How are supermarkets taking responsibility for ending human suffering in their food?

Last year, Oxfam launched a campaign to get 16 major supermarkets to take responsibility for ending human suffering in their food supply chains. A year later, here's their report card.

Human suffering is a common ingredient in many of the products on our supermarket shelves. The way supermarkets do business – their drive for cheaper produce and bigger profits – means millions of workers and smallholder producers work long hours, for poverty pay in poor conditions.

Oxfam’s Behind the Prices scorecard aims to change this. Every year we use publicly available information to assess the policies and practices of the 16 biggest and fastest growing supermarkets in Germany, Netherlands, the UK and the US and score them on what they are doing to protect the rights of workers and small-scale producers in their supply chains.

Our first scorecard – launched 12 months ago – revealed that the plight of workers and producers was not on the supermarkets radar. After a year of campaigning which saw over 200,000 shoppers contact stores to demand action, our 2019 scorecard looks at whether anything has changed.

Behind the Price supermarket scorecard 2019

Oxfam's Supermarket Scorecard 2019. Note: The score of a parent company applies to any subsidiary companies; for example, Asda’s score is based on Walmart’s assessment and Albert Heijn’s on Ahold Delhaize’s. 

Slow progress – but still progress

Oxfam’s 2019 Supermarket Scorecard shows that some supermarkets are beginning to change the way they do business. However, change has been slow and patchy, and no supermarket is doing anywhere near enough to ensure the people who produce our food have a decent income and working conditions.

Even Tesco (UK), the best performing supermarket for the second year in a row and one of the most improved retailers this year, scores just 38 percent. A handful of other supermarkets, such as Sainsbury’s (UK) and Wal-Mart (US) have made very limited improvements over the last year, while eight of the 16 companies, including Lidl (Germany), Plus (Netherlands) and Whole Foods (US), have done little or nothing.

Despite this rather gloomy assessment there have been flashes of light that show that supermarkets will change when they feel pressure from customers.

Supermarkets are starting to open up

Supermarkets have made most progress on transparency - scoring an average of 17 percent this year, up from just 5 percent in 2018.

Three companies, Dutch supermarkets Albert Heijn (a subsidiary of Ahold Delhaize) and Jumbo, and German retailer Aldi South, published new policies on human rights in their supply chains over the last year. The two Dutch companies are the only supermarkets who have committed to publish details of their primary suppliers for their own brand products. This means many Dutch shoppers will know more about where their products have come from, and farmers and workers will know more about who is buying their produce.

In another positive development, eight of the 16 companies have started to publicly identify and address policies and practices that could lead to the abuse of workers and smallholder farmers in their supply chains.

Baby steps forward on workers rights

Progress on workers rights has been more modest with supermarkets increasing their average score by just 6 percent to 18 percent in 2019.

Nevertheless, over half of companies have now committed to take proactive action to prevent the use of forced labour, and nearly half of companies have pledged to work with suppliers when incidents of abuse are highlighted and not ‘cut and run’ – a practice which can lead to workers losing their jobs.

Failing protect farmers’ and women’s rights

Supermarkets have done next to nothing to improve the lot of smallholder producers. There has been no measurable progress over the last year beyond selling a handful of Fairtrade certified products (which nearly all supermarkets do now) and supermarkets score an average of just 11 percent on this issue.

Retailers are doing even less when it comes to protecting women’s rights. Supermarkets score an average of just 7 percent while ten of the 16 companies score zero on this issue. While most supermarkets ‘get’ the fact that women are not treated equally – and that for example women often earn less than men for doing the same jobs – they are not doing anything about it. Only Tesco and Ahold Delhaize have made improvements this year and - together with Wal-Mart –have taken steps to uphold the rights of women in their supply chains.

What next for supermarkets?

Oxfam, together with hundreds of thousands of shoppers, will be pushing for deeper, faster, and broader change in the next 12 months.

We will be pushing all supermarkets to:

  • publish details where their own label products are sourced from;
  • put plans in place to ensure workers in their supply chains are paid a living wage;
  • work with suppliers to end discrimination against women; and
  • eliminate unfair trading practices that drive down the incomes and working conditions of producers and workers.

And we look forward to the day when we can all shop safe in the knowledge that the men and women who put the food on our plates earn a decent income, work in safe conditions, and are treated fairly.

This entry posted on 3 July 2019 by Monica Romis. Monica is part of Oxfam GB’s Private Sector Team, and leads the Supermarket Scorecard for the Behind the Prices campaign.

Photo: Seafood worker. Credit: Adrian Mulya/TheSustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia

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