Public Pressure + League Tables: Oxfam’s campaign on food brands is moving on to supermarkets.

July 5, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Tim Gore explains the evolving theory of change behind Oxfam’s new supermarkets campaign

‘First the brands, now the retailers.‘ That was the reaction of a senior staffer at Mars – one of the 10 biggest global food manufacturers targeted in our award-winning Behind the Brands campaign – to the Behind the Barcodes launch last month. Why did we choose supermarkets as our follow-up campaign, and what if anything is different this time around?

While supermarkets seem even further removed than the brand manufacturers from the producers and workers we aim to benefit, in many products they are the dominant lead firms in food value chains. From bananas to orange juice retailers are taking control and their private labels gaining market share. As the last link in the chain they have enormous positional power to set prices and other contractual terms over all other actors – even the big brands. The UK’s Marmite wars gave a taste of the power relations at play in that regard.

Their power is borne out in our new research. We show that both in aggregate and in the 12 food product chains we looked at in more depth, it is supermarkets that capture the biggest share of the end consumer price of any actor in food value chains, and that they have seen their share grow the most over the past 15-20 years. They’re also the entry point to the food chain for millions of consumers around the world – good targets therefore for a public campaign (unlike the big grain traders, for example).

But what difference has this choice made to the campaign model and theory of change?

Some things remain the same: most notably, we’ve made another scorecard. This one has 4 themes – ‘transparency’, ‘workers’, ‘farmers’ and ‘women’ – instead of 7, and we thoroughly revised and updated all indicators. We’ve dropped the themes related to natural resource rights not because they don’t matter, but for greater focus with a sector we judged has further to travel at the outset than the big food brands.

The initial scores bear that out: there are no clear champions and lots of laggards. The highest score of any company on any of the themes is just 42%, and in each theme several companies score 0%. Once again the lowest scores are found in the ‘women’ theme, where only Walmart scores more than 10%.

The Behind the Brands scorecard helped drive a race to the top, and we are looking for the same again. The campaign model will again see us run shorter public campaign spikes on particular issues – starting with workers’ rights – and targeting particular companies as a complement to the scorecard. We learned in Behind the Brands that this focused public pressure in addition to the scorecard was critical in driving the biggest advances from companies (we’re not the first NGO to produce a scorecard, after all).

But there are some big differences in our approach this time around too.

First, this campaign is much more decentralised than Behind the Brands. We considered spotlighting the biggest 10 global supermarkets again, but the market dynamics are quite different at the retail end of the chain. While many of the big players have internationalised their presence – US Walmart operates in 29 countries, German Lidl in 26 and South African Shoprite in 15, for example – most don’t compete directly in the same markets, where a range of smaller national players control significant market shares too.

A more decentralised approach fits Oxfam’s internal dynamics too. The big Northern Oxfam affiliates were the gatekeepers to the Behind the Brands target companies. But in line with the Oxfam 2020 vision we wanted a model this time that could facilitate national campaigning in the South too.

While we have launched versions of Behind the Barcodes in Germany, the Netherlands, the US and the UK, we’re thrilled that our Thailand team have launched their version today, and that a related campaign from the Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia – Di Balik Barcode – launched last week. We hope Oxfam teams in Italy, Brazil and Southern Africa will be among those joining over the coming year

The resulting campaign model is certainly more complex to manage. We’ve ended up with two campaign names – it’s called Behind the Price in some places – and a lot of nationally-tailored annexes to our launch report as a result. But we think we have enough ‘glue’ to make this more than the sum of its national parts.

We’ve already heard from European supermarkets that want to know how Walmart outscores them. We’ve been pointing out to German and Dutch supermarkets how far they lag behind international peers. The campaign is on

the radar of companies like Aldi and Lidl in several of their markets. While our campaign targets may not all be direct competitors, we are making it much harder for them to hide behind the inaction of others in their own market.

Two other key things are different this time. We have a bigger focus on inequality in our problem analysis. By showing how the inequality of power is at the root of human suffering in food supply chains, we are shining a spotlight on one sector of a global economy that, as we argued in this year’s Davos report, rewards wealth over women’s work.

And where Behind the Brands could be criticised for putting too much emphasis on voluntary action by companies, we are much clearer this time on the role that governments must play in protecting human and labour rights in food supply chains. We’re pushing for EU action to regulate supermarket unfair trading practices and calling for mandatory due diligence legislation in Germany, for example. Our research shows that from setting adequate minimum wages and agricultural commodity price support schemes to tackling entrenched norms that discriminate against women, public policy matters.

So we are building on the best bits of Behind the Brands, while innovating for Oxfam’s new operating context. The result is a much more complex model, but – if it works – one that could be the future of how Oxfam campaigns.