Politics of Poverty

Food companies can’t escape the bigger questions

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Oxfam’s Behind the Brands scorecard is sure to generate push-back.

Yesterday Oxfam released the Behind the Brands Report and Scorecard aimed at shedding light on the global food system and its massive social and environmental footprint. The food system employs one billion workers (or a third of the global work force), uses 70% of the world’s fresh water, emits close to 30% of all greenhouse gases, and sources from hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers, many living on the edge of survival. Oxfam’s campaign is aimed at giving consumers and investors a little more power to influence the companies controlling that system.

The Scorecard is built on an interactive web platform, allowing anyone to trace their favorite products and brands back to the parent company. On the site, the Scorecard ranks the top ten largest food and beverage companies (the “Big 10”) by evaluating the companies’ policies, commitments, and suppliers. People can dig deeper into the scoring of a specific company across seven themes relating to poverty and their supply chains: smallholder farmers, workers, women, land, water, climate change and transparency. The site enables people to then send messages about the issues most important to them directly to the companies.

A scorecard of this nature is sure to provoke pushback, and here are a few things we have heard or anticipate hearing from company executives:

First, the Big 10 will point the finger at other powerful actors in the food system such as governments, retailers, traders, etc. Oxfam also works to hold these actors accountable. (See our prior report on the big traders.) But the major food and beverage companies exert enormous influence, particularly with respect to certain commodities. The food system can be roughly illustrated below, with billions of consumers at one end, 1.5 billion farmers at the other, and a small group of companies in the middle. We estimate that 500 companies control 70% of that food system. In some sectors as in cocoa, three companies, Nestle, Mondelez and Mars, purchase 30% of the global cocoa supply. We also know that these companies benefit from having great influence through their marketing, trade groups, public sector and business contacts—well beyond their particular market share. Ultimately, we chose to target the Big 10 since they serve as the critical bridge between consumers and the wider system.

Companies will also lament that we don’t give them sufficient credit for good work on the ground. There is merit to that critique. We know of good projects and we’ve even worked with companies on some of them. However, we couldn’t possibly measure all the projects across 14 commodities in the developing world, and that wasn’t our intention. These projects get plenty of visibility already. They benefit from the vast corporate marketing prowess of the major brands and we will highlight some of effective projects on our platform.

Our Scorecard asks the bigger questions: Are companies acknowledging the full range of their impacts? Are they measuring and reporting on those impacts? Are they committing to basic norms and standards? And are they using their influence and supplier codes to push those commitments down through their supply chains? Those are the building blocks for addressing these issues comprehensively. No company should be able to claim it is responsible if it doesn’t acknowledge the problem of land grabs, or assess discrimination against women, or disclose its major suppliers, no matter how many demonstration projects it has.

The flip side of our high level focus is that the Scorecard doesn’t examine particular scandals either. Coca Cola scores better than most among the companies on worker rights, despite a long-standing campaign (“Killer Coke”) for the murders of union organizers at a bottling plant in Colombia. Oxfam considers a company’s public commitments, transparency, and supplier codes as good proxies for practice, but we also recognize the limitations. The Behind the Brand Campaign offers a platform to raise both good and bad practices on the ground, and we will be digging in to certain Scorecard themes and company conduct over the course of the Campaign, starting with cocoa and gender.

Finally, companies (or more likely stakeholders) may complain that we are only looking at one end of the supply chain. We do in fact cover some issues more broadly, transparency and greenhouse gas emissions for example. But, we acknowledge that there is plenty more to consider with these brands, starting with nutrition and obesity. If anyone questions the capacity for mendacity of major food brands, the scathing New York Times cover article last week on the “hyper-engineered, savagely marketed, additive-creating battle for American ‘stomach share’” should put those doubts to rest. We simply weren’t able to tackle all of that in one Scorecard, but see this initiative as filling an important piece of the puzzle.

The Big 10 have already shown that they are willing and able to address complex issues, particularly when they see a business case or feel sufficient pressure. Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign is all about both sides of that—highlighting the bottom line and strengthening the consumer, investor, and public constituencies who bring the heat.

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