The Big 10 response to Behind the Brands, so far

Alison Woodhead

Blog post by Alison Woodhead

Oxfam International, Head of GROW Campaign
Share this page: 

There has been a great response to the Behind the Brands launch on Tuesday (Feb 26) so far, showing that consumers clearly care about the people behind the foods they buy. Thousands of people have taken action – the start of what we hope is a movement to reverse the 100-year legacy of the world’s ten largest food and beverage companies, who for too long have taken advantage of cheap land and labor to make mass products at huge profits.

People have asked the companies tough questions on Twitter. In Beijing, campaigners talked to shoppers in one of the city’s biggest shopping malls. In the US they went to the headquarters of Coca-cola, Pepsi and Mondelez and spoke to employees about the problems their bosses’ policies – or lack thereof – are causing poor food producers. The New York Times, the Financial Times, Reuters, the BBC and the Guardian were among the media that covered an issue that, until now, has been largely overlooked.

So how did the companies respond?

Danone did not respond at all.

Associated British Foods – the worst performer on Oxfam’s scorecard – said "the idea that ABF would use a ‘veil of secrecy’ in order to hide the ‘human cost’ of its supply chain is simply ridiculous.” It is understandable ABF would be disappointed at being the lowest scoring company of all ten of the food giants we ranked, but the facts behind those scores are clear for everyone to see in Oxfam’s report.

Coca-Cola reiterated its commitment to the environment, sustainability and female workers, but did not properly address its poor scores on land and farmers.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi met Oxfam staff who were handing out materials at the company’s US headquarters. She was surprised and disappointed to hear that PepsiCo scored lower than its competitors. That Indra Nooyi at least paid personal attention to the news is promising, but we hope her senior team can translate this concern into action.

Mars said it appreciated Oxfam’s focus on the “serious issues” facing cocoa farmers and recognized the important role women must play in tackling them. We welcome steps Mars has taken to do right by small-scale farmers, including its commitment to source 100 per cent certified cocoa by 2020. But these individual projects must also be accompanied by more comprehensive policies extending to land, water and women’s rights. 

Mondelez said it recently committed $600 million over ten years to its Cocoa Life and Coffee Made Happy programs, and described its global leadership in sourcing certified cocoa. While it was pleased Oxfam was raising awareness about problems, it felt that the Behind the Brands scorecard was a “missed opportunity” to engage companies in positive change. Oxfam is happy Mondelez is reiterating its public commitment to the people who grow their ingredients, but  listing out its community initiatives is not enough, though these are certainly very welcome. We made a specific request that Mondelez commit to a full assessment of gender inequality in its cocoa supply chains followed by a plan of action to address its problems.

General Mills and Kelloggs committed to review the findings and to do more.

Nestle’s formal response on its website said it was taking Oxfam’s challenges seriously. The company highlighted its support to small scale farmers and to the sustainable use of water and in addressing child labor. But the company did score poorly on land and women, which is concerning as they rely heavily on them. Nestle does not have any guidelines requiring suppliers to take a zero tolerance approach to land grabbing, nor does it know how many women are in their cocoa supply chain and whether they are at risk of being excluded and exploited. 

Unilever welcomed our emphasis on greater transparency and the importance of the role of women and of land rights, which the company says it has highlighted at the G20. However Unilever also said Behind the Brands was a “missed opportunity” to look at all the organizations that needed to come together on the critical issue of global food security. “Change of this nature requires wide partnerships, and needs to stretch beyond looking at the role of branded food companies”, it said.

Unilever is right to say food security challenges will only be tackled if they are addressed comprehensively by a range of actors from consumers to governments to companies. Food companies need to take a leading role in making this happen as Unilever is doing, for example, by including smallholder farmers in food value chains. We look forward to seeing specific new commitments and public actions from Unilever to address where there are gaps in their sustainability such as preventing land grabs and pursuing equality for women.

Overall, we think that a handful of the ‘Big 10’ companies went to some length to engage positively with the arguments that published in Behind the Brands. But with a few exceptions, we feel that their responses overall have been tepid and largely predictable at best – an underwhelming reply to the scale and urgency of the problem, given the undoubted power that they wield.

Time for action!

Let's get these companies to act! Sign up to join our social media Thunderclap, which we’ll release on International Women’s Day March 8