Retailers’ Standards ‘Aid Poor Farmers’

Blair Speedy, The Australian

SUPERMARKET giants Woolworths and Coles have hit back at claims they are hurting suppliers in developing countries by holding them to strict environmental standards.US-based free-market lobby group World Growth has accused the retailers of “harming the poor” by imposing tough environmental and social conditions that suppliers in developing countries are unable to meet.

“Poor plantation growers with as little as 2ha in rural Asia are effectively being told by major retailers they must comply with environmental standards or their products won’t be bought,” World Growth chairman Alan Oxley said. “Small family fishing companies in the Pacific will be excluded from supplying Coles because they’re not meeting sustainability criteria.”

However, Coles spokesman Jim Cooper said the company’s commitment to ethical and sustainable sourcing actually protected small overseas suppliers.

“A key part of our sustainable seafood commitment is to support the sustainability of small fishing communities, and our move to sourcing only certified sustainable palm oil helps 4.5 million farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia whose income depends solely on palm oil,” Mr Cooper said.

“As a former Australian trade negotiator, Mr Oxley would be aware that one of the biggest issues facing food suppliers in developing countries is actually having to grapple with US and EU protectionist trade barriers and export subsidies which flood Third World markets with subsidised food that undermines local agriculture and condemns their communities to First World handouts.”

Woolworths director of corporate and public affairs Andrew Hall said the standards Australian retailers required their suppliers to meet were broadly based and therefore easier to comply with than the more prescriptive standards imposed by US and European retailers.

“We focus on quality, safety and labour rights; we don’t have the same sort of demands as Tesco or Wal-Mart,” he said.

Mr Hall also rejected the suggestion that Woolworths should encourage poor environmental practices in the name of economic growth.

“The logical extension of what they’re saying is that it is OK to have thousands of small farmers planting palm plantations that destroy forests,” he said.

“Improving on economic outcomes for developing countries is not accomplished solely through a laissez-faire approach.”

The report comes four years after Woolworths stopped sourcing home-brand toilet paper from Indonesia’s Asia Pulp and Paper over consumer concerns that it was produced from unsustainable sources.

“Consumers want to know they are getting their product from a sustainable resource and I don’t believe that consumers will accept that the product is cheap and is sourced from a region that is not being managed for the right environmental outcomes,” Mr Hall said.