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

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.


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2 Responses to “Public Pressure + League Tables: Oxfam’s campaign on food brands is moving on to supermarkets.”
  1. Geert Vansintjan

    In my work with value chains in Vietnam I stumbled on an insight on the core drivers of the value chains: the food standards. These food standards, like Europgap, GlobalGap, are in general based on the FAO-risk framework.

    Within a certain acceptable risk, different approaches, methods of cultivating plants or doing husbandry can lead to the same risk level. A standard ends up as a balance between the needs of the different actors writing the standard, within the risk framework.

    Most of the standards are written by the dominant producers and retailers. This leads to standards with a huge fear of bacterial contamination (food poisoning, scandal!) and less fear of pesticide or drug residue (in the long run we are all dead). A standard dominated by small producers and consumers (IFOAM e.g.) comes to a different balance.

    The power relations for the future are partially defined when the standards are defined. I don’t know about any study going in depth about this, nor about development actors consiently gaming this political economy in favour of the poor.

  2. Completely agree. I work in South Africa on farm to fork issues in our broken food system. One of the areas is consumer education, which is lacking, to support local, smallscale producers and the shortfood supply chain. What is consistently missing in all the workshops I have attended over the years on food security and smallscale farmers is the lack of focus on consumers. A market is not a place but a group of people. If these people are not well-informed enough then they will not understand the importance of supporting the shortfood supply chain and hence the smallscale and emerging farmers. Standards are important to consumers but the growing of an informed consumer base encourages insight into what a meaningful standard is and hence a meaningful label of assurance is. Not many retailers offer meaningful labels of assurance and certainly do not offer transparency. Transparency and traceability which is easier to access in short food chains are the key elements to support of alternative food chains and thereby promote alternative producers. iPES is on the right track with advocating for agroecology to be supported by governments. In my experience, in South Africa, I don’t see organic standards benefitting smallscale and emerging yet – the promise of Participatory Guarantee Systems does exist and is operating but social justice criteria is lacking in the IFOAM family of standards. Lack of transparency is also a concern as not always a level playing field when third party certifiers give non-transparent derogations.