Politics of Poverty

Kick in the Behind, or No Company Left Behind?

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10 things that made the Behind the Brands NYC event remarkable

Jonathan Jacoby is Policy and Campaigns Manager in the Private Sector Department at Oxfam America.

The ingredients of a memorable event can be hard to come by.  I may be (am) biased, but Oxfam’s gathering last Friday morning in New York City to highlight our new Behind the Brands scorecard had them all:

#1 A stunning and symbolic setting

In the 29th floor auditorium of Bloomberg‘s headquarters, we had found a venue with a sense of power.  Thanks to Curtis Ravenel and his Sustainability team at Bloomberg LP, the view of midtown Manhattan, Central Park, and the East River was exquisite.

#2 A sumptuous spread

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and this one started us off right.

#3 A skillful scene-setter

In his intro, Oxfam America president Ray Offenheiser demonstrated our long-standing focus on food and agriculture—Oxfam’s proverbial “bread and butter”. He then laid out our approach to evaluating the role of the world’s 10 largest food and beverage companies on 7 key themes through the Behind the Brands project.

With the scorecard displayed behind him, Ray saluted how far the “Big Ten” – the most influential brands in the global food system – have come, but he made clear how far they still have to go to develop comprehensive policies on the social aspects of sustainable agriculture. He made both a humanitarian case and a long-term business case for companies to compete in a “race to the top”. Such a race will help secure the long-term bottom line while ensuring that the planet’s 7 billion food consumers have enough to eat and that the developing world’s 1.5 billion food producers (small-scale farmers and farm workers, especially women) enjoy the rights and opportunities to thrive. 

Panel at Behind the Brands March 1st event: (L to R) Jane Nelson, Erika Karp, Bennett Freeman, Puvan Selvanathan, Stephanie Strom, Ray Offenheiser. Photo: Ipek Gencsu / Oxfam America

#4 A classy cast of characters

On the panel were:

#5 An inquisitive and insightful moderator

Stephanie Strom, veteran New York Times business and financial journalist, brought to the fore the panelists’ diverse perspectives and enabled them to achieve a certain organic chemistry.

#6 Not just blah, blah, blah

Here are some of the highlights of the substantive dialogue:

  • Transparency as Transformational: The panelists applauded the scorecard’s accessibility on complex sustainability issues, as well as its focus on transparent supply chains as a means to spark transformational action. Transparency is a powerful catalyst to get “competitive juices flowing” among these industry leaders, as Bennett Freeman of Calvert put it. He and other panelists spoke passionately about the need both to praise these food and beverage companies for the good they are doing while holding them accountable for a lack of clear policies and for any harmful practices. There was some discussion among panelists about the importance of bolstering and empowering internal champions within such companies to enable bold action in the executive suite.
  • Consumer Power: Unsurprisingly, the discussion also turned to consumer values and trends. Various panelists underscored the power of the consumer, especially against the now-familiar backdrop of social media campaigning.  Erika Karp of UBS eloquently observed the potential for a “tiny pause” in consumers’ decision-making in the grocery aisle—replicated many millions of times—to have a massive impact on a brand’s bottom line.
  • Investing in the Future: Beyond the covenant between brand and buyer, a few panelists highlighted the utility of the scorecard in influencing the next generation of global institutional investors.  Erika Karp pointed to the $34 trillion global wealth transfer underway and to the fact that the young global elite are increasingly concerned with sustainability issues. It turns out that the new jet-set seem increasingly likely to take a high-speed train instead of a private plane to get from London to Paris or from Beijing to Shanghai.
  • Small-Scale Farmers: Jane Nelson of Harvard set off a good discussion about corporate responsibility and the role of smallholder farmers.  Their challenge, she argued, is not exploitation but rather exclusion, in that the vast majority of such farmers are not part of a global value chain. Panelists pointed to the role of NGOs in building smallholder farmer capacity, and also to that of companies in deploying technologies and techniques to empower small-scale farmers to compete.

#7 Constructive Criticism

Of course, Oxfam fielded a few questions about the scorecard methodology and a few critiques of the overall approach.

Jane Nelson was most vocal about limitations, speaking to: 1) the limits of what companies can do to address capacity issues of smallholder farmers; 2) the challenge of transparency and the unfairness of suggesting a “veil of secrecy”; and 3) the need to look beyond competitive scorecards to collective responses.

Erika Karp spoke of the importance of moving beyond the “blunt instrument” of a scorecard to shared, objective measures for assessing company performance and to a “common language” between stakeholders.

Puvan Selvanathan of the UN Global Compact urged Oxfam to distinguish clearly between a company commitment and a company policy, akin to the difference in politics between a campaign promise and a statute. He also hopes to see “some green” on the scorecard over time.

Along with Oxfam colleagues Chris Jochnick and Erinch Sahan, Ray Offenheiser stated that Oxfam will continue to modify and potentially expand the scorecard, suggesting that the effort would not be a “one-off.”

#8 Responses from the Food Companies

Oxfam was pleased to have an impressive showing at the event by more than half of the “Big Ten” in the Behind the Brands scorecard: Associated British Foods, Coca-Cola, Danone, Nestle, PepsiCo, and Unilever. A number of their representatives offered comments welcoming the scorecard and its close examination of newer frontiers such as gender and land rights. Some companies pointed out that there is collective action underway to address key sustainability issues, while others acknowledged the need for future action on emerging issues.

#9 A Way Forward

Picking up on Jane Nelson’s call for collective action to address systemic issues, Ray challenged companies to advocate jointly for government investments in foreign aid to restore once-robust national agriculture programs and extension services. He identified “an opportunity for alliance,” with collective action by the companies, and perhaps also by NGOs, toward the policies of governments and of agricultural traders. By way of historical example, Ray cited the “corporate statesmanship” of a group of American CEOs in jointly promoting the Marshall Plan to rebuild European markets after World War II.

#10 Merging “Long-term-ism” and “the Fierce Urgency of Now”

Erika Karp pointed to the need for companies to shed the yoke of quarterly earnings reports and consider the long term.  Apparently, the CEO of mining giant BHP Billiton declared it “the happiest day of my life” when his company no longer required such frequent reporting.

But to many nodding heads on the panel and in the audience, Karp also echoed MLK Jr. by speaking of the “fierce urgency of now” and of the “unprecedented consciousness” enabled by today’s technology, knowledge, institutions, and activism.

Indeed, there’s no time like the present for the Big Ten companies to lead.

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