Many major food companies are slowly improving their sustainability policies but all still have a long way to go, according to an updated ‘Behind the Brands’ sustainability report from Oxfam.
Back in February, Oxfam released its original report assessing the sustainability initiatives of ten of the world’s biggest food and drink companies, including Nestlé, Unilever, Danone, Mondelez, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. All fared poorly, with Nestlé topping the list with a score of 38/70 in seven categories: Treatment of workers, women, farmers, land and water, as well as climate and a grade for overall transparency.
The updated report shows that Nestlé and Unilever, in first and second position on the scorecard, have both gained seven percentage points for their sustainability efforts since February. Coca-Cola has gained five percentage points, Danone gained four, Mondelez two, and Mars and General Mills each increased their scores by 1%.
There was no change for PepsiCo, Kellogg’s or Associated British Foods (ABF), which was bottom of the list, with a score of 19%, or 13/70.
Investors urge change
On Tuesday, 33 investment funds representing assets worth $1.4trn, urged food companies to do more to reduce social and environmental risks in their supply chains, in response to the Oxfam report.
“Due to a lack of transparency within the sector, it is difficult to fully evaluate the risk and opportunity that our companies bear within their supply chains,” said the investment funds’ statement. “The data show there is a broad and urgent need for significant improvement across the sector.”
Bennett Freeman, senior vice president, Sustainability Research and Policy at Calvert Investments, said: “Investors are increasingly rewarding companies that address sustainability challenges across their global supply chains. Companies should show steady progress on the scorecard to manage risk and opportunity, especially in emerging and frontier markets.”
Among the specific improvements that led to increased scores, Oxfam highlighted Nestlé’s more comprehensive recognition of land rights, saying that it is the first of the ‘big ten’ included in the report to support Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) for local communities in its supplier guidelines, used for the sourcing of commodities like sugar, palm oil and soy – a move Oxfam says could help prevent supplier land grabs.
Coca-Cola's Sustainable Agricultural Guiding Principles now require suppliers to better manage water pollution, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions; and Unilever’s Gender score improved from 3 to 4 based on its endorsement of the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles and a commitment to assess the impact of commodities it sources where women play a key role.
Unilever, Nestlé and Mars were the only companies named in the report that replied to a request for comment prior to publication.
Unilever said in an emailed statement: “We are pleased to see the investment community getting more and more involved to drive the sustainability agenda. Also we are pleased to see that Unilever improved its score by 7% in just 6 months. We will continue make progress on this, driving sustainable and equitable growth with our brands.”
Meanwhile, Nestlé said it "supports the efforts of Oxfam and other NGOs to make progress towards a sustainable food system and supports a co-operative approach by civil society, government and business."
A Mars spokesperson said via email: “Pursuing sustainability is a natural extension of our business objectives, and we are proud of the progress our company has made. This is why we have made a bold commitment to make our operations ‘Sustainable in a Generation’ by eliminating fossil fuel energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, minimizing our impact on water quality and availability, and mitigating the impacts of waste by 2040. We have set hard targets for the short term to build momentum, and we continue to make strides in achieving these objectives."