Online perception of Behind the Brands: Oxfam’s own critical friend the Internet

Through its Behind the Brands campaign, Oxfam is taking on the role of “critical friend” to the world’s 10 biggest F&B companies.The campaign strives for more social and environmental accountability inagricultural supply-chains and I was curious to find out what the online world isthinking, or at least saying, about the campaign both in terms of substance andpolicy approach but also the means of delivery, a public facing online campaigngiving publics insight in what is ‘Behind the Brands’. A quick Google search onBehind the Brands generated enough hits to spend the rest of the day behind thecomputer with lots of (fair and sustainable!) tea and chocolate reading up on BtB.

So who’s
actually talking about Behind the Brands? The range of online media that have
Oxfam and Behind the Brands on their radar is substantial. First there are news
agencies and –papers, including the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial
Times to name a few. Secondly, we can also find a handful of influential people
from the political, academic and NGO worlds with online presence – ever heard
of John Ruggie or Gerda Verburg? Thirdly, the largest group of hits consists of
discussion boards and blogs covering food and trade, usually catering consumer
groups and food activists.

The diversity in groups
speaking about Behind the Brands can equally be reflected back in the diversity
of opinions on Behind the Brands. Case
and reports
profiling specific sectors, cocoa or sugar for example and specific themes,
land, climate or gender seem to be the most popular online.  Whether it’s on the consequences of the “sugar
rush” in Brazil for indigenous peoples land rights or the potential role and
power of F&B companies to bring about change at a global international
scale, the contents of Oxfam’s reports are widely spread. Usually references to
the reports are coupled with information on campaign demands from the companies
and the achievements which Oxfam has made to date. The scorecard,
as most essential media tool, celebrates pervasive presence in this regard and
is actually the most referenced aspect of the campaign. Other sources are more
interested in the ambition and perspective that the campaign represents;
perspectives of corporate social and environmental responsibility and the
positive contributions their true fulfilments will have. Another frequent issue
discussed is the technical approach of the campaign model and the role that
Oxfam takes herein. In short, it seems to me that all aspects of the campaign
enjoy online amplification.

But the most burning
question of the day is of course: What
do they think?


Apparently Behind
the Brands has lots of fans on the internet, and luckily they are also critical.
I would capture the general reception of the campaign as positive curiosity. People
seem genuinely interested in inequality and empathise with those who suffering
at the mercy of the powerful. This ensures a positive attitude towards
campaigns such as BtB which strive for social change. At the same time people
seem driven by curiosity about the tools and achievements of the campaign along
with its general position in the field of international business and trade. Here
the discourse is positive and alludes to innovation, a successful campaign approach,
and the  achievements of the campaign to
date as demonstrated by Behind the Brands being nominated for a spot amongst
the top
10 sustainability campaigns of 2014
according to the Guardian. The campaign
is presented as a cutting edge instrument driving corporate accountability,
demonstrating true leadership and resulting in genuine progress. The most
frequently applauded aspect of the campaign is the way it successfully engages
consumers, not only activists, and how Oxfam has managed to attain its
self-proclaimed role as critical friend. This role is not only highly
appreciated for its achievements with regards to the campaigns targets, but is
seen to have a positive effect on corporate perspectives of NGOs.

But it’s not all
accolades and appreciation. What are the criticisms? 

Firstly, there are
concerns about whether the things Oxfam is asking are realistic in the face of
the powerful position of the companies and whether they are addressing realistic
issues. In addition, the campaign does not sufficiently include either
challenges around nutrition or financial markets. While the methodology of the
scorecard and actual rating has been scrutinized by the Big 10 in the past, the
methodology has been fairly untouched online except for an academic publication
on the use of indicators for measuring the Business Human Rights. Behind the
Brands seems to be amongst a pioneering few who have made an attempt to create
new indicators to conduct these measures, and has done well in general. As the
article states there is no correct way, only legitimate attempts.

This is my
reading of what the world is saying about Behind the Brands. Do you have
thoughts? Tell me what you think…


Lisette is working on the GROW campaign at Oxfam Novib and is studying at Wageningen University. She loves her coffee but her first true love has always been badminton.  



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