The government has decided to implement a new system of food labelling. After lengthy negotiations, all the UK’s major retailers have agreed to work together on defining and implementing a universal traffic lighting system that will give consumers an easy way to assess the potential health impacts of their purchases - a development to be applauded.
On Radio 4 this morning I heard John Humphries quizzing the Corporate Affairs Director of ASDA group about what the agreement meant for them, and how committed they were to ensuring stringent criteria were applied to the system itself. At one point in the interview the she made the mistake of referring to ASDA’s achievement of increasing to one-in-three the number of ‘guilt-free’ check outs – an industry term referring to check outs that don’t stock large quantities of sweet treats to tempt shoppers (mainly mums with kids) at the last minute – in their UK stores.
As any good journalist should, John Humphries pounced on the implication. If ASDA has managed to increase the number of ‘guilt-free’ check outs to one-in-three, two out of three check outs are still intentionally designed to guilt mums into buying unhealthy products for their kids. Listening to ASDA’s Corporate Affairs Director scramble for air was, I confess, amusing.
I contrast this with an article I read recently in the Harvard Business Review (link below) by Miriam Sidibe, a Global Social Mission Director at Unilever, describing her company’s aggressive attempts to expand into new markets. Unilever has invested heavily in distributing large quantities of affordable soap to African countries where soap usage falls way below the minimum healthy amount (as suggested by the UNs Millenium Development Goals).
Unilever is unashamedly clear about its dual motivation – to improve the health of African’s whilst increasing sales - an honesty I find refreshing.
Some people find this extremely uncomfortable. How can a large multinational company claim to be doing ‘good’ when in reality they are increasing their market share and generating massive profits for shareholders? The reality for many African children is that without Unilever taking such an approach, their parents would not be able to afford the soap with which they keep themselves clean. Unilever brings something to the table something that very few non-profits or African government’s can afford, scale.
For Unilever, being honest about their motivation has given them credibility, generating approval in the media and excitement among staff that are eager to get involved. For ASDA, the traffic lighting system represents a contradiction.
The fundamental difference between the two approaches is that whilst Unilever has begun to position the creation of social value as a key strategic objective, ASDA sees measures like improved food labelling as a means to generating positive publicity. Although far from perfect, Unilever has recognised that the creation of social value must be a strategic priority, not only because the world's biggest social challenges also present the most significant economic opportunities for a century, but because of the importance of a value-based corporate culture to the long-term health of any organisation.
ASDA take note.