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Scorecards Find Unilever, Nestlé Walking Their Talk on Efforts to End Poverty, Deforestation

This week, two scorecards revealed how major brands are stacking up when it comes to living up to their commitments to improve their social and environmental stewardship, with Nestlé and Unilever apparently neck and neck for the lead in several areas.

On Oxfam’s second annual Behind the Brands scorecard, which ranks the “Big 10” international food and beverage companies — Unilever, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Mars, Mondelez International, Kellogg, Danone, General Mills and Associated British Foods (ABF) — on action on their commitments to improve food security and sustainability, Unilever took the top spot from last year’s winner, Nestlé, with an overall score of 71 percent (compared to Nestlé’s 69 percent).

According to the scorecard, which covers seven themes impacting the lives of people living in poverty around the world — transparency, farmers, women, agricultural workers, access to land, water and climate change — the “Big 10” are getting more serious about social and environmental governance, with eight of the 10 improving their overall scores since February 2014 (apparently only Danone and Coca-Cola failed to improve), although the level of ambition still varies enormously across the companies with big gaps between the leaders and laggards. In the last two years, the companies improved their policies on paper but Oxfam’s Behind the Brand briefing, "Walking the Talk,” says they still have a long way to go in terms of putting these new policies into practice.

"After two years of sustained pressure from the hundreds of thousands of Oxfam supporters, The Big 10 are definitely moving in the right direction,” says Monique van Zijl, international campaign manager for Behind the Brands. “However, the real challenge has just begun. Companies now need to start putting new policy commitments into practice. Only then will real change happen for the millions of small farmers and agricultural workers. It is high time for companies to walk the talk."

Speaking of walking the talk, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released its latest scorecard on Wednesday ranking the palm oil sourcing commitments of 40 top consumer brands. While several of the same players that ruled in the Behind the Brands ranking are making headway, the scorecard found that many — especially in the fast food and store brand sectors — have a long way to go to ensure their products do not contribute to deforestation.

Fries, Face Wash, Forests scored action on the palm oil sourcing commitments of the 10 largest companies in the store brand, fast food, packaged foods and personal care sectors — the latter two seeing the most momentum behind improving palm oil production. Nestlé stole the show in the packaged foods category, followed by Danone, Kellogg, ConAgra and Unilever; with Colgate-Palmolive, Henkel, P&G, L’Oréal and RB leading the personal care sector. On the other hand, 32 of the 40 companies do not have adequate commitments to fully protect forests or peatlands, with 12 either having no commitments or commitments too weak to score.

“The scorecard looks behind savvy marketing campaigns and feel-good branding to uncover the environmental impacts these companies condone when they fail to ensure their inputs aren’t harming the environment,” said Lael Goodman, analyst with UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative.

A leading driver of deforestation, air pollution and habitat destruction in Southeast Asia, irresponsible palm oil production has driven many NGOs and concerned shareholders to pressure global companies to use their buying power to create needed change in the industry; demanding their suppliers provide palm oil free from destruction of forests and peatland is the best way to change the production practices on the ground.

The scorecard did highlight some impressive progress: Many companies listed in UCS’s 2014 Scorecard responded to consumer and shareholder concerns by committing to source deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil, especially in the packaged foods and personal care sectors. Nearly all the packaged food companies, except Kraft Foods, have commitments, six of which received high marks.

“No doubt companies are getting the message. But committing to source deforestation-free and peat-free palm oil is just a first step. Following through on these commitments and implementing the changes will make all the difference,” Goodman said. “All companies included in the scorecard — even the high scorers — still have more work to do to protect tropical forests and reduce carbon emissions.”

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