By Lauren Compere, Managing Director and Director of Shareholder Engagement at Boston Common Asset Management
Investor members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) have long seen childhood obesity as a moral issue, a financial issue, and – given the disproportionate impact of the epidemic on low-income communities and communities of color – an issue of social justice. For this reason, we welcome Unilever’s adoption earlier this week of its Principles on Responsible Food and Beverage Marketing to Children to help fight childhood obesity, a revised iteration of earlier guidelines that is based on the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) framework for Responsible Food and Beverage Marketing Communications.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of U.S. children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s with 1 in 5 school-age children and young people aged 6 to 19 years now considered obese. The implications of this data should be a source of serious concern for everyone, not just parents, as the impacts on critical social systems – healthcare, financial and education are both profound and enduring.
Over the past decade, ICCR members have engaged some of the largest publicly-held corporations in the food and beverage, restaurant, media and retail industries to explore these challenges and surface improvements in product formulations and marketing practices that would help reverse the trends and improve access to affordable, nutritious foods for children. Investors partnered with child health advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and Mom’s Rising to press fast food restaurants to remove sodas from their kid’s meals and food companies to adopt goals to reduce the sugar, fat and salt in their food offerings to children. Companies were urged to participate in the Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) and to join the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) to ensure their marketing practices weren’t contributing to the obesity crisis.
In the U.S., the topic became more prominent still as a result of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, and a 2013 White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children, that brought together food and media industry executives, advocates, parent leaders, government agency representatives and researchers to find and fund solutions to childhood obesity.
In issuing these new principles, Unilever is pledging to stop creating and directing via traditional media, any marketing and advertising messages for its foods and beverages to children under the age of 12. This will include ads in films, television and print, and for children under 13, social media channels. Further, Unilever announced it will not sell ice cream products in schools, and importantly, it will not use celebrities, social media influencers or licensed cartoon characters in marketing that appeals primarily to kids under 12. There are additional pledges regarding product reformulations to limit sugar and calories that are also significant.This last issue of responsible marketing has become more visible in the last decade, as regulatory and public health authorities have Iidentified child-directed advertising as a key factor in the epidemic.
That Unilever is leading on the issue of childhood obesity should come as no surprise: the company has always been in the forefront on questions of sustainability and corporate responsibility. It is our sincere hope that industry peers meet the higher bar Unilever has set and recognize the important role they can also play in promoting children’s nutrition.
The information in this article should not be considered a recommendation to buy or sell any security.