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Animal welfare reporting by the world’s largest food companies lags behind other corporate responsibility issues
Earlier this year, we released the third Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare. The benchmark assesses how 80 of the world’s largest global food companies – food retailers and wholesalers, food producers, restaurants and bars – are managing and reporting on their approach to farm animal welfare.
The report suggested that the overall quality of company reporting on farm animal welfare not only lags other corporate responsibility issues but also falls far short of that which is needed by investors and other stakeholders to get a full picture of company practice and performance. For example, of the 80 companies, 36% do not publish a formal farm animal welfare policy or equivalent statement, 59% do not describe their board or senior management oversight of farm animal welfare, and 59% have not published farm animal welfare-related objectives and targets.
In part, these weaknesses in reporting can be explained by the fact that farm animal welfare is a relatively new issue for many companies. In the coming years we can expect to see improvements as companies implement more robust farm animal welfare management systems and gather meaningful information on their farm animal welfare performance.
However, the need for companies to strengthen their management systems and processes is only part of the picture. Our research suggests that many companies with reasonably well developed farm animal welfare management systems actually do such a poor job of reporting that they convey the impression that they actually pay relatively little attention to farm animal welfare as a business issue. Our interviews with companies and investors suggest that there are four distinct issues.
First, while some companies have a dedicated farm animal welfare section of their website (examples include Marks & Spencer, Nestlé, Unilever and Wendy’s), many do not provide a consolidated account of their approach to farm animal welfare. In practice, this information tends to be scattered through CSR reports, press releases and wider discussions about issues such as food and sustainability. This creates the impression that the company itself does not have a clear understanding of its approach, or of the outcomes that it is trying to achieve. It also means that important information is simply not reported. For example, we found a number of companies had received notable awards for their farm animal welfare practices from organisations such as Compassion in World Farming but did not even mention these awards on their websites or in their communications.
Second, many companies do not provide regular and timely updates on practice and performance. Data on farm animal welfare is often not updated year-on-year in the way that other, more established, sustainability issues such as climate change or health and safety are. In fact, in the course of assessing companies for our benchmark, we found a number of companies had revamped the corporate responsibility sections of their websites but, in this process, had actually reduced or even deleted the information provided on farm animal welfare-related issues.
Third, the move towards integrated reporting and the associated downplaying of corporate responsibility reporting – has seen some companies focusing their attention on those issues that they see as financially material. This tends to result in the exclusion of issues – such as farm animal welfare – that are not considered financially material.
Fourth, there is a tendency towards greenwash. For example, some companies have made high level commitments on specific issues (e.g. on the avoidance of long distance live transportation) but have not specified what these mean in practice (e.g. not stipulating maximum journey times for animals). This contrasts with the approach adopted by companies such as Waitrose who specify maximum journey times for different species and also report on annual average transport times for different species.
These issues have relevance far beyond farm animal welfare. They suggest that companies are either not identifying potential future risks (or are not paying significant attention to the management of these risks) or they are failing to see the market opportunities associated with providing higher farm animal welfare products. With investors facing pressure from NGOs to ensure that companies manage their corporate responsibility issues properly and effectively, companies need to recognise that investors are increasingly likely to see the management and reporting of issues such as farm animal welfare as providing a key test of management competence.
Nicky Amos is the programme director and Rory Sullivan is expert adviser to the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare. The 2014 Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare: can be downloaded here.
The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare has been developed with the support and expertise of leading farm animal welfare organisations, Compassion in World Farming and World Animal Protection, with additional funding from Coller Capital and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. For further information see www.bbfaw.comanimal welfare CR Reporting csr reporting Farm animal welfare