General Mills was singled out as the only company to have made no progress in its sustainability initiatives since the original report was released last February.
The 2013 report assessed 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.
Nestlé’s score has since shifted seven points to 45/70, and retains its top position on the scorecard, while General Mills has lost a point, replacing Associated British Foods at bottom of the table, with a score of 15/70. ABF moved from 13/70 to 19/70. Unilever made the biggest improvement, up from 34/70 to 44/70, and Coca-Cola, in third place, improved nine points to reach 38/70.
‘Race to the top’
“Most of the ‘Big 10’ are moving in the right direction because hundreds of thousands of consumers and investors controlling trillions in assets are demanding an overhaul to business as usual,” said Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima.
“Some companies showed courageous leadership but it appears others need to be pulled along kicking and screaming. It will take time for them to reverse a 100-year history of relying on cheap land and labour to make mass products at huge profits but at high social and environmental costs. The race to the top is underway and there are clear leaders and laggards.”
Among specific improvements, seven of the companies signed up to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles in the past year, while six put policies in place to ensure local communities are consulted and give consent before the land they are using is sold. Eight companies improved their climate policies, and the three biggest cocoa companies – Nestlé, Mondelez and Mars – have said they will address gender inequality in their supply chains in a plan due to be finalised by May.
Byanyima said: “The most important lesson from the first year of ‘Behind the Brands’ is that companies do respond, quickly and to great effect, when consumers push them toward more responsible methods of production. Down the supply chains we are already seeing agricultural producers and traders beginning to improve their practices to ensure they retain the business of the ‘Big 10’.”
Responding to the report, General Mills said in a statement that it was strongly focused on sustainability and it felt its efforts deserved a stronger score.
“We are working to conserve and protect the resources upon which our business depends around the world, and we continue to improve our products and practices broadly across our supply chain," it said. "Transparency is key, of course, and we regularly report our progress in our annual Global Responsibility Report. Our report tends not to mirror the Oxfam scorecard, and because the scorecard is based only on publicly available information, that may be a key factor in their ranking."
Nestlé touted its 8/10 score for its efforts to combat climate change, and its better-than-average performance on workers’ rights, transparency and water policy.
“Nestlé has supported the efforts of Oxfam and other NGOs in their efforts to make progress towards a sustainable food system while making clear its belief that cooperation between civil society, government and business is the best way to bring this about,” it said.
This article has been updated to include a response from General Mills.