Guest article

Oxfam's sustainability scorecard: Spurring a race to the top for the food industry

Oxfam's sustainability scorecard: Spurring a race to the top for the food industry

Food and drink companies can have a big influence over sustainability and ethical issues in their supply chains - and have the power to change them rapidly. One year on from Oxfam's first Behind the Brands sustainability scorecard, nine of the ten biggest companies in the industry have taken steps to improve their practices. 

In this guest article, Oxfam International's executive director Winnie Byanyima looks at how companies can keep the momentum going over the coming year.

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands initiative, which has released an updated scorecard looking at progress over the last year, has given us a unique perspective on the approach various food companies are taking to sustainability.

First, the savviest companies are taking proactive steps to lead the industry towards more responsible and sustainable practices. Consumers have more power than ever to speak up and help shape how their friends and families perceive brands. Companies like Nestle and Unilever have been burned in the past and are determined to get ahead of reputational risks that can arise when sustainability is an afterthought.

All companies aim to shine a light on the positive steps they have taken, but true leadership must be more than public relations. While a focus on sustainability is often sparked by concern about reputation, when companies dig into the issues, they see clear opportunities and financial benefits from doing the right thing. Chocolate companies, for example, understand that if they do not step up to invest in the farmers who grow their cocoa, especially by leveling the playing field for women, there may not be adequate supply available in the marketplace.

Second, the industry can move much faster to improve its practices, but right now it takes consumer pressure to kick companies into gear. Our scorecard shows very clearly that companies are changing the most in areas where Oxfam and our partners have actively raised public pressure to urge a new approach.

In February 2013 the industry was dedicating scarcely any attention to the issue of land rights. In initial conversations with companies, we often heard doubts that the industry could do anything to help address the issue. But after just a few months, and hundreds of thousands of actions by consumers, we’ve seen six companies take real steps to change their approach on land. Consumers are a powerful force when they can be organized and mobilized to demand action.

Third, brands do have real influence on their suppliers and ultimately the lives of people all the way at the beginning of supply chains. Oxfam has already heard from suppliers to the big food and beverage companies that are looking to change how they operate in order to retain their relationships and contracts with food and beverage giants that are strengthening their standards.

Even if many of the big food companies rarely interact directly with the people growing and producing their ingredients, these companies have immense power to ensure suppliers are operating responsibly.

The problems facing our food system are stark: 840 million people in hunger, more than one billion overweight, climate change threatening crop yields and the supply of fresh water, competition for land and water leading to conflict and unrest. Food and beverage companies are the lynchpin of this system wielding immense influence over how food is grown, packaged, marketed and sold.

2014 can and must be a year of action to accelerate the progress made in 2013. We will do our part to ensure that it is.

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