Oxfam's EU Advocacy office in Brussels

What’s Behind the Brands?

by Lies Craeynest, Oxfam’s EU climate change & food security expert

Food is power, in Europe and around the world. As one of the largest importers of food in the world as well as home to some of the most influential food companies, the industry in the European Union touches upon the lives of millions of people in many, often underplayed ways.

It might not come as a surprise, therefore, that with this power, companies such as Unilever, Mondelez and Nestle have the potential to change not just the practices of their own business, but set the standard for the way in which the rest of the industry approaches major global development challenges such as climate change, land rights and water scarcity.

This is why a year ago today Oxfam introduced “Behind the Brands”, a unique project aimed at influencing the “Big 10” global food companies into adopting more ethical practices. By ranking companies ranging from Coca-Cola to General Mills on factors including women and worker’s rights to climate change, Behind the Brands has opened up the way food companies operate to the public, but more importantly shows them where they have to improve.

Although some leading companies have made major strides in the right direction, the “Big 10” have moved too slowly as a group. Whilst the likes of Nestle (ranked 1st), Unilever (2nd) and Coca-Cola (3rd) all improved their scores by 10, 14 and 13 percent respectively, General Mills actually dropped to the last place.

Despite the lacklustre improvements from companies further down the table, Behind the Brands has seen some high-profile victories in the fight against inequality. A campaign in March saw Oxfam push for the chocolate giants Mars, Mondelez and Nestle to commit to eliminating inequality for cocoa women farmers – which they did. Work with the sugar giants Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and ABF have seen progress made to wipe out the practice of land-grabs.

What the Behind the Brands campaign has demonstrated however is that business as usual is no longer an option for many food companies. Investors controlling trillions in assets have been demanding changes in practices which has seen a number of companies actively signing onto progressive pledges:
Of the “Big 10”, six have instituted new policies that endorse the principle of Free Prior and Information Consent that help ensure communities are consulted before their land is used. Seven companies have signed up to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principle commitment in order to improve the lives and opportunities of women impacted by its business.

On climate, eight of the “Big 10” have pledged to improve their actions on climate primarily through better disclosure of their emissions and risks related to global warming. With the food industry one of the world’s ‘most at risk’ businesses from climate change, stepping up action on this issue is not just good ethics, but good business sense.

As the Behind the Brand campaign celebrates its first anniversary, the biggest lesson learned is that companies do respond when consumers push them toward more responsible methods of production. But it is also time to reflect on those refusing to adapt to a changing world.

Here is where regulation comes in, and the role of the EU as one of the world’s largest food markets. Progressive companies should not just continue to improve their own practices, but also ensure that through EU regulation, the bar is lifted for everyone else in industry. Improvements in European legislation, whether to do with tax transparency, biofuels or more ambitious climate policy, will have positive repercussions across the world. Smart food companies will understand that it is in their interest to work towards a future which is beneficial for people, the planet and business, and do everything in their power to help build support for better social and economic governance.

“Some companies showed courageous leadership but it appears others need to be pulled along kicking and screaming. It will take time for them to reverse a 100-year history of relying on cheap land and labour to make mass products at huge profits but at high social and environmental costs. The race to the top is underway and there are clear leaders and laggards.”

Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s Executive Director

Scorecards: then and now

February, 2014

February, 2013

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