CSR today: the corporate footprint diaries

In 2014 I interviewed Nestlé’s head of agriculture, Hans Jöhr. I prepared myself for the usual spiel: this is a huge corporation, but we care for our workers, we really do – look, we have images of smiling coffee and cocoa farmers to prove it. However, what followed was a particularly candid interview, especially as we discussed product certification.

“We cannot certify or label people out of poverty,” he said. Some of the certification schemes, he explained, are excellent at marketing but struggle to show their long-lasting benefits on the ground. These schemes “cannot help farmers be better farmers per se. They don’t consider quality. Some of them are cheating consumers.” Jöhr didn’t say how consumers are being cheated or point any fingers, but five years on, the questions haven’t gone away.

Mondelez, the owner of Cadbury, set the ball rolling: in 2016, Fairtrade became a partner in the manufacturer’s own Cocoa Life scheme, rather than the de facto seal of sustainable practice. Fairtrade, publicly at least, said it was delighted with the new way of working. Then Sainsbury’s cut Fairtrade adrift, opting for an in-house programme called ‘Fairly Traded’ for its own-brand teas, which would apparently better suit its needs and those of the farmers.

In the palm oil industry, brands are increasingly disgruntled by a scheme to deliver Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), and some have already jumped ship. “We don’t believe there is such a thing as verifiably ‘sustainable’ palm oil available in the mass market,” said Iceland’s managing director last year, as the frozen food specialist banned palm oil from its own-label range.

Iceland is now replacing palm oil with other things – and likely bumping up its land-use and carbon footprints in the process, according to the WWF. Given that research has suggested CSPO’s environmental benefits are broadly in line with non-CSPO and the scheme is moving at snail’s pace towards deforestation-free palm oil, it’s a case of when, not if, others follow Iceland’s lead. As the Changing Markets Foundation put it, following detailed research into sustainability schemes in the palm oil, textile and fisheries sectors: “certification has lost its way” – so much so that these schemes often do little more than provide cover for companies that are destroying the environment.

"A nebulous mesh of sustainable claims has emerged on products and online"

Others untangling themselves from independent certification say they are doing this to secure supplies and protect the planet – the climate crisis means producers need more support. Indeed, the changing climate is turbo-charging the spread of plant diseases; pathogenic fungi and oomycetes are moving polewards at a speed of 8km a year, and it is farmers in the developing world who will be left exposed. Fairtrade has raised the alarm, but its ability to deal with the issues is under scrutiny. “The challenges farmers face are increasingly complex, and we need to help,” Sainsbury’s said of its Fairly Traded tea scheme.

Can we trust them? Lumina Intelligence research published in July showed a continued shift to ‘secretive’ in-house sustainability schemes. Having unpicked the claims being made concerning 2,800 chocolate, ground coffee and tea products, the report’s author Oliver Nieberg concluded that “a nebulous mesh of sustainable claims has emerged on products and online, leaving chocolate, coffee and tea consumers struggling to understand what is fair.”

Research by TrueFootprint, which analyses data to tell businesses whether their sustainability projects make any impact, reinforces the point. Among 24 major food companies directly employing more than 1.3 million people, and who source from millions of farmers and smallholders, there are “virtually no material indicators for prosperity”. What’s more, statistics on greenhouse gas emissions tended to be reported as totals, with very few firms showing emissions as a ratio of their outputs – for example as a kilo of CO2 per metric tonne of produce or $1,000 of sales. The conclusion was that companies “do not do enough to show that they are delivering positive change”.

Are companies being secretive on purpose? Or are they afraid to look? After all, a lot of money is being invested in both independent and in-house sustainability schemes. Whichever it is, the spotlight will only intensify.


David Burrows is a freelance journalist.

Image Credit| Nestlé

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