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Google, Unilever partnership uses AI for sustainable sourcing

Unilever says it will use Google Earth Engine, Google Cloud Storage and BigQuery, as well as AI technologies, to create a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023.

Google and Unilever say they will use satellite imagery, cloud computing and AI to help Unilever, the multinational consumer goods company, achieve sustainable commodity sourcing. The partnership follows a trend of enterprises using new technologies to power supply chain sustainability efforts.

"Business, government and consumer concern about environmental and sustainability issues are certainly shaping the future of supply chain management," said Salim Shaikh, digital transformation executive at Blue Yonder, a vendor of supply chain software.

"Businesses are in a unique position to start making smarter decisions, decisions that consider not only profit, but the environment and humankind. With the use of powerful new technologies like AI and machine learning, these factors are no longer mutually exclusive," he continued.

Smart sourcing

Unilever's sustainable sourcing initiative will focus initially on sustainable palm oil but will expand. By 2023, the company, with the help of Google and other technology partners, plans to achieve a deforestation-free supply chain.

The big consumer goods manufacturer will use Google Earth Engine, Google Cloud Storage and BigQuery, among other tools, to monitor the effect of sourcing on the environment and local communities.

To detect changes in land usage over time, AI can compare current satellite imagery to baseline land area images. Existing models can distinguish different types of land use, such as agriculture, pasturing, planted forests, natural forests and coastal areas, said Kashyap Kompella, CEO of industry analyst firm RPA2AI.

North America, the world, satellite image
Unilever will use satellite imagery, cloud computing and AI for sustainable commodity sourcing.

Imagery data is generally combined with other types of data, including temperature and rainfall. That's compute-intensive, and that is perhaps where Google's expertise comes in, he added.

In retail, AI for driving sustainability can help companies avoid waste, as well as adhere to seasonal trends, Shaikh said. That requires algorithms that define the optimum probability curves of need, demand and consumption.

As this initiative is scaled, the different players in their supply chain will in turn be motivated to step up their own sustainability practices.
Kashyap KompellaCEO, RPA2AI

"If you can make optimum decisions across both parameters, then you're reducing stock waste and excess, you're cutting down on unnecessary supply and distribution activities and you're cutting down on procurement expenditures that might never be repaid through customs," he said.

Unilever is not the only company using AI for sustainable commodity sourcing, but, with more than 400 brands, it's one of the largest.

"As this initiative is scaled, the different players in their supply chain will in turn be motivated to step up their own sustainability practices," Kompella said.

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