Hey Big Food, We're Watching: Oxfam Ranks the World's Largest Companies

What do we know about the biggest food companies' social and environmental practices even as they produce so many of the familiar food products we buy and eat every day?

Not enough, according to Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign, and much of what we do know is troubling.

The campaign kicked off with the release of a report and a scorecard of the “agricultural sourcing policies” for the “Big 10” – namely, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mondelez (formerly Kraft Foods), Coca-Cola, Mars, Danone, Associated British Foods (ABF), General Mills and Kellogg’s, who are:

the most visible industry players within the global food system and wield immense power. Collectively, they generate revenues of more than $1.1bn a day. Their annual revenues of more than $450bn are equivalent to the GDP of the world’s low-income countries combined. (Figure 1)

Due to the Big 10’s noteworthy lack of transparency, Oxfam developed their assessment and scoring indicators based solely on information available to the public. There were seven themes related to agricultural commodity sourcing including water use, climate change mitigation and adaptation, small-scale farmer inclusion, women’s rights, workers’ rights, land use and access and corporate transparency. Overall, the Big 10 did not fare well, with none receiving a “good” score (anywhere from eight to ten, on a scale from one to ten) in even a single category. Nestle and Unilever ranked highest overall, with sevens for Nestle in transparency and water use, and a seven for Unilever in the farmers category. Kellogg’s and ABF finished in the last two spots, respectively. Suffice it to say that within the parameters set by Behind the Brands, Big Food is largely failing and has room – lots of room – for improvement.

The same week the campaign launched, an interesting development gave credence to the campaign’s objectives when Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke gave a keynote address at London’s annual City Food Lecture entitled, “Water – the linchpin of food security.” In the talk, he stated that overstretched freshwater supplies could lead to the greater occurrence of food shortages in the coming years if not adequately addressed. (Of course, water scarcity could also complicate the company’s ability to bottle and sell water for enormous profit.) Nestle – the world’s largest food and beverage conglomerate – is plainly concerned that the company and the larger food industry are threatened by water scarcity and its potential for economic and social instability. The motivation for Nestle’s relatively high score in Oxfam’s water category is clear: Unsustainable water use hurts their bottom line.

And the bottom line for Behind the Brands is to push the Big 10 to become more transparent and accountable to the many people along their vast, global supply and operations chains which form to produce their products. The Big 10 control so much food production that their ability to exert influence in distant places is immense, extending from farm fields to manufacturing plants to supermarket shelves, not to mention boardrooms and halls of government. And while accountability to be socially and environmentally ethical and sustainable falls mainly to the power of the government and corporate shareholders, consumers can also apply great pressure on Big Food’s practices through buying preferences and calls for corporate policy and operational changes. Yet consumers cannot form opinions and make educated decisions without the reliable information afforded by corporate transparency. This push for transparency is just the shakeup that Behind the Brands is working towards as the

campaign evaluates where companies stand on policy in comparison with their peers and challenges them to begin a “race to the top” to improve their social and environmental performance. By targeting specific areas for improvement along the supply chain, the campaign pinpoints policy weaknesses and will work with others to shine a spotlight on the practices of these companies. (p. 3)

Maybe a slogan is in order: “Hey Big Food, We are Watching.”

Go to the  Behind the Brands website for the background report, an interactive scorecard, dataset spreadsheets and more to find out where the Big Food brands stand.

Want to learn more about the history and impacts associated with Big Ag, sibling of Big Food? Then reach for Wenonah Hauter's new book, Foodopoly, or read our Ecocentric book review.

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