Is the world better off because your food company is in it?

Healthier world

Is the world better off because your food company is in it?

Author: Jan Hales


Is the world better off because your company is in it? That’s the question asked of business leaders in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “The Net Positive Manifesto”. Written by the ex-CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, and business adviser, Andrew Winston, it makes a case for leaders to understand how their actions impact the world and why they should strive to make their companies net positive.


A “net positive” company is defined as one that “improves well-being for everyone and impacts at all scales – every product, every operation, every region and country, and for every stakeholder, including employees, suppliers, communities, customers and even future generations and the planet itself.”


Doing the right thing has benefits

The authors point out that businesses have plenty to gain from doing the right thing and helping to solve the world’s problems. I believe this is true of food and beverage companies, who have a critical role in addressing global nutrition challenges as food providers.


There seems, however, to be a hesitancy among many food company leaders to consider how their actions are impacting public health and how they can turn this around. How long this continues will be interesting to see, but there’s a shift taking place that will be increasingly difficult for businesses to ignore.


Nutrition-related business risks

In recent years, we have begun to see unhealthful food disadvantaged by taxes and regulations, benchmarks developed to measure, monitor and publicise companies’ nutrition performance, and investors pressuring companies into improving the healthiness of their products. Of late, asset managers have started to use nutrition performance data to assess corporate risk. In ignoring these, businesses will face higher costs, restrictions on marketing and reputational damage, and in time they will find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain investors.


There’s also been a remarkable shift in the public health research effort that is more focused and globally coordinated than ever before. This work is producing scientific evidence needed to shape national nutrition policies. The power of civil society is also recognised. Consumers, who are interested yet confused about which foods are good for them, are encouraged to voice their opinions on policies that affect them. With the abundance of highly processed, nutrient-poor foods and a world burdened by nutrition-related diseases, this momentum will continue. Businesses will need to step up to survive.


Polson and Winston outline four steps to start businesses on the right track:

  1. Serve stakeholders, then shareholders
  2. Take full ownership of all company impacts
  3. Embrace partnerships and work with critics
  4. Rethink the approach to lobbying and other forms of advocacy


Serve stakeholders, then shareholders

For food businesses, this would include thinking beyond profit to include, for example, the nutrition and health needs of consumers and employees.


Take full ownership of all company impacts

Recognising that food is essential for nourishment and affects health and well-being is critical. Although it is unrealistic to expect all food and drink to provide nutrition, there shouldn’t be a blurring between junk food and everyday food. Responsible and transparent food marketing can help consumers understand the difference.


Embrace partnerships and work with critics

Establishing partnerships with other industry players (which the authors say helps counter the risk of the first-mover disadvantage) and reaching out for help from regular critics is vital. In nutrition, critics include NGOs, dietitians and nutritionists, and public health researchers, experts who can bring new ideas to the table. Polson and Winston remind us that solving issues together helps understand different perspectives and build trust.


Rethink the approach to lobbying and other forms of advocacy

Food companies are often criticised for their lobbying to influence nutrition policy. This approach leaves the impression that the sector is uncooperative and more interested in serving itself than others. An alternative proposed by Polson and Winston is for companies to approach governments openly and transparently, help policymakers achieve their goals, and solve problems for everyone’s benefit.


From my perspective, a “net positive” food company is one where stakeholder health and nutrition are at the centre of the business agenda, where there is a focus on providing affordable, nutritious food and marketing it in line with scientific evidence and nutrition policy.


This thinking would mean looking for technologies that enable healthier product formulation, new business models that cut costs from the supply chain or using different marketing tactics to nudge consumers towards more nutritious food choices, or a combination of these.


There are many options for change. Our business leaders need to be willing, be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.


Reference: Polson, P., and Winston, A. (2021). The Net Positive Manifesto: is the world better off because your company is in it? Harvard Business Review, September/October, 125 – 131.