Associated British Foods tackles recent criticism and its response to Rana Plaza with admirable directness, but this diversified company’s report is fragmented

It’s been a difficult year for retail group Associated British Foods. The tragedy of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, in which 1,127 workers died, was a disaster for ABF, owner of clothing giant Primark, whose garments were manufactured in the building. Typifying the year’s headlines, the company scored just 19% – bottom of the table – in Oxfam's Behind The Brands food companies scorecard.

This detailed online report, with accompanying PDF, confronts the criticism and speaks of a company keen to show it is taking its corporate responsibilities seriously. But in reflecting its “diversified and decentralised” business portfolio, ABF fails to communicate a coherent vision and strategy.

ABF has a varied portfolio, with businesses in sugar production, agriculture and ingredients (mainly for baking, such as yeast), retail (Primark) and groceries (such as Jordan’s breakfast cereals and Ryvita crispbreads).

The well-written report – which is not written to GRI guidelines – has six sections, each structured by four “CR principles”: stewardship of the environment; responsibility for ABF people; being a responsible neighbour; and promoting good health.

The overview features content that applies to the whole group, such as governance, ethics and engagement, and briefly outlines its policies, with links to the full documents for more detail. The remaining five sections reflect the business divisions.

Easily digestible

The downloadable PDF is refreshingly simple – a no-frills report that packs in a lot of detail, and which is also available as individually downloadable chapters, by division or by CR principle. The web report has more colour and easy-to-digest highlights, with some simple interactive features, such as anchor links from the top of the page, to help readers find specific content quickly.

The report responds to Oxfam’s criticisms, providing detail on how ABF manages water, risk in the supply chain across key commodities and suppliers, and how it promotes women’s empowerment. The Rana Plaza tragedy is dealt with face on, with a detailed account of what happened, and how ABF responded – both in the immediate aftermath and in the actions it is taking to ensure the structural safety of supplier premises in Bangladesh in the future.

But because of the diversified nature of the businesses, each division sets its own priorities and approaches to corporate responsibility, with no prescriptive targets or group-wide goals. The PDF presents year-on-year trend data for a handful of metrics in simple bar charts, but online, the data is embedded into the text, with a few performance highlights pulled out at the start of the section.

Yet the lack of group-wide goals and somewhat opaque communication of performance within the business divisions is at odds with the effort to be more transparent in the text. And in organising the report around each business division, their diverse sustainability issues are given greater prominence than what unites them. Whereas group-wide targets and performance data might demonstrate the divisions’ approach to tackling shared challenges and the significant positive impact they can have together, reporting on the performance of individual divisions fails to have the same level of impact. The old adage “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” comes to mind.

Despite emphasising effort to engage and support suppliers, ABF does not publish targets for supplier performance in any of its CR principles, and while the report includes the number of supplier audits carried out by Primark, the results are omitted.

Similarly, despite the company’s chief executive, George Weston, identifying ABF’s “good quality, affordable clothing and food” as key contributions to society, the discussion about products stops short of lifecycle assessment. The retail section focuses on production and sales of Primark garments, but not on their impact when used, such as during washing and drying, or when they are discarded (a significant impact for short-life products).

Stakeholder voices are absent. The “Working with others” section highlights a wide range of partnerships, and including partners’ views would add credibility and balance. And poor cross-referencing leads to other missed opportunities.

One of Oxfam’s major gripes was ABF’s failure to acknowledge land rights issues in its sugar supply chain. So it is baffling that the case study on dealing with land reform and relocation in South Africa (in the “Responsibility in action” section of the online report) is not prominently signposted in the sugar section.

Despite the clear structure and explanation for the lack of company-wide targets, the report feels fragmented and the few details on performance are lost in text about the company’s approach to tackling challenges. Public scrutiny may have pushed ABF to disclose more on key issues in this report, but to keep the critics at bay, it will need to articulate a more compelling vision and greater ambition in 2014.


Follows GRI? No

Assured? Yes, by KPMG.

Materiality analysis? Yes, top level process described, but no matrix.

Goals? No – high level priorities for each CR principle.

Targets? A few, but you have to look hard for them.

Stakeholder input? No

Seeks feedback? No

Key strengths? Detailed, emphasis on transparency.

Chief weakness? No clear strategy and few targets.

Pleasant surprise? Responding to criticism with more detail on specific issues.

Miya Allen is a consultant at Context Europe.

ABF  British Food  CR Reporting  Primark  Rana Plaza 

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