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Last week, M&S and Oxfam convened a group to ask a simple question: how do we tackle the big issues in social sustainability? The discussion built on Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign, focused on improving practices in the supply chains of the world’s 10 largest food and beverage companies. Sustainability professionals from food and beverage brands, academia, multi-stakeholder initiatives, industry groups and government were in the room.

There was a strong consensus from all these groups that we need to change the global food system to make it work for everyone and in doing so feed a growing global population within planetary boundaries. 

oxfamBut we also had to come to terms with what we can control and the influence we can have over issues ranging from poverty wages and land rights to women’s empowerment and climate change. We asked ourselves: how do we understand and address issues that go beyond our control, but are critical if we are to genuinely have a scale social impact in farms and factories in the developing world?

"Give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach someone to fish and you feed them for a lifetime." Sounds comfortingly intuitive, right? But ‘teaching’ may not be enough today. Can people access the water and are the boats affordable? What about the fish stocks? Is pollution making the fish unsafe to eat and are there processing investments that will change market demand? What if cultural norms dictate women can’t fish? It’s clear, that merely ‘teaching someone to fish’ wouldn’t fix the problem of income or food security. 

The challenge of teaching people to fish resonate for Oxfam and businesses alike. The challenge we face is to have impact where the problem is bigger than us, the solutions go beyond our sphere of control, but we have influence and can be part of efforts to help address it. Supply chains can be messy and the temptation is to focus on projects and policies that companies can control, that are simple, measurable and direct. But doing so would be akin to sticking our head in the sand and ignoring the broader system that’s causing the issues.

The event shined a light on a simple truth: the era of single business compliance-driven solutions in supply chains is over. Instead, the solution must be multi-stakeholder collaboration.

But even this is not as simple as it sounds. Collaboration has been on the agenda for years, not only as a way of tackling truly systemic issues and leveraging collective power, but also to reduce complexity and compliance costs. Collaboration must look different in each context, based on an analysis of what the challenge is (e.g. increasing wages), and bringing together the right players to make this possible. Collaboration must also reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’, the relatively few companies who are already committed to changing the global food system, it must also seek scale drawing in large swathes of the industry particularly in the developing world.

As the challenges, solutions and the key decision-makers on each issue look different in each country, the institutions and people involved in the collaboration must be selected carefully. The right local partners are critical, and sometimes it takes time to work out who they are. A global company, or even group of companies cannot address systemic issues on their own. They need unions, community groups, think-tanks, political leaders and local companies, who are committed to seeing the systemic change, to play a key role in shaping the agenda. Often, timing is key and disruption due to developments in technology, politics, markets and even disasters can create opportunities to push for the changes necessary for systemic change.

A broad alliance of stakeholders can generate collective leverage. It can ensure the right voices are speaking up and help predict unexpected outcomes. The roles played by partners should also vary. In some instances, global brands will have a key voice in legitimising, convening, piloting and leading. In others, they need to take a different role, calling for better national policy and regulation for example.

What became clear is that there aren’t any simple solutions that will work across the board in multiple contexts. But the event did make clear that the approach needs to be flexible and the collaboration tailored to the problem and power dynamics in each context.

On the issues of gender equality, labour rights and climate change, there were clear next steps coming out of the event. These include ensuring the Corporate Leaders Group is fully supported as a voice for progressive companies on climate change and commitments to work together to address the root causes of gender inequality and low wages on farms and factories that many of the companies connect to.

Critically, the group made clear that they must work together to both understand the challenges and implement the approaches that will address the systemic issues in their supply chains. This takes some courage, trust and willingness to engage in the messiness of social issues that go beyond farms and factories, but there is certainly will.

This blog was written in partnership with Erinch Sahan, Head of Food & Climate Policy at Oxfam GB

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