Know the retailer!

Reaction on “https://blogs.oxfam.org/en/blogs/18-07-18-bold-ambitions-bring-big-responsibilities-tackling-human-suffering-behind-our-food” Text below in italics. My comments next to those paragraphs in bold.


Bold ambitions bring big responsibilities: Tackling the human suffering behind our food
Oxfam welcomes Roland Waardenburg’s blog as his contribution to the debate around the issues we are putting forth in our report Ripe for Change and Behind the Barcodes campaign provides us with an opportunity to explain our approach and theory of change.

The Scorecard

Our scorecard focuses on themes rather than specific supply chains because the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights sets out an expectation that companies respect human rights in their business operations and supply chains, regardless of where a product originates from or what ingredients it contains. Let me start off by saying that the UNGPs are not necessarily business oriented. They are human rights oriented. Prof Ruggie is probably a brilliant man, but he was no means capable of making the UNGPs actionable. The UNGPs are 100% complete and good, but not applicable in an efficient way. For big corporations, this might be less of an issue, for smaller ones it definitely is. How on earth can you do that complete theoretical exercise? Instead of pointing to these high-above-in-the-sky principles Oxfam could better work on doable concepts. Companies should strive to ensure that all products are free of human suffering and respect labor and human rights. Like other benchmarking tools (Know the Chain, Corporate Human Rights Benchmark) our scorecard is based on international standards and expert input which recognize that there are systemic (I start to hate that word, everything is systemic nowadays. Most of the issues are not solved by a systemic approach, but by starting to work on an issue and find out how to tackle that. We have more than enough systemic ideas, we need practice.) issues at play which require a range of actors (Also an issue in itself, the whole multi-stakeholder concept. It looks like we are trying to not create processes with stakeholders that actually feel the pain if a problem isn’t solved, but we are trying to bring together so many stakeholders, such that new bureaucracies are brought to life.) to play a role in tackling them. This is why we also have included recommendations to governments in our report, for example.

Transparent methodology

In his blog Mr. Waardenburg’s suggests that our research and methodology are not transparent. Oxfam’s scorecard can be viewed on our website in two ways. One with final scores in the themes, which is meant to engage consumers and the other for those wanting to understand the data on which we based the scores. The methodology we used for our scorecard, our research and launch report, case studies and calculation for our killer facts can all be found in a methodology report on our website as well. What I wrote was: 

You have to assume as a reader that the research and the interviews add up to the accusations of Oxfam, but you can’t actually check that. Oxfam should have taken care to produce a validation table stating:

  • The country
  • The product
  • The issue(s)
  • The sources
  • And any measure on how significant the issue is (could be % workers interviewed in a particular company, # of instances of a particular issue etc.)

One big non-transparency is that Oxfam is using expert interview without naming the people interviewed (see http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/ripe-for-change-methodology-and-datasets-620478) and showing the content of those interviews related to those names. Oxfam claims this is for protection purposes, but it also kills the possibility to validate that content.

I don’t see a reaction on those two statements. 

Corporate responsibility

Mr. Roland suggests that brands have as much a responsibility for products on supermarket shelves as the supermarkets. Oxfam agrees, it is why we launched our Behind the Brands (Which is the reason that brands should care for their brands, and retailers for their brands, private labels. It would be very inefficient if both brands and retailers are working on the same products.) campaign in 2013 with a similar approach and together with supporters achieved ground-breaking commitments on supply chain issues involving land, climate change and women’s empowerment. In fact, that campaign was the impetus for launching Behind the Barcodes, to bring another powerful range of stakeholders into the scope of our research and public engagement.

Human rights

The food retailers’ business model, size and complex operations or supply chains can never be an excuse to tolerate human rights violations. The UNGPs clearly apply in this context and no company with which we have engaged has suggested that they do not have a responsibility to respect human rights in their supply chains.  In fact, some retailers have publicly acknowledged this responsibility and are already taking steps. No, that’s not the point. What I say is that the expectation of Oxfam goes way beyond what is doable for most retailers. The fact that some do some, doesn’t mean that all can do all. The fact that the UNGPs are there doesn’t mean that it is doable. But that I already said under The Scorecard. But a first step in solving these issues is committing to meaningfully engaging with the stakeholders in the supply chains through a comprehensive due diligence process and putting a plan forward to address the issues. The average brand would have 100 times more capacity per product than the average retailer. I think my estimate of an extra staff of 5,000 was mentioned in my blog.

Consumers and sustainability

Retailers can contribute to improvements in sustainability both as owners of private label brands and as buyers of premium brand products. See above, not efficient, and there is enough to do already.  Retailers have a choice of what premium brands they source, where they place these on their shelves and how they market these. As such, they can significantly influence the choice of consumers and educate them on how products are being grown and produced.


While certification can provide solutions to some of the sustainability challenges of today, the responsibility to ensure human rights are respected remains with those companies who source the food we all consume as well as the companies in their supply chain. For a more detailed review of Oxfam’s take on the role of certification, please refer to page 86 in our report Ripe for Change. Yes, I remember starting the talks with Oxfam Novib on Utz cocoa some 10 years ago. Certification has a function. And there are always issues to tackle beyond certification. For retailers, they need to make this as efficient as possible. As indicated, that’s why we work with multi-stakeholder initiatives like IDH (https://www.idhsustainabletrade.com/), TSC (https://www.sustainabilityconsortium.org/),  etc.

A living income

Mr. Waardenburg also questioned Oxfam’s data on the living income of cocoa farmers. For an explanation of that data we have partnered with the Voice Network which regularly produces the Cocoa Barometer, in a blog: What is the living income gap for cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire? Yes, as far as I know, I started questioning Voice Network about that and they indicated that weeks before the publication they alerted Oxfam to their mistake, so now you are correcting it.

A critical effort

Finally, with this campaign, Oxfam is embarking on a multi-year effort to address human rights in food supply chains, during which we will regularly update our data.

We have listened to Mr. Waardenburg’s critical comments and will take them on board as we develop the campaign over the years. We invite him to actively engage with us in the future so we can all work to ensure our food is not tainted by human suffering.

Great, my offer stand, let’s organize a meeting to discuss the nitty gritty of retail and what can be done. Free of charge, although some Tony Chocolonely bars would be appreciated!

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