Interview with the Oxfam policy advisor leading the charity’s latest campaign to drive up sustainability standards among the world’s top food and drinks companies.
Last month Oxfam released a set of scorecards ranking the ethical practices of the “Big Ten” food and drinks companies. The firms, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Kellogg’s, between them make more than $1bn a day and have an enormous impact on the lives of people living in producer countries, usually for better but, sometimes, for worse.
Erinch Sahan, private sector policy advisor at Oxfam GB, led the group of policy experts that compiled the scorecards. It took them over 18 months to compile the Behind the Brands dataset.
No mean feat, the process involved detailed consultation with industry experts, academics and, of course, the companies themselves.
“It was a long time coming, but it’s good to see the final product out there,” Sahan says. “A lot of that was spent trying to work out what the right indicators were [and] the right questions that we should be asking.”
In the end, the team settled on 276 indicators across seven key issues: land, women, farmers, workers, climate, transparency and water. A ranking of 1 to 10 was assigned to each company.
The biggest loser was London-headquartered conglomerate Associated British Foods, which came bottom with only 13 out of 70 points. Nestle meanwhile came top with a score of 38.
The intent of the numerical system, Sahan explains, is to generate a race to the top. The scorecards will be constantly re-assessed and updating monthly. “I used to work on the inside for a consumer company and I know, from being on the inside, how these companies are driven by competition.”
“There is intense rivalry between, say Pepsi and Coca-Cola and Nestle and Mars. That’s a critical dynamic that we’re trying to tap into by having scorecards. Hopefully we will see companies move up as they put new polices out there.”
A criticism of the scorecards is that they are founded solely on publicly available information such as annual reports and supplier codes. Policies and practices which remain unpublished cannot be considered, potentially punishing some high performing, if disclosure shy, companies.
Sahan however says there is good reason for this approach. “For one, we don’t want to be custodians of private information. We want to look at information that others can validate.” Another important impetus is that Oxfam wants the companies to embrace greater transparency and incentivise a culture of openness.
“There isn’t much out there to evaluate these companies on, so we are hoping that it will trigger companies to put more information out there,” he says. “Multinational companies can’t just hide behind commercial sensitivities as an excuse to not release policies and information on their sourcing.”
Sahan hopes Behind the Brands will emulate the success of 1990s-era campaigns aimed at clothing retailers. “I’m convinced that the food sector is a long way behind the apparel sector when it comes to sourcing. We’re not holding companies to account on conditions on farms in the same way we have done for sportswear factories.”
But will supermarket shoppers pay heed to the rankings? Sahan believes so. It all comes down to the simplest of reflexes, an outreached hand hovering above one plastic jar, carton or aluminium can only to switch to another made by a rival brand.
“Just that small pause,” says Sahan, “can do millions of dollars of damage to a company’s bottom line.”