There has been a great response to the Behind the Brands launch on Tuesday (Feb 26). Consumers clearly care about the people behind the foods they buy. Thousands of people have taken action; the start we hope of a movement to reverse the 100-year legacy of the world’s ten largest food and beverage companies in taking advantage of cheap land and labor to make mass products at huge profits.
People have asked the companies tough questions on Twitter. In Beijing, campaigners talked to shoppers in one of the city’s biggest shopping malls. In the US they went to the headquarters of Coca-cola, Pepsi and Mondelez and spoke to employees about the problems their bosses’ policies – or lack thereof – are causing poor food producers. The New York Times, the Financial Times, Reuters, the BBCand the Guardian were among the media that covered an issue that, until now, has been largely overlooked.
We were very keen to hear how the companies would respond.
Danone did not respond at all.
Associated British Foods – the worst performer on Oxfam’s scorecard – said “the idea that ABF would use a ‘veil of secrecy’ in order to hide the ‘human cost’ of its supply chain is simply ridiculous.” It is understandable that ABF would be disappointed at being the lowest scoring company of all ten of the food giants we ranked. But the facts behind those scores are clear for everyone to see.
Coca-Cola reiterated its commitment to the environment, sustainability and women workers, but it did not properly address its poor scores on land and farmers.
PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi met with Oxfam staff who had been handing out materials at the company’s US headquarters. She was surprised and disappointed to hear that PepsiCo scored lower than its competitors. That Indra Nooyi paid such personal attention to the news is promising, at least, and we hope that her senior team can translate this concern into action.
Mars said it appreciated Oxfam’s focus on the “serious issues” facing cocoa farmers and recognized the important role women must play in tackling them. We think that the steps Mars has taken to do right by small-scale farmers, including its commitment to source 100% certified cocoa by 2020, are very welcome. But the company’s individual projects to invest in smallholder farmers must also be accompanied by more comprehensive policies extending to land, water and women’s rights, too.
Mondelez said that it had recently committed $600 million over 10 years to it Cocoa Life and Coffee Made Happy programs to build sustainable supplies and thriving communities. It also described its global leadership in sourcing certified cocoa. Mondelez said that while it was pleased Oxfam was raising awareness of problems, it felt that the Behind the Brands scorecard was a “missed opportunity” to engage companies in positive change. Oxfam is happy to hear Mondelez reiterating its public commitment to the people who grow their ingredients. However, just listing out its community initiatives – although they are all very welcome and undoubtedly great for those local communities that are benefiting – alone is not enough. We made a specific request that Mondelez commit to a full assessment of gender inequality in its cocoa supply chains followed by a plan of action to address problems.
Nestle – in a formal response on its website – said it was taking Oxfam’s challenges seriously. The company highlighted its support to small scale farmers, to the sustainable use of water and in addressing child labor. But the company did score poorly on land and women – areas of real concern one that relies so heavily on land and on women farmers and workers. Nestle does not have any guidelines requiring suppliers to take a zero tolerance approach to land grabbing, nor does it know how many women are involved in their cocoa supply chain and whether these women are at risk of exclusion of exploitation.
Unilever responded that it supports campaigns such as Oxfam’s on global food security and welcomed our emphasis on greater transparency and the importance of the role of women and of land rights, which the company says it has highlighted at the G20. However Unilever too said Behind the Brands was a “missed opportunity” to look at all the organizations that needed to come together on the critical issue of global food security. “Change of this nature requires wide partnerships, and needs to stretch beyond looking at the role of branded food companies”, it said.
Unilever is right to say that food security challenges will only be tackled if they are addressed comprehensively by a range of actors from consumers to governments to companies. Food companies need to take a leading role in making this happen as Unilever is doing, for example, by including smallholder farmers in food value chains. We look forward to seeing specific new commitments and public actions from Unilever to address where there are gaps in their sustainability such as preventing land grabs and pursuing equality for women.
Overall, we think that a handful of the ‘Big 10’ companies went to some length to engage positively with the arguments that published in Behind the Brands. But with a few exceptions, we feel that their responses overall have been tepid and largely predictable at best – an underwhelming reply to the scale and urgency of the problem, given the undoubted power that they wield.
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