Consuming issues: Oxfam as industry's "critical friend"
Oxfam's report shone spotlight on issues including deforestation
In human relationships, a true friend might sit us down and dole out a harsh truth from time to time, even when the truth hurts. In fact, being prepared to do so is a measure of the strength of a friendship.
Is the same thing true of corporations?
If it is, Oxfam casting itself as a "critical friend" while it lambasts food companies for not doing enough to reduce carbon emissions in their supply chains in its report, Standing on the Sidelines, is a perfectly credible position.
The report, published last month, actually gives companies some credit for various efforts to date but the overall tone was one of admonishment, and it is the criticisms that naturally attracted the most media attention, which was of course Oxfam's intention.
Even in a period of increasing collaboration - arguably to unprecedented levels - between companies and NGOs, it appears there is still scope for the time-honoured, 'name and shame' campaign.
The response from Kellogg and General Mills was to refute Oxfam's contentions. General Mills said "we strongly disagree with this assessment of our efforts", and said the report has mischaracterised the company. Kellogg, meanwhile, said it had "long been committed to doing what's right for the environment and society".
What is interesting in the responses, even from the companies that had received the harshest criticism, is how careful they are, even when taking issue with Oxfam, to be respectful. Indeed, with one or two exceptions, the companies avoided hurling accusations of inaccuracy back at Oxfam, instead praising the authors for recognising important achievements by companies. The idea in the public pronouncements appears to be to stress that they are on the same side as Oxfam.
No company took this as far as Unilever, with a response bordering on the arch. Its press release was headed: "Unilever issues call for businesses to step off the sidelines in fight against climate change."
Not only wishing to appear on the same side, Unilever actually took ownership of Oxfam's own argument. It issued "a call for all companies affected by the growing costs of climate change, and in particular the food industry, to step up their commitment to tackling the issue".
Unilever said its call coincided with the publication of a report by Oxfam arguing that the "'Top 10' food companies, including Unilever, should be among those leading the charge to address climate change both in their own operations, in their supply chains, and in the wider public policy arena".
Kellogg's statement said it valued "continued engagement and discussion with Oxfam, and other external stakeholders on the important issues of environmental and social responsibility".
This element in the industry's response underlines the fact that these companies are today often partnering with Oxfam and its counterparts. By the same token, when just-food spoke to Oxfam's Erinch Sahan, who has the rather apt job title of "private sector advisor", he too was keen to strike a conciliatory tone.
Sahan believes Oxfam has a more difficult balance to strike than some of its peers. It recently carried out a review of NGO activity which found that "we're the only major global NGO that is doing the amount of critical campaigning against the private sector at the same time as very close partnerships with big business to address sustainability challenges".
Sahan continues: "We call ourselves a 'critical friend'". Oxfam's work with companies arguably gives it greater insight into the particular challenges companies face, perhaps to a greater degree than would have been the case in an NGO a couple of decades ago. Sahan says "we're not just going to bark for no reason and we'll celebrate progress".
PepsiCo was one of the companies singled out for qualified praise in the report, although while it commended PepsiCo UK for its 50 in 5 supply chains commitment, it then asked why PepsiCo as a whole - and its nine peers - weren't setting similarly ambitious targets across the board.
Speaking to just-food, Robert ter Kuile, senior director, public policy at PepsiCo, refuted the suggestion that PepsiCo wasn't doing enough to mitigate impacts in its agricultural supply chains, pointing to its Sustainable Farming Initiative as an example of the way it was addressing the challenge. However, ter Kuile conceded that Oxfam's point about there not being enough continuous assessment and target-setting for carbon emissions in agricultural supply chains was "fair" and said companies "definitely need" to do more in terms of measurement and setting targets.
Ter Kuile's remarks about stakeholder engagement were also illuminating. When it comes to consulting external stakeholders, ter Kuile says the company "reserves the right to be smarter", a euphemistic way to say we may take a different view and not follow the course of action you are urging.
It also speaks to a certain confidence the corporate sector has in these debates and, most likely, within collaborative initiatives. Unilever's response to Standing on the Sidelines also has something of the same sentiment.
While we might be living in a period of unprecedented partnership between the private sector and NGOs, we are also living at a time when multinational corporations have more power than ever before and seem set on a course to becoming ever larger and more powerful.
In the context of multi-stakeholder collaborations this may sometimes lead to industry having a disproportionate influence over the direction. While such multi-stakeholder organisations will stress the bi-partite nature of these partnerships, it is always the case that industry has the funds to allocate more resources for these initiatives.
Of course, there is virtue in the amount of investment of time and money that companies can and are prepared to put into ventures such as the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. They are supporting important collective solutions for challenges that can only be successfully addressed through multi-stakeholder collaboration
However, one is left asking the question whether the corporate players ultimately hold all the cards when they come to partner with NGOs, quite simply as they have the money. It is often a criticism made by some campaigners of multi-stakeholder initiatives that the corporate sector is setting the agenda, and ultimately the pace of change.
What Standing on the Sidelines perhaps goes to prove is, in spite of the disparity in size and resources, the NGO sector can punch above its weight, and even hold its own with the corporates. Arguably the fact that Oxfam can be a partner with industry in ventures but still deliver fairly stinging criticism ultimately augurs well for the credibility of those partnerships, as they are founded on an honest and frank exchange of views. It might be a little idealistic, but seeing Oxfam mete out tough love to its powerful partners should give us hope that these are partnerships of equals.
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