Picking Lettuce

Walmart Bests Whole Foods in Study of Food Supply's Human Toll

June 26, 2018
Oxfam America examined the treatment of the women, farmers and food-sector workers and many big grocers fared poorly.

Grocers including Walmart Inc., Jumbo Group Ltd. and Whole Foods Market Inc. fared poorly in ratings looking at the treatment of the women, farmers and food-sector workers who supply supermarket shelves in the U.S. and European Union.

Tesco Plc ranked the highest in the first-ever study of supply-chain policies from humanitarian group Oxfam America released on June 20, leading in transparency and worker-treatment metrics. Still, it did so with ratings of 29 and 42, respectively, on a 100-point scale.

For U.S. grocers, Walmart came out on top, including the top overall score on policies toward women. Even then, it was only rated as 29 in that category. Whole Foods was the second-lowest rated U.S. grocer, earning scores of zero in transparency and treatment of women, and ratings of four out of 100 in policies toward workers and farmers. Kroger Co. ranked last.

“These are difficult issues for companies because they’re about who holds power, but the companies need to share power to keep their supply chains healthy,” said Irit Tamir, the director for the private-sector department of Boston-based Oxfam America, the U.S. arm of the U.K.-based human-rights advocacy group.

Facing Disruption

Oxfam’s ratings come as grocers face disruption from online shopping and consolidations such as the Amazon.com Inc.’s takeover of Whole Foods. Still, grocers’ share of the consumer food dollar has increased, which can give retailers a bigger say in how workers, farmers and women are treated, Tamir said. There’s the need for clear policies for which companies can be held accountable, she said.

As part of the study, Oxfam surveyed workers and farmers in five countries that supplied major grocers to learn more about their standards of living and work conditions. For example, in South Africa, more than 90% of surveyed women working on on grape farms reported not having enough to eat in the previous month. In Italy, 75% of women workers on fruit and vegetable farms said they or a family member had missed meals in the previous month because of a lack of affordable food, according to the group’s research.

Much of the ratings’ methodology relates to seeing what company policies -- such as gender equality in pay among suppliers -- are officially in place. Corporate pledges are important because they put businesses on record as pursuing humane goals, which increases accountability and can improve practices over time, Tamir said.

"Once they make that commitment, then other stakeholders can work with them to implement change on the ground," she said.

Grocers’ Responses

Marilee McInnis, a Walmart spokeswoman, said the company welcomes the study.

“Collaboration within the retail industry and with suppliers, governments and NGOs goes a long way toward creating a more responsible supply chain,” McInnis said.

A statement from Netherlands-based Jumbo, part of the closely held Van Eerd Group, said the Oxfam study "does not do justice to Jumbo’s efforts on this complex theme," noting that a lack of stated policies doesn’t mean the company doesn’t watch its suppliers’ wages or product requirements closely.

"Through intensive cooperation, we can and will do better every day," Jumbo said.

Kroger, Whole Foods and Tesco did not provide comments on the study, which Oxfam said it provided to them in advance of its release. Other U.S. and European Union grocery chains rated included Ahold Delhaize, Albertsons, Aldi, Costco, Edeka, Giant, Lidl, Morrisons, Plus, REWE and Sainsbury’s.

By Alan Bjerga

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