Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Behind the Report Behind the Brands

The new Oxfam Report Behind the Brands is a must-read. It's only just been released and respected commentators such as Marc Gunther and Jo Confino of the Guardian have already published their insights with spectacular headlines such as "big food is failing the poor" and "multinational companies are failing on CSR goals".  Well, we sort of knew that before the Oxfam report, but Behind the Brands pulls everything together quite spectacularly, highlighting the issues and challenges that large food companies face and/or create, brand by brand, punch by punch. The report is Oxfam's move to get the world's ten largest Food and Beverage companies to sit up and shape up, and work harder to create a more equitable food system and a more sustainable future.

The Oxfam narrative reads a little like a sustainable business horror story. There's not much that's new, but  it's combined in a very effective round-up of the issues that have been on the sustainability agenda in the F&B sector for some time now.   "For more than 100 years, the world's most powerful food and beverage companies have relied on cheap land and labor to produce inexpensive products and huge profits. But these profits have often come at the cost of the environment and local communities around the world, and have contributed to a food system in crisis." With lack of supply chain transparency, (almost) unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, food waste, exploitation of small-scale farmers, the impact of agriculture on climate change, obesity, diabetes and other effects of sugary, processed food  forming a long list of negative impacts of this sector, we would all be forgiven for going the route of  Neil Boorman in the "Bonfire of the Brands".

Oxfam has little good to say about the food and bev giants, which makes me wonder if this report would not be just a little more persuasive if it were just a little more balanced. Sure, we all know the nasty, negative, effects of big business. That's why the sustainability movement has become what it is. But if we go down the track of painting all business with a big black brush, we may be at risk of overlooking the many positive benefits of economic development and quality of life which these companies have also been responsible for creating. Transparency, accountability, responsibility should not be trade-offs, I agree, but in acknowledging what's not been done, perhaps there should be room for acknowledging what has been done.

By now, you will all have seen that Unilever, Nestle and Coca Cola make it to the top of the list, with highest-scoring Nestle attaining a 54% result, while General Mills, Kellogg's and Associated British Foods trail the pack with scores below 25%. Kudos to Oxfam for making their methodology transparent - you can download the base data of the research to see exactly how points were assigned and scores developed. This is very interesting.

But here's the thing. The Oxfam Behind the Brand ranking is an assessment of policy statements. It's not an assessment of practice:

"Oxfam's Behind the Brands scorecard assesses, scores and ranks food and beverage companies on their corporate policies and commitments aimed at taking responsibility for the social and environmental injustices that lie within their agricultural operations. Only publicly disclosed policies are considered for the scorecard. ...... Oxfam acknowledges that policies are just a first step toward promoting socially and environmentally acceptable practices, and many companies do not actually enforce such policies within their supply chains."

In the question, for example, of  'Does the company explicitly recognize forced labor as an issue?', every company gets full marks.  In the question  'Has the company declared to seek to improve the role of rural women in their supply chain?', only Nestle, Coca Cola and Mondelez get full marks, because they have a policy declaration (and not because they have actually done anything).

I checked out the reference supplied in the Behind the Brand data file as Nestle's response to this question about rural women, and the link goes to a page on the Nestle website on rural development, in which there is one mention of women in one paragraph: 'Long term, we seek to increase the training and support we provide to farmers. In general, such input – focused mainly on the efficient use and conservation of water, land conservation, access to clean water for farming communities, improving the status of women in rural communities and improving education – leads to greater yields of higher-quality and more varied crops for Nestlé, and increased income and higher standards of living for our suppliers'.      Better than nothing, I suppose, but women seem somewhat buried in a range of other priorities.

I guess my point is that I have learned to value action over declaration. In many ways, making a declaration is easy. Backing up that declaration with a set of strategies, policies, plans, goals, targets, metrics, and transparent reporting is not so easy. Standing by your policy declarations in times of conflicting priorities is even more not so easy. We are still in an age where companies are not held to account for the way they have implemented all their policy declarations. Even if all companies have the same policy, where does that leave our sustainable future? In the same place as it is now. Even if they all get 100% scores according to the  Behind the Brands methodology, our global sustainability score may not be any different. This is how Oxfam puts it: "According to the scorecard rankings, Nestlé and Unilever are currently performing better than the other companies, having developed and published more policies aimed at tackling social and environmental risks within their supply chains." Performing better ... having published more policies? Excuse me. Are we on the same planet?   

The question is to what extent we can expect this focus on policy development to be a real precursor to practice development? I'm a reasonable person (mostly, when I have had my daily dose of ice-cream). I tend to agree. So I applaud Oxfam for their massive investment in this research and for highlighting how companies are speaking about sustainable development. Certainly, now, if we want to, we can go and check if the big F&Bs are walking the talk or just publishing it on their websites and in their Sustainability Reports.

But, in reading the Behind the Brands report, let's be clear about what it actually is. An assessment of policy. Not of practice. Not of impacts. Not of sustainability. Not something which would cause me to change my choice of brand or join Neil in putting my Pepsi Max on a bonfire. Perhaps Oxfam might consider a next report that ranks the actual practices of F&B companies against their stated policies and assesses the impacts they create. They could call it "Because of the Brands".

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  and Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage through Transparency. Contact me via www.twitter.com/elainecohen on Twitter or via my business website www.b-yond.biz  (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

1 comment:

Tim Woodall said...

Great points as always, Elaine.

One of the reasons many in the CSR community condemned the Newsweek rankings in the beginning (in particular, though they're still disparaged today for good reason) was their myopic focus on corporate policies being the end-all-be-all.

I completely agree that companies should be judged on what they're actually performing, not what their supplier handbook says they SHOULD be doing.

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