard that reads "Unilever, stop buying conflict palm oil"
Youth activist at the Unilever AGM
Credit: Friends of the Earth

On 13 December 2023, we once again gathered outside Unilever's London headquarters and its Port Sunlight factory to hand in our petition. Armed with rubber gloves and plenty of bubbles, we demanded that Unilever cleans up its act, stops greenwashing and ensures justice for communities. Signed by over 50,000 of you, our petition called on Unilever to use its huge influence to demand AAL rights the wrongs communities in Sulawesi have suffered. 

Campaigners stand outside a building holding placards and wearing yellow washing up gloves, while bubbles float in the air. The placards read: "People and planet over power and profit" and "Clean up your dirty palm oil dealings"
Unilever petition hand-in
Credit: Friends of the Earth
Two women stand in front of a building holding placards that read: "Unilever: stop greenwashing" and "Wash up your dirty dealings with AAL"
Campaigners demonstrate outside Unilever's Port Sunlight site
Credit: North West Friends of the Earth

Ending exploitation by big business

In a speech just days after the AGM, Alan Jope acknowledged the need for corporations to take decisive action on the world stage. He warned that the “problems we’re facing are far too big for an incremental approach”. Instead, he advised businesses to “not work in the system, but to work on the system”. 

We fully support such sentiments and hope that Unilever will finally deliver on them. From our discussions with senior staff, we know Unilever is listening. We’ll continue to push the company for action until AAL redresses the injustices faced by local communities.

Countless individuals in the Global South are subject to injustice as a consequence of actions by businesses in the North. Participating in the AGM brought my belief in a better world to life. We must join forces to raise awareness, ignite change, and build a future that encompasses justice and equality.

Rowha Mohid, Climate. Youth. Society. activist

But it’s not just Unilever and AAL we need to hold to account. Many companies are destroying our environment and violating human rights through unsustainable and unethical supply chains. That’s why we’re campaigning for system change and calling on the UK government for a new law that requires companies to avoid harm to people and planet.