Monday, October 07, 2013

Balancing multiple concerns in Oxfam's Behind the Brands campaign

On September 17, Oxfam America released the most recent update to company scorecards from its Behind the Brands campaign.  For example, the update ...
  • praised Nestle for improvements in recognizing land rights,
  • noted that changes to Coca-Cola's guiding principles earned small increases in environmental sustainability scores,
  • assigned an increased score to Unilever for improvements on gender issues, and
  • reported that Associated British Foods, General Mills and Kellogg’s "remain at the bottom of the scorecard with few signs of progress."

The Behind the Brands campaign urges leading branded food and beverage manufacturers to improve the anti-poverty impact and environmental sustainability of their activities in developing countries.   The campaign reflects Oxfam's characteristically sensible approach toward the role of private sector initiative in economic development. While some non-governmental advocacy organizations might wish these multi-national corporations would leave developing countries alone, Oxfam instead wishes them to stick around ... and perform better for the interests of the world's poor.

In total, Oxfam's scorecards address seven issues
  • land,
  • women,
  • farmers,
  • workers,
  • climate,
  • transparency, and
  • water.
This is a good list of issues.  Still, as an economist in a nutrition school, I couldn't resist asking Oxfam whether nutrition issues might ever be considered as well.

Laura Rusu, a media manager for the non-profit organization, acknowledged that "health advocates are rightly asking tough questions about the effects of high-sugar diets."  She described Oxfam as "an organization working to right the wrongs of poverty and injustice."  While the Behind the Brands efforts "do not focus on the nutrition profile of these companies," Rusu gave a respectful shout out to initiatives that do, including the Access to Nutrition Index

Even recognizing that developing countries have major challenges of hunger and under-nutrition, I rank broader nutrition concerns higher today than I did a few years ago.  Given the focus specifically on major branded food and beverage companies, such as Nestle and Coca-Cola, I personally might rank nutrition concerns about product offerings as one of the top seven issues.  New branded food products are replacing traditional foodways that have considerable appeal both in terms of nutrition quality and in terms of economic opportunities for smaller farmers and small-business distributors and retailers.

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