There are farm, environmental and consumer groups that advocate the elimination of the corporate agenda. They say corporations drive the family farm to ruin, destroy the air that we breathe, and force consumerism at the expense of human rights.
In Canada, 98 per cent of farms are family farms and of the 200,000 farms in the nation, very few are corporate in design. If they are, it is to take an advantage that allows for better taxation and extensive intergenerational participation. From an environmentalist perspective, corporations are seen as companies that continually pollute, keep secret their activities while safeguarding themselves behind barriers. I have seen this “on-guard” structure employed worldwide from heavy metal fabricating to food processing. As the transparency of the world unfolds, we learn that there are no easy answers and always space for improvement.
As a consumer, our participation is measured through GDP or the amount we spend on goods and services produced. To produce something or to sell a service requires a consumer to buy it. Do we need all that we can buy? No, but our buying supports the manufacture of it and that is a measure of the financial spine of a nation.
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Agri-food manufacturing is a top player in Canada, bigger than auto manufacturing in terms of GDP and employment. Interestingly, 80 per cent of all agri-food manufacturing is done by small- and medium-size enterprises, but it is the huge corporates that seem to attract attention. Although we once saw them as stand-alone giants, impermeable and stoic in response, we know now that they are very vulnerable to consumer backlash and can be hailed out like any other food enterprise.
When Kellogg announced closing its plant in Ontario due to high costs, most felt it was more like the outcome of unresponsiveness to consumer demands. After 80 years in Canada the cereal manufacturer failed to respond to demand for less sugar in breakfast cereal and the cost was bitter for the company and the 500 workers employed there. This year, Hershey announced it will make candy without high fructose and gluten. This will put it in the enviable position of producing good-for-you candy, the first step in a food journey we have talked about in this column before, such as nutrient add-ons to chocolate and other favourite snacks.
These shifts in response to consumer preferences do not occur overnight. The CEO and the board have to determine if it is a fad or a forever shift and then have the whole team working toward a favourable outcome.
A&W based its production and marketing on extensive consumer engagement and the entire company went in one direction. More than one board has replaced a CEO or chair because of a disconnect or disrespect to the client (think Lululemon) and this is an indication that corporations now recognize they must be as transparent as packaging film in this day and age.
Corporations also exercise extensive political power. In the past they have made an effort to appear apolitical but now that has changed and they are making statements in favour of the consumer — and their shareholders.
Discriminatory legislation, such as we experienced in Canada with changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program prompted many companies to openly criticize government. In the U.S. the openly discriminative state legislation that allowed businesses to refuse service on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and gender garnered swift investment retraction by corporations and massive opposition.
The message is clear: Corporations are transparent and answer to investors, a board and their customer. They are no longer afraid to create the backlash required to right the regulatory wrongs. And the mistakes they have made in the past — by refusing to label food with GMO product, for example, — will quickly become their personal nightmare. That is why those companies on the leading edge go to solutions early in the game and market accordingly.
At a deeper level, all people were born “persons” and this most certainly is well established in North American law. To retreat to exclusion is to go back 500 years. If we really care about what we eat and what we wear as a society then the inclusion of human rights and environment will be part of corporate discloser.
Once seen as the foe of the farmer and the people, corporations are now starting to use their power to protect those who produce the raw product they need. The days of getting it all for nothing and the enslavement of nations is slowly vaporizing as consumers through technology now have a window to the corporate world. Although corporations seem large and unapproachable, every person has a strong vote with their purchasing dollar. That’s about as sensitive a place that consumers can hit and corporations are sure to respond. As they step out of the protective door of the political closet and onto the interactive global stage, corporations can be strong advocates for farmers and their communities.