Politics of Poverty

Climate Change Behind the Brands: It’s no magic trick

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Big food companies must deal with the causes and the consequences of global warming.

David Waskow is Oxfam America’s climate change program director.

When I read headlines like this one last week, “Vietnam Coffee Harvest May Drop 30% on Drought,” I’m left with the feeling that the tablecloth is being pulled out from under the dishes on the table.

Dry, cracked earth seen at Dire Dime, Ethiopia. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

And it’s climate change that is doing the pulling.

Food production is already being pummeled globally by increasingly-severe climate events and other climate impacts, with more on the way. Small-scale farmers in developing countries are bearing the brunt of the damage – all too often, the crops they depend on for their lives and livelihoods are directly in harm’s way.

So when Oxfam began work on our new Behind the Brands initiative and a Scorecard assessing the policies of the ten largest food and beverage companies on a range of issues that are vital for small-scale farmers, climate change was right in the mix.

We examined company policies on climate change in two ways, looking at how they’re dealing with both the causes and the consequences of global warming.  First, we wanted to know whether these major companies are working to address climate change risks in their supply chains and if they are working to support the resilience of small-scale farmers in the face of impacts such as water scarcity and storms.  Second, we wanted to know whether the companies are working to cut emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, especially from agricultural sources.   (Much of our scoring is based on company reporting based on the CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) reporting format.)

What we discovered surprised us.  Just because a company did well in one area – building climate resilience or reducing emissions –didn’t mean it did well in the other.  Unilever, which scored 74% on the scorecard elements about emissions, scored only 30% in terms of its policies about climate risks and building the resilience of small-scale farmers.  The company needs to bring its focus on resilience up to its focus on emissions, which itself can still improve.  Unilever’s failure to address  resilience represents the overall dismal state of affairs when it comes to the ten companies’ engagement on climate risks and the impacts that small-scale farmers face. The average company score on this was 25%.

One company, Nestle, did quite well with its policies on climate resilience.  Nestle scored 83% on the resilience elements of the scorecard, largely because the company’s CDP reports and other policies highlight the importance of addressing climate impacts such as water shortages and volatile weather patterns.  Sadly, however, the company didn’t do so well when it comes to emissions.  Nestle has only average policies on emissions, with a score of 44%, and a below-average score at 23% for its policies specifically on agricultural sources of emissions.

But, frankly, what surprised and disappointed us the most was that some companies had weak policies on climate change across the board.  Associated British Foods, General Mills, and Kellogg’s each scored 3%, 9%, and 12%, respectively, on climate resilience.  And the same three companies scored 15%, 0%, and 8%, respectively, when it comes to those companies’ policies on emissions from agricultural sources.  These companies are the real laggards on addressing the causes and consequences of climate change in their supply chains.

They need to realize that the table cloth is being swiftly pulled out from under them and that our food and drinks—and the lives of the poorest around the world—will surely come crashing down as a result.


This post by David Waskow is part of a Behind the Brands blog series on Politics of Poverty that examines the seven issues relating to poverty and big food companies’ supply chains. Read other posts on landwomenfarmerstransparencywater, and workers!

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