Assessing the social and environmental policies of food companies

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands report is an excellent review of the social and environmental policies of the ten largest food and drink companies.

The report looks at companies such as Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and Nestlé and the policies they adopt with regards to their supply chains. These policies have then been measured against a “scorecard” of seven criteria – the welfare of women, a fair deal for small-scale farmers, fair working conditions, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible water use, avoiding unfair “land grabs”, and overall corporate transparency.

Unsurprisingly the companies do not come out of this review that well and are criticised for “failing to take the necessary steps in their policies to ensure the well-being of those working to produce their products”.

This is all good stuff and the scorecard is an accessible and engaging way of drawing attention to important issues in the world’s food system. However, if Oxfam wish to achieve their stated aim to encourage a “race to the top” amongst companies to improve their social and environmental performance, there is another key scorecard criterion, beyond the supply chain, that needs to be measured and exposed:  To what extent do these companies have policies to encourage sustainable and ethical consumer behaviour?

Unilever, one of the report’s targets, analysed their products across their lifecycle and showed that consumer use of their products accounted for 68% of the companies’ carbon footprint. More than double the amount of emissions caused by growing raw materials, manufacture and transport combined.

To be truly ethical and sustainable, therefore, companies have to make it attractive, easy and normal for their consumers to choose more sustainable food products and adopt more sustainable habits when they cook and eat – from buying fair-trade or local products and avoiding food waste to not re-boiling the kettle (The kettle accounts for 4% of UK household carbon emissions and apparently we boil the kettle 2.4 times per cup of tea or coffee!).

Improving the food system for everyone, including those working in its supply chain, also requires change on behalf of consumers. The big food companies who, as Behind the Brands points out, are keen to promote their environmental and social credentials, also need to be held to account on how they are encouraging positive behaviour change amongst their customers.

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