Campaign News

How difficult is it to say we do not tolerate abuse

By Judy Beals

How hard do you think it is for a company to say “We don’t tolerate human rights abuses”?

Imagine a really famous multi-million-dollar one that depends upon having fantastic public relations all over the world. Surely that company would want everyone to know it has zero tolerance towards, say, land grabs happening in its supply chain? Wouldn’t you think?

Surprisingly – and unfortunately – we can’t get even one of the world’s ten biggest food and beverage companies to say anything close to that. In fact, for such big players in an industry known for massive marketing, they’ve been uncharacteristically shy.

It’s not like there isn’t a problem here.

Last week, we turned our “Behind the Brands” campaign toward the three biggest buyers and producers of sugar: Associated British Foods, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. In fact, we asked all ten companies featured in our Behind the Brands scorecard to come up with better policies on land.  We focused on the three sugar giants particularly because they have such tremendous influence and the sugar sector is an increasingly susceptible one to land conflicts, as it’s growing so big.

We issued a report and met with companies. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo published statements. We replied. Coca-Cola has repeatedly said it is “asking [its] suppliers to recognize and safeguard the rights of communities and traditional peoples to maintain access to land and natural resources.” The company also told Mint Press News it has submitted a proposal to Oxfam that “outlines key areas of concrete action, including potential impact assessments and providing a higher level of supply chain disclosure.” All true – but that’s not far enough.

We need Coke to acknowledge that the industry has a serious problem with land conflicts. We want it to commit to fully implement Free, Prior and Informed Consent throughout its operations. We need it to disclose its suppliers and sourcing volumes so that affected communities have better knowledge to engage with Coke properly. Other gaps remain as well – including commitments to contract transparency and fair resolution of disputes. Coca-Cola still has a ways to go.

PepsiCo says it is taking seriously these issues and is committed to social responsibility. It immediately re-circulated its month-old annual sustainability report. But we haven’t seen any sign of a comprehensive 21st Century land policy. PepsiCo can be a leader; it went out on a limb some years ago in being one of the first companies to recognize the human right to water.  It could do similar for land.

ABF  pushed back on our call to improve its policies and be more open about how exactly it respects land rights. Promisingly, it has given a nod to the importance of partnering and negotiating with local communities in parts of its sugar business. We need it to build on these principles across its entire business and turn words into action. It needs to commit to zero tolerance of land grabs.

Nestle highlighted that it ranks #1 in our Scorecard and has a new policy on Free, Prior and Informed Consent of indigenous and local communities in 12 commodities including palm, sugar and soy. We applaud Nestle’s efforts – but keep them in perspective.  Nestle made it to #1 on our scorecard but only scored 61%  – so is still only in the “Fair” category. And while its score on land did jump from a 3 to a 5 that only puts them in the “Some Progress” category.  Nestle still has plenty of improvements to make.

Danone and Mars cited their commitments to sustainability but this word is so overused it is not clear exactly how this covers specific issues such as land. We’ve heard nothing about concrete policy changes that would move them above their paltry score of 1 out of 10 on land.

Even more disappointing is the complete lack of comment by Mondelez and Kellogg and the inability of a Brazilian reporter to even be able to contact General Mills.

Unilever at least acknowledged that the right to land is fundamental to food security and we are encouraged by its signals to implement the guidelines of the UN’s Committee on World Food Security. But Unilever has yet to step up to the specific commitments that Oxfam seeks.

We are asking all 10 companies to fully commit to zero tolerance for land grabbing in all their supply chains and to publish independent social, environmental and human rights impact assessments, especially on issues related to land. We continue to urge the companies to reveal exactly where their sugar comes from and in what volumes.

We believe these companies have a real interest in getting ahead of the land issue before it gets the better of them:

  • Consumers want to know that their food and drink have not been produced at the expense of people being pushed off their land.
  • Investors want to know that the companies know, disclose and manage the risks in their supply chains.
  • Affected communities simply want their rights respected. Oxfam staff and partners hear this every day.

Tell Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Associated British Foods – and all major food and beverage companies – to lead the way in stopping land grabs.

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