Recognising women in forest-risk supply chains

Sarah Rogerson

A woman working on a palm oil plantation in West Kalimantan, photo: CIFOR via flickr.com, creative commons licence

On International Women’s Day, we thought it was time to acknowledge the role that women play in agricultural commodity supply chains.

While women smallholders and agricultural workers produce much of the world’s food, they can often be hungry themselves or struggle to feed their families. An estimated 1.6 billion women depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, with women making up 70% of the agricultural workforce in some countries.

In the palm oil sector, for example, women are central to the labour force, yet many are unregistered (“kernet”) or casual workers, which means they do not have the same rights as men. Often the role of women workers is simply not recognised.

Women also often bear the brunt of the impacts of deforestation, whether because forest land and resources are increasingly converted for large-scale agriculture, or because of the impacts of climate change — with women far more likely to be displaced than men.

For this reason, it is crucial that companies seeking to address sustainability issues in their supply chains recognise women’s rights — as employees, as producers, and also as smallholder farmers who depend on the land.

Assessing the Forest 500’s gender commitments

Our latest Forest 500 assessment — due to be published later this month — will for the first time include specific indicators for company commitments on gender, both with respect to labour rights, and on inclusion of women in supply chains on equal terms. Companies can receive four points for these commitments.

Our assessment for labour and workers’ rights looks for commitments that address the different risks faced by women and men, with particular attention to sexual and gender-based harassment, equal pay and remuneration, and gender-based discrimination.

We also assess the inclusion of women in commodity supply chains on equal terms, which can cover a commitment to increase sourcing from producers making an active effort to increase the participation of women in commodity supply chains; or commitments to address the issues faced by women in agricultural supply chains, such as securing land rights and increasing access to technology, financial services, training, and markets.

This can include an explicit commitment to apply the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles to the whole supply chain.

Companies are not awarded points where a commitment is associated with only one concession or area; is project-specific or refers to a philanthropic community initiative; or references gender equality without any further indication of a commitment to address these issues.

A sneak preview

Our 2018 assessment shows that companies still have a long way to go in addressing women’s rights. Only eight of the 350 companies assessed scored for both labour rights and supply chain inclusion in relation to gender equality.

And even more worryingly, 231 of the 350 companies scored zero. Big brands including McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, J Sainsburys, Kraft Heinz, and Tesco do not have clear commitments in place to ensure women’s rights are recognised in their supply chains.

Some companies are showing leadership in this area. Marks and Spencer, for example, has made a commitment across all commodities to “help advance women’s human rights and combat gender discrimination by launching programmes and initiatives that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in our business and supply chains…By 2022 we aim for our Food and Clothing & Home first-tier manufacturing sites to have 25% women in management positions.”

Nestlé requires suppliers to commit equal employment opportunities, while also ensuring women have equal access to the support the company provides for farmers. And footwear company, Deckers, scores points for time-bound commitments, and its involvement in the HERProject.

Making gender commitments count

By putting gender on the assessment agenda, Global Canopy wants to highlight the importance of this issue within efforts to address deforestation — and within the broader approach to sustainability.

Companies must recognise the challenges that women face in commodity supply chains, and the different impacts of supply chain policies and practices on them. Women make a significant contribution to our global food supplies, but too often face far greater challenges than men in doing so.

By highlighting the need for action, and recognising good practice, we hope that more companies will identify the opportunities for increasing the rights of women in their supply chains — so improving the lives of women and helping move commodity supply chains another step closer to sustainability.