Food firms improve sustainability promises - but are they following them up with action?

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

'No brand is too big to listen to its consumers,' says Oxfam which attributes progress made on sustainability to engaged consumers pressuring firms to act. Photo: Oxfam
'No brand is too big to listen to its consumers,' says Oxfam which attributes progress made on sustainability to engaged consumers pressuring firms to act. Photo: Oxfam

Related tags: Oxfam, Greenhouse gas

The world's top 10 food firms are improving their promises and pledges on sustainability, food security and workers' rights, according to Oxfam’s Behind the Brands report. But is there any action behind the words?

Behind the Brands sees the 10 biggest global food companies, which together produce some of the best known consumer brands in the world, scored and ranked for their commitments on women’s rights, carbon emissions, water, land rights, transparency, farmers and farm workers’ rights.

Released today, the report highlights the advances made on these issues. When it was first published in 2013 seven of the 10 companies had overall scores of 31% or below but in 2016 no company scored below 36%.

Oxfam puts this progress down to consumer campaigns over the years. A spokesperson for Oxfam told FoodNavigator: “No brand is too big to listen to its consumers. Over 700,000 consumers have taken action to let these companies know that they care about the communities in the developing world who produce their products. Oxfam believes that this is an important signal to companies. Social media gives consumers an unprecedented opportunity to connect with companies and to hold them to account for commitments made.”

brands

Unilever was the overall top performers with 57 out of 70, followed by Nestle which had 48 out of 70 and Coca-Cola with 40. Kellogg has made the most progress since 2013, increasing its score by 30%.

In 2013 Associated British Foods (ABF) was the worst performing company – Danone was not included in the report – while this year ABF moved up to second last and Danone was the worst, scoring just 25 out of 70. The French dairy giant improved its 2013 score on women's rights - one out of 10, described by Oxfam as "pitiful​" - by a mere one point.

A statement from Danone said the report did not acknowledge many of the sustainability projects it is collaborating on with our partners and stakeholders. Indeed, this assessment is based on publicly available information on the policies and commitments.[..] We prefer to experiment and assess the impact of our actions before publishing policies."​ It said it would be launching its first Integrated Report before the end of the month.

Trickledown pressure

But Oxfam says the companies are given an opportunity to add in any information Oxfam may have missed.

This data is crosschecked by the NGO although it does not assess actual practices "because that data is difficult to come by"​, said a spokesperson. Does that mean the report could this simply be industry greenwashing and sustainability lip service?

Oxfam doesn't think so. By making the scorecard and data assessment publicly available on its site, it says any stakeholder can then hold companies to account.

By putting pressure on some of the world’s biggest food companies, it also says there is a trickledown effect which is felt throughout the food supply chain. For instance, in a personal communication to an Oxfam policy worker in February this year, a major supplier to one of the Big 10 companies said: "We’re being asked by one of our biggest customers to change how we deal with land rights, so we’d like to change our processes and need your input."

Greatest improvements have been on gender inequality, protecting land rights and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For instance all of the companies – apart from ABF and Danone – have signed the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles, and all apart from Danone and General Mills have conducted assessments of women workers and producers in their supply chains.

On the other hand, Oxfam says that there has been barely any improvement in the Big 10’s performance on farm workers – who make up 35% of the world’s workforce – in their supply chains. Unilever is currently the only company to have a strategy in place to raise low farmer wages and ensure steps are taken to implement this.

The carbon emissions of the 10 companies alone are equivalent to the annual emissions of every country in Scandinavia combined.

Performance on transparency is also poor. None of the Big 10 voluntarily disclosing key public fiscal information that is necessary to determine whether they are paying its fair share of taxes in the various countries where they operate.

And despite most of the 10 companies recognising water as "one of the greatest challenges of our time and critical for successful businesses"​, the companies’ overall water scores have only seen an increase of less than one point in three years, rising from an average of 4.2 to 4.9 out of 10.

Action on climate change has been positive.

Climate change -  f9photos

 Oxfam described the commitments made by Kellogg and General Mills as “ground-breaking”​ and “ambitious​”. The two companies set themselves science-based targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and wipe out deforestation throughout their own operations and their supply chains, and Kellogg improved its position dramatically, moving up from a score of two in 2013 to eight out of 10 this year. ABF, Danone, Mars, PepsiCo and Unilever have also made “significant improvements​”.

But Erinch Sahan, Oxfam’s acting head of private sector, said despite some strong progress over the past three years, there is still a lot of work to do. "The ‘Big 10’ must now substantially change their business models in order to deliver on their promises and ensure that workers and small-scale producers get a living wage throughout their supply chains. This could make a huge impact in helping fight poverty.

“Giving more power and economic value to farmers, workers and food producing communities will not only be good for all of us, but also for the companies’ bottom lines in the long run,” ​she said.

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