Nestle Joins Mars in Vow to Aid Female Farmers After Criticism

Nestle SA and Mars Inc. vowed to work to improve the well-being of women cocoa farmers after an Oxfam International report detailed shortcomings among food companies in fostering human rights and sustainability.

Nestle and Mars, which together control 27 percent of the world chocolate market, have assured Oxfam they will conduct assessments within a year on the well-being of women among its raw-material suppliers in Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer, Oxfam said today in a news release. The companies will then take action to improve women’s livelihoods and work with other organizations to address gender inequality across the industry, it said.

“It makes sense for us to be a part of an intentional approach to empowering women,” Barry Parkin, head of global chocolate procurement and sustainability operation for McLean, Virginia-based Mars, said in a statement. Nestle, based in Vevey, Switzerland, said it’s aiming to increase opportunities for women in its cocoa supply chain.

Greater corporate concern for human rights, endorsed by the United Nations in 2011, has been urged by advocacy groups as businesses expand operations in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions. Companies including ConAgra Foods Inc. and Royal Dutch Shell Plc have joined initiatives such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and created certifications such as Fair Trade to monitor business practices and encourage improvements.

Supporting Women

Nestle, the maker of KitKat and Butterfinger candy bars, said it’s been looking at ways to strengthen its efforts to support women in its supply chains since Oxfam’s report in February. Mars, which makes Snickers and Three Musketeers, “knows firsthand how important women are to creating a better quality of life for the cocoa communities we work in,” Parkin said in a statement.

“Only actions can create real and lasting change,” Alison Woodhead, manager for Oxfam’s Behind the Brands Campaign, which is organizing protests against company practices, said in the organization’s statement. “We will continue to hold both companies to account and expect them to keep their promises.”

Oxfam, a U.K.-based humanitarian advocacy group, gave major food businesses including Associated British Foods Plc and Kellogg Co. failing grades in a report last month examining corporate policies in seven areas: the land rights of small farmers; exploitation of women, farmers and workers; climate change; business transparency; and water use. Companies were rated on a scale of 1 to 10.

Company Scores

Nestle, which had the highest overall score of 38 out of a possible 70 in the study, scored 4 on women’s issues, while Mars, fifth overall, received a 1. None of the 10 companies profiled at the time knew or were trying to find out how many women farmers are involved in their supply chains or what kind of farming activities they are engaged in, Oxfam said.

After visiting Ivory Coast farms, Oxfam representatives found women, who do much of the work on cocoa farms while owning few of them, to be underpaid and left out of leadership positions.

The 10 businesses studied in Oxfarm’s February are among the top producers in the global food-and-beverage industry, which Istanbul-based consultancy IMAP Inc. values at almost $7 trillion. Nestle, the world’s largest food company, last year had revenues of $92.2 billion.

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