The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

What do a Dutch supermarket and human rights have to do with your grocery list?

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freezer The Behind the Barcodes campaign works to ensure supermarkets address human rights issues in their supply chain. Photo: Pixabay

Whole Foods could learn something from Albert Heijn about reducing human suffering.

Just last week we heard some big news in the food sector—Albert Heijn, one of the largest grocery chains in the Netherlands, committed to addressing human rights impacts in its supply chain.

If Albert Heijn doesn’t sound familiar, maybe Giant, Hannaford, and Stop & Shop do. They’re all owned by the same parent company as Albert Heijn—Ahold Delhaize. Ahold Delhaize is one of the biggest supermarket chains in the world. And the US is Ahold Delhaize’s largest market and growing.

Albert Heijn’s commitment is a direct result of Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign and an important sign for the global retail sector overall. For over a year, we have pushed supermarkets like Whole Foods, Walmart, and Costco to recognize their responsibility to respect human rights in their global supply chains and to treat workers, women, and farmers with dignity.

Now that Albert Heijn is leading the pack—who’s next?

What exactly did Albert Heijn commit to?

Starting in 2019, the Dutch supermarket will undertake six human rights impact assessments per year with the involvement of local workers, trade unions, as well as farmers and representatives of communities, including women and NGOs.

These assessments will focus on low-wage work, farmer incomes, and women’s rights in Albert Heijn’s high-risk supply chains. Additionally, the retailer agreed to:

  • Publish an online interactive map by 2020 of the company’s first-tier suppliers for its own brand products;
  • Support its suppliers to manage human rights risks by building a joint responsibility relationship between the retailer and its suppliers;
  • Implement ways for workers to file grievances that provide for remediation by 2020; and
  • Sign the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles by 2020.

Oxfam remains cautiously optimistic that these commitments will deliver change for farmers and workers in the supply chain. But that means the Dutch grocer will need to credibly address the findings in the human rights assessments once they are complete. More information and analysis about the commitments are here.

What does this mean for the food we buy in the US?

While Albert Heijn took ambitious actions, it is notable that its parent company, Ahold Delhaize, still has not. Despite our efforts, both in the US and the Netherlands, to encourage Ahold Delhaize to make similar commitments, they have not responded.

Around 60 percent of Ahold Delhaize sales are in the US—at supermarket giants like Giant—which means the company pays a lot of attention to what American shoppers think. Globally, the parent company has close to 6,700 food retail stores in 10 countries. A change in policy towards taking human rights more seriously could mean a considerable shift in the way retailers do business.

Whole Foods, much like Ahold Delhaize, is in the perfect position to demonstrate leadership among all the other retail actors and recognize their responsibility to respect human rights. It describes itself as one of the most sustainable supermarkets in the industry; with its vision statement: “We’re a purpose-driven company that aims to set the standards of excellence for food retailers.”

While they may state they have high standards, they don’t really live those values. Based on Oxfam’s scorecard, Whole Foods is one of the worst-performing supermarkets in the US around being transparent and treating workers fairly who work in their supply chains.

Our opinions as consumers matter to them. If we speak up, they will listen.

Don’t miss the forest for the trees

At the end of the day, this really isn’t just about Ahold Delhaize or Albert Heijn or Whole Foods.

All US companies need to take proactive steps to prevent and mitigate human rights violations. In our US scorecard, the highest score among select US retailers was only 17 percent out of 100—that is shockingly low. Giant and Stop & Shop (owned by Ahold Delhaize) received only five percent.

Human suffering has no place on our supermarket shelves. We deserve better from our favorite supermarkets and we can use our voices at the checkout line to make a difference.

Take action so your local store makes the right choice.

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