Bold ambitions bring big responsibilities: Tackling the human suffering behind our food

Oxfam welcomes Roland Waardenburg’s blog as his contribution to the debate around the issues we are putting forth in our report Ripe for Change and Behind the Barcodes campaign provides us with an opportunity to explain our approach and theory of change.

The Scorecard

Our scorecard focuses on themes rather than specific supply chains because the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights sets out an expectation that companies respect human rights  in their business operations and supply chains, regardless of where a product originates from or what ingredients it contains. Companies should strive to ensure that all products are free of human suffering and respect labor and human rights. Like other benchmarking tools (Know the Chain, Corporate Human Rights Benchmark) our scorecard is based on international standards and expert input which recognize that there are systemic issues at play which require a range of actors to play a role in tackling them. This is why we also have included recommendations to governments in our report, for example.

Transparent methodology

In his blog Mr. Waardenburg’s suggests that our research and methodology are not transparent. Oxfam’s scorecard can be viewed on our website in two ways. One with final scores in the themes, which is meant to engage consumers and the other for those wanting to understand the data on which we based the scores. The methodology we used for our scorecard, our research and launch report, case studies and calculation for our killer facts can all be found in a methodology report on our website as well.

Corporate responsibility

Mr. Waardenburg suggests that brands have as much a responsibility for products on supermarket shelves as the supermarkets. Oxfam agrees, it is why we launched our Behind the Brands campaign in 2013 with a similar approach and together with supporters achieved ground-breaking commitments on supply chain issues involving land, climate change and women’s empowerment. In fact, that campaign was the impetus for launching Behind the Barcodes, to bring another powerful range of stakeholders into the scope of our research and public engagement.

Human rights

The food retailers’ business model, size and complex operations or supply chains can never be  an excuse to tolerate human rights violations. The UNGPs clearly apply in this context and no company with which we have engaged has suggested that they do not have a responsibility to respect human rights in their supply chains. In fact, some retailers have publicly acknowledged this responsibility and are already taking steps.  But a first step in solving these issues is committing to meaningfully engaging with the stakeholders in the supply chains through a comprehensive due diligence process and putting a plan forward to address the issues.

Consumers and sustainability

Retailers can contribute to improvements in sustainability both as owners of private label brands and as buyers of premium brand products. Retailers have a choice of what premium brands they source, where they place these on their shelves and how they market these. As such, they can significantly influence the choice of consumers and educate them on how products are being grown and produced.


While certification can provide solutions to some of the sustainability challenges of today, the responsibility to ensure human rights are respected remains with those companies who source the food we all consume as well as the companies in their supply chain. For a more detailed review of Oxfam’s take on the role of certification, please refer to page 86 in our report Ripe for Change.

A living income

Mr. Waardenburg also questioned Oxfam’s data on the living income of cocoa farmers. For an explanation of that data we have partnered with the Voice Network which regularly produces the Cocoa Barometer, in a blog: What is the living income gap for cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire?

A critical effort

Finally, with this campaign, Oxfam is embarking on a multi-year effort to address human rights in food supply chains, during which we will regularly update our data.

We have listened to Mr. Waardenburg’s critical comments and will take them on board as we develop the campaign over the years. We invite him to actively engage with us in the future so we can all work to ensure our food is not tainted by human suffering.

The entry posted on 18 July 2018, by Irit Tamir, Director of Oxfam America's Private Sector Department.

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