African farmers

If you’re like most organic foodies, you’ve got a laundry list of complaints against the world’s ten biggest food conglomerates (Associated British Foods, Coca Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, Pepsico and Unilever). They dominate the marketplace with foods and beverages excessively high in sugar, salt, artificial ingredients and genetically modified organisms. They use misleading advertising to lure children and prey on the world’s poorest demographics. But the issues don’t stop there, as Oxfam details in its newest campaign: ‘Behind the Brands’. Oxfam says these food giants are also grossly negligent when it comes to social and environmental policies.

Together, the “Big 10″ food and beverage companies collectively generate $1 billion in revenue per day, yet they’re “failing millions of people in developing countries who supply land, labor, water and commodities needed to make their products,” reports Oxfam. Kellogg’s and General Mills were among the brands that scored most poorly.

“While some companies are doing better than others, no company has passed the test,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America in a statement. “Some companies have made important commitments that deserve praise. But none are moving fast enough to help tackle hunger, inequality and poverty in their supply chains. No company emerges with passing grades.  Across the board all ten companies are failing.” 

But the companies would have you believe a different story. Take Coca-Cola’s foray into a “sustainable” bottle design that it claims can cut down on water and plastic consumption. Or how about Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, a “ten year journey towards sustainable growth.” And then there are all the organic and natural “healthy” brands owned by the giants like Kellogg’s Kashi cereal division, Pepsi’s Naked Juice, General Mills’ Muir Glen or Cascadian Farms.

Oxfam’s report cites egregious issues including a lack of commitment from any of the companies to eliminate discrimination against women in their supply chains. None of the companies have any policies to protect local communities from land and water grabs, which are common in regions all of the companies source from. There’s suspicious secrecy when it comes to agriculture supply chains, too, which Oxfam says makes it difficult to verify any sustainability or social responsibility claims. While some companies are gaining ground when it comes to water efficiency, they’re not adopting policies to limit impact on local water supplies. Only half of the companies (Mondelez, Danone, Unilever, Coca-Cola and Mars) publicly report on their greenhouse gas emissions but none have any policies in place to help farmers adapt to climate change. And perhaps most disturbing is the fact that none of the companies have committed to paying their suppliers fair wages in any aspect of agricultural operations, even while demand for Fair Trade products continues to rise.

“It’s time these companies take more responsibility for their immense influence on poor people’s lives,” said Offenheiser. “Eighty percent of the world’s hungry people work in food production and these companies employ millions of people in developing countries to grow their ingredients. They control hundreds of the world’s most popular brands and have the economic, social and political clout to make a real and lasting difference to the world’s poor and hungry.”

Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Brands’ campaign will begin by targeting Nestle, Mondelez and Mars for their “failure to address inequality faced by women who grow cocoa for their chocolate products.” The campaign will urge the companies to create an action plan to address the issue and to engage in advocacy to urge other powerful companies to adopt similar commitments.

No brand is too big to listen to its customers,” said Offenheiser. “If enough people urge the big food companies to do what is right, they have no choice but to listen.  By contacting companies on Twitter and Facebook, or signing a petition to their CEO, consumers can do their part to help bring lasting change in our broken food system by showing companies their customers expect them to operate responsibly.”

Learn more about the campaign here.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: CIAT