Pressure from consumers and shareholders is causing many of the biggest food and beverage companies in the world to improve their social and environmental policies. That's according to to Oxfam's second annual Behind the Brands report, which this year shows that nine of the top ten food and beverage companies—including Nestle, Unilever, and Coca-Cola—have made strides in their corporate policies for the developing world, especially in areas like climate change, gender equality, and land grabs.
Oxfam's scores are based on a year and a half of research into the "Big 10" food and beverage brands, tracking progress in seven areas (workers, women, climate change, water, land, farmers, transparency). The first Behind the Brands report was bleak, blasting companies for relying on "a 100-year legacy of relying on cheap land and labor" and pointing out their failures in paying fair prices to farmer, considering climate change, and ending discrimination against women.
This year is a little more heartening. Oxfam points out that some companies have been particularly responsive to its campaign over the past year. After campaigning for Mars, Mondelez, and Nestle to end inequality for female farmers, for example, the cocoa companies announced that they will release a detailed plan of action this coming spring. Eight of the ten companies have improved disclosure of carbon emissions and climate-related risks, and seven of them have signed on to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles—a commitment to create better conditions for all women impacted by their business.
Here's how the companies rank:
The rankings haven't changed much from last year, even though some companies have improved overall. Nestle, Unilever and Coca-Cola still are at the top, while Kellogg's General Mills, and Associated British Foods have shuffled around at the bottom. But while Coca-Cola remains in third place, it has made some striking progress in at least one area, declaring zero tolerance for land grabs. According to the report, communities in countries including Brazil and India are taking advantage of this new policy by pointing out instances where Coca-Cola has been involved in questionable land deals.
Overall, Oxfam characterizes this year's rankings as "a race to the middle," with companies taking only the easy steps in water usage and workers' rights. In fact, not a single company on the list has set a target to cut down on total water use—a key first step in water conservation. Four companies (Unilever, General Mills, Nestle, Danone) have all made small improvements in the way they treat farmers, none are making huge strides in cutting down on production risk and ensuring that farmers receive a living wage.
The main takeaway from the report is that pressure on corporations really can make a difference—but this, of course, is something that organizations like Greenpeace, Change.org, and Oxfam prove every day. Getting companies to take the harder steps, however, is going to take longer persistence.
"The scores clearly show that progress has been fastest in areas where consumers are asking companies to change how they do business," writes Chris Jochnick, director of Oxfam’s private sector work, in an email. "This is about more than changing what you buy, consumers have real power to raise their voice and urge companies to institute policies and practices that are more responsible and sustainable."