Big food firms improve social policies under pressure, Oxfam says

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Feb. 26, 2014 - Driven by consumer pressure, nine out of the world's 10 biggest food and beverage companies improved their social and environmental policies over the past year, according to an assessment by the worldwide development organization Oxfam.

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Nestle was the top performer in the “Behind the Brands” report, which looks at how the companies dealt with people in developing countries on issues such as land rights, treatment of women in the supply chain, carbon emissions and transparency. Unilever and Coca-Cola were ranked second and third. Only General Mills, which sells brands including Betty Crocker, Cheerios and Haagen-Dazs ice cream, failed to improve, Oxfam said in a news release.

“Most of the ‘Big 10' are moving in the right direction because hundreds of thousands of consumers and investors controlling trillions in assets are demanding an overhaul to business as usual,” Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said. “Some companies showed courageous leadership but it appears others need to be pulled along kicking and screaming. It will take time for them to reverse a 100-year history of relying on cheap land and labor to make mass products at huge profits but at high social and environmental costs.”

The other companies included in the report, ranked fourth through ninth, were: Mondelez, PepsiCo, Danone, Mars, Kellogg and Associated British Foods (ABF).

Some of the biggest successes cited by Oxfam were in the areas of women's rights and land use, which were the focus of the organization's Behind the Brands campaign in 2013. Up to then, the companies had largely ignored the issues, Oxfam said.

In the past year, however, six of the Big 10 companies instituted policies that endorse the principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent that helps ensure communities are consulted and give consent before their land is sold, Oxfam said. In addition, seven signed on to the UN Women's Empowerment Principles, which commit a company to improve conditions for women affected by its business. And eight companies improved their policies on climate change.

“By improving their policies on land, some of the world's most powerful companies have already helped communities seeking fair compensation for the land that was taken from them nearly a decade ago in countries like Cambodia and Brazil,” said Byanyima. “Companies can open up space to help communities resolve decades-old conflicts once and for all.”

Byanyima said the most important lesson to be learned from the first year of the Behind the Brands campaign is that “companies do respond, quickly and to great effect, when consumers push them toward more responsible methods of production.”

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