Sarah Hickey, Programme Director, Guy's and St Thomas' Charity
Jun 30, 2020
We know that commercial organisations have a huge role to play in tackling the inequality that prevents children from accessing nutritious food. But how do charities work in partnership with businesses in a way that goes beyond short-term, performative change?
For us, tackling commercial drivers of obesity means making the case to industry and policymakers that businesses have a responsibility to act in this area. An important part of our childhood obesity programme is engaging with businesses to develop a stronger understanding of exactly how this can be done in practice. We think there is lots of untapped potential for collaboration between the commercial, charity and public sectors to improve childrens’ health and to shape the food available to families. The impact of COVID-19 has demonstrated just how intertwined our economy is with its population’s health and resilience. It has also demonstrated that we cannot improve population health without tackling inequality.
The issue of childhood obesity is too large and too complex for one sector to tackle alone. Commercial drivers play a significant role in shaping our food options. For example, around 80% of family households’ food budget is spent in supermarkets. Private sector makes up c.50% of the school catering market in England. These organisations have a responsibility to their customers and communities to prioritise health, and consumers are increasingly alive to those that do not.
The commercial sector can also bring skills and assets that, if brought together with the knowledge of the charity and/or public sector, make positive, large-scale change far more possible. For example, last year we worked with Gehl, experts in people centered urban design, on a piece of research that showed fast food outlets are incredibly well designed for teenagers in terms of meeting their need for a safe, semi-private social space. If we combine this functional design (that’s clearly working for a lot of people) with the regulatory powers of the public sector, we can have a big impact on the food young people eat on a regular basis.
Health and social equity objectives don’t have to be in direct opposition to commercial interests. Over the last decade, there has been steadily increasing appetite from investors, employees and customers for businesses to consider their broader societal impacts. Digital innovation makes business activity more transparent, and open to scrutiny from these stakeholders. Last year we worked with ATNI and ShareAction to develop the world’s first benchmark for supermarket transparency around nutrition. We hope this drives further action by big retailers to support children's health.
We recognise that charity partnerships with businesses can be controversial, especially in the area of childhood obesity, where we might be partnering with organisations and brands that have historically played a large role in incentivising unhealthy eating behaviour. A big risk is ‘social washing’ where a commercial player benefits from brand association with a health charity, without making meaningful change. To avoid this, there are three actions that we think are important in our commercial partnership work.
Firstly, to understand at the outset why an organisation might want to take on activity focused around childhood obesity. Corporate objectives vary from increasing staff engagement to mitigating regulatory risk to demonstrating shared values, and we always try to get absolute clarity at the start about which type of partnership we’re entering into and designing a project accordingly. Many types of partnerships are possible, but those that are entered into from purely a brand-optimising rationale carry more impact risk that needs careful thought.
Secondly, to allocate responsibility in a way that controls impact risk while maximising the potential of a collaboration. In practice, this means that we set the scope of projects that we’re associated with – providing a long-list of interventions that we know are evidence-based and have the most potential to influence behaviours in a particular setting. We ask partners to design and drive delivery, to ensure projects are commercially viable and have the best chance of scale and sustainability. We also invest heavily in evaluation, to understand what demonstrable impact has been achieved for children and families and insist on transparency around the results.
Thirdly, working directly with businesses doesn’t preclude us from continuing to influence industry from the outside. Rather, we hope that our work directly with commercial partners showcases what ‘good’ looks like and that change is possible in practice, supporting calls for broader policy changes that would help to accelerate this impact.
You can see how we’ve actioned this approach across our portfolio of projects, including:
Our continued focus is not only on making the case for WHY commercial drivers need to be addressed, but also trying to get really clear on HOW. Businesses can be incredibly effective at meeting multiple user needs, and we want to make sure this is utilised to improve children’s health. We think partnerships that effectively bring together commercial, charity and public skills and interests have huge untapped potential in achieving this mission.
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Programme Director: Sarah Hickey
23 April, 2020
As a funder, our priority is to support our partners and the communities most affected by COVID-19. Our Portfolio Director, Louise Mousseau, sets out the actions we've taken to date and how we're adapting our work in response to a changing environment.