The Food Fight Continues

Irit Tamir Food & livelihoods, Private sector

In 2013 Oxfam launched the Behind the Brands campaign which sought to influence the sourcing policies of the world’s ten biggest food and beverage companies. Over the three years, the campaign achieved a series of significant wins; catalyzing company commitments on land rightswomen’s empowerment and climate change while mobilizing a significant number of supporters in the process. 

 While the campaign itself ended in 2016, the work of Behind the Brands expanded to track, monitor, watch dog, advise and at times partner with companies to implement their commitments in key sourcing countries. Today, Oxfam launched Shining a Spotlight: A critical assessment of food and beverage companies’ delivery of sustainability commitments. The report finds that while companies have taken important steps at the global level to implement the commitments they made, progress stalls on translating those approaches to countries and through supply chains. This report marks a culmination of a large body of work over several years that warrants a look back.

In various ways, the Behind the Brands campaign broke new ground. For example, Behind the Brands utilized a scorecard. While scorecards, benchmarks, indices are ubiquitous among civil society advocates now, at the time, it was innovative—particularly as it related to business and human rights issues. Afterall, the on-going and well-known Corporate Human Rights Benchmark and Know the Chain benchmark both began only in 2016.  

The campaign employed a whole host of tactics from offline actions to online actions and ran in multiple countries and markets where the brands were pressured to change. It also engaged investors as allies in demanding the brands to act. Shareholder advocacy was used as a tool to raise awareness to the Board of Directors and other shareholders—as Oxfam held shares in the companies it sought to influence and filed several shareholder resolutions in line with the campaign asks. In addition, Behind the Brands utilized a “critical friend” approach which demanded deep corporate engagement, a code of fairness in naming and shaming and a willingness to celebrate corporate commitments.  

This kind of campaigning enabled Oxfam to work closely with these same companies in the implementation phase which has been ongoing since 2016. Indeed, for the last five years, Oxfam, together with partners in countries have been holding companies accountable. We have evaluated how they have conducted their human rights impact assessments in places like Brazil where we highlighted land risks in their supply chains. We supported our partner in conducting its own community human rights impact assessment in relation to the risks we highlighted in the campaign. We brought companies together to leverage their influence with their sugar suppliers, in an effort to resolve land conflicts in Cambodia and Brazil. We commissioned independent evaluations of company plans for reducing climate emissions. 

Oxfam launched innovative platforms that brought food companies together with farmers in sourcing countries like the System Innovation for Women’s Economic Empowerment in Ghana: “The SIWEE approach has given hope and self-belief to our women farmers. Our women are now confident in making important economic decisions knowing that SIWEE will assist them in making these decisions attainable’ said Bismark Tetteh- project officer with Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, an Oxfam partner.  

In Malawi, the Large-Scale Land Based Investments (LSLBI) platform for responsible and inclusive investments “has come at the right time, as it aims to promote democracy and inclusion. Development should be one that reflects the will of the people in a community, which is what this platform is promoting. This is unlike in the past, where developments were imposed on people. The platform needs to be strengthened so that it can continue advocating for participatory processes when 

developments come to an area.’ as the Traditional Authority Laston Njema of Southern Region of Malawi, Mulanje District-Limbuli, explains. And in Indonesia we brought together buyers and farmers in palm oil supply chains in the FAIR Company-Community Partnerships.  

Oxfam became an advisor to the Mars Farmer Income Lab, conducting research on the best approaches for achieving a living income. We have engaged multi-stakeholder initiatives like Bonsucro and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to raise their standards and do better to support communities and farmers. We have connected farmers unions and other partners to these initiatives to do the same. We have used our influence to steer the efforts of industry platforms like the World Cocoa Foundation, AIM Progress and the Consumer Goods Forum. And, with pro bono legal partners, we filed an Amicus Brief in a US Supreme Court case that will determine whether workers of human rights abuses in food supply chains can hold US corporate buyers accountable. 

Food companies told us that their agri-commodity traders, companies virtually unknown to the public, wield massive influence in food supply chains along with food retailers. Oxfam responded by engaging agri-commodity traders and produced a scorecard so that food companies could track how their commitments were taken up by their own suppliers. We used shareholder advocacy to apply pressure to companies that are impervious to consumer demands.  

To tackle the food retailers we launched a new campaign, Behind the Barcodes, which ranked 16 supermarkets in the United States and Europe on their responsible sourcing policies and utilized the same tools and tactics in Behind the Brands to garner commitments

As the original commitments from the Behind the Brands campaign come to an end, Oxfam will use this pivotal moment in history, one marked by a global pandemic and the disruption of food supply chains to begin again. To reimagine a food system that puts decision-making back in the hands of those that grow and produce our food and one that is more equal and enables resilience – the ability of women and men to realize their rights and improve their wellbeing despite shocks, stresses and uncertainty. 


Irit Tamir