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STEWARDSHIP | ARTICLE – 4 Min

Investor engagement to tackle corporate lobbying is critical to addressing diet-related diseases

By RACHEL CROSSLEY 25.04.2023

In this article:

    Delivering legislation, regulation and standards that foster sustainable and a more equitable development is central to tackling sustainability issues. One impediment is corporate lobbying designed to mitigate or even thwart effective policy changes. We urge other investors to join us in ramping up engagement with companies on this important topic.  

    The effects of corporate lobbying have become clear in recent years in relation to climate change. Extensive research by InfluenceMap, an independent not-for-profit think tank, has revealed how. Its findings have been embedded in the Net Zero Corporate Benchmark published by Climate Action 100+ (CA100+) which is widely used by investors to assess and engage with companies on this topic.

    In recent years, we have engaged with many major emitters to ask them to align both their direct lobbying and that of the industry associations they belong to (known as indirect lobbying) with the goals of Paris agreement in accordance with the Global Standard on Corporate Climate Lobbying. We launched this standard in 2022 with AP7 and the Church of England Pensions Board. We have enjoyed substantial success (see pages 46-47 of our Global Sustainability Report 2021).

    We are now also addressing another topic where ambitious policy change is clearly needed – diets and health.

    Advocating for change – food systems

    Together, poor diets now generate more disease worldwide than physical inactivity, alcohol and smoking combined.[1] About 2.6 billion people – 38% of the world population – are overweight or obese. Of those, more than 1 billion people worldwide are obese – 650 million adults, 340 million adolescents and 39 million children, as shown in Exhibit 1. 

    If recent trends continue, without widespread adoption of taxes and limits on the promotion of unhealthy food, those figures are expected to rise to more than 4 billion people (51%) in 12 years’ time, according to research by the World Obesity Federation.[2]

    The more overweight someone is, the more likely they are to suffer from a range of diet-related diseases, including heart disease and stroke, Type II diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and 13 cancers (see Exhibit 2). High levels of diet-related disease impair a country’s economic growth, take up substantial proportions of their healthcare budgets, reduce workers’ productivity across all sectors and impose serious burdens on individuals and families, particularly those on low incomes.[3], [4]

    Just as with climate change, the solution to the global diet-driven health crisis lies not in individual action, but in systems change. Narratives about individuals needing to take more personal responsibility and discipline themselves to eat better are gradually being displaced by those that recognise this.

    One of the main reasons for a poor diet is the lack of access to and affordability of healthy and unprocessed foods, with highly processed convenience foods, high in fat, sugar and salt, being more easily available and cheaper, often underpinned by subsidies and other distorting policies.

    The World Health Organization and public health advocates have long championed policy measures such as stricter front-of-pack (FOP) labelling requirements, restrictions on marketing unhealthy foods to children and fiscal measures such as sugar taxes. Policymakers are increasingly heeding their calls. The World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF) tracks all such advances in its NOURISH database, and earlier this year recorded the 1,000th such policy action in Europe alone.[5]

    Holding back change

    However, evidence is mounting that food and beverage companies are directly and through trade associations obstructing, preventing and weakening policy proposals. This is despite more and more of them committing to supporting public health and nutrition and urging sector-wide progress.

    As a signatory to the Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) Investor Expectations on Nutrition, Diets and Health, we were pleased that in December 2022, ATNI published a benchmark of the world’s 25 largest food & beverage companies’ lobbying-related commitments, management systems, and disclosure.

    ATNI evaluated companies’ practices against the Responsible Lobbying Framework (RLF). This provides investors with a starting point for engagement in support of the third pillar of the Investor Expectations: “Companies should…adopt the five principles and associated management practices set out in the [RLF]: legitimacy, transparency, consistency, accountability and opportunity.”

    The results of the evaluation were concerning: The average score was 21% across all companies, with individual scores ranging from 3% to 50%. While there was a wide variation in company maturity, current practice is clearly far from the standard set in the RLF.

    Engaging for change

    We have begun engaging with some of the rated companies held in our portfolios using ATNI’s results. We want to encourage them to: 

    1. Set high-level commitments to lobby in support of public health policy measures
    2. Translate them into action through effective management systems
    3. Be open and transparent about their activities through comprehensive disclosure.[6] 

    We urge other investors to join us to amplify our voice and convince food companies to lobby in support of policy measures to improve diets and public health, and to disclose fully their advocacy activities.

    [1] GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators, ‘Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017’ (2019) The Lancet 393(10184): 1958–72 https://www.thelancet.com/article/ S0140-6736(19)30041-8/fulltext  

    [2] World_Obesity_Atlas_2023_Press_Release.pdf (worldobesityday.org)  

    [3] OECD, The Heavy Burden of Obesity: The Economics of Prevention (2019, OECD Publishing, Paris) https://doi. org/10.1787/67450d67-en.  

    [4] The World Bank, ‘The World Bank and nutrition’ (2019) https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/nutrition/overview  

    [5] Nutrition in Europe: there’s work to do | WCRF International   [6] It is important to note that the ATNI research was not designed to identify examples of corporate lobbying on nutrition and health policy measures. 

    Disclaimer

    Please note that articles may contain technical language. For this reason, they may not be suitable for readers without professional investment experience. Any views expressed here are those of the author as of the date of publication, are based on available information, and are subject to change without notice. Individual portfolio management teams may hold different views and may take different investment decisions for different clients. This document does not constitute investment advice. The value of investments and the income they generate may go down as well as up and it is possible that investors will not recover their initial outlay. Past performance is no guarantee for future returns. Investing in emerging markets, or specialised or restricted sectors is likely to be subject to a higher-than-average volatility due to a high degree of concentration, greater uncertainty because less information is available, there is less liquidity or due to greater sensitivity to changes in market conditions (social, political and economic conditions). Some emerging markets offer less security than the majority of international developed markets. For this reason, services for portfolio transactions, liquidation and conservation on behalf of funds invested in emerging markets may carry greater risk.
    Environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment risk: The lack of common or harmonised definitions and labels integrating ESG and sustainability criteria at EU level may result in different approaches by managers when setting ESG objectives. This also means that it may be difficult to compare strategies integrating ESG and sustainability criteria to the extent that the selection and weightings applied to select investments may be based on metrics that may share the same name but have different underlying meanings. In evaluating a security based on the ESG and sustainability criteria, the Investment Manager may also use data sources provided by external ESG research providers. Given the evolving nature of ESG, these data sources may for the time being be incomplete, inaccurate or unavailable. Applying responsible business conduct standards in the investment process may lead to the exclusion of securities of certain issuers. Consequently, (the Sub-Fund's) performance may at times be better or worse than the performance of relatable funds that do not apply such standards.

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