Jessica Davis Pluess, Manager, Advisory Services, BSR

This November, the city of Richmond, California—located just outside of San Francisco—will include a measure on the ballot to tax soda and other sugary fruit drinks. This isn’t the first time a city, state or country has introduced a measure to discourage individuals from buying and shopkeepers from selling products designated as “unhealthy” in an effort to tackle the rapidly growing obesity epidemic. From the “Oreo Cookie lawsuit” over trans-fat to the ban on Happy Meals in San Francisco to the tax on saturated fat in Denmark, the message is that corporate responsibility, when it comes to health and wellness, doesn’t exist and that only with the help of disincentives (in the form of regulations) are we going to help consumers make healthier choices.

Whatever your opinion of the so-called “fat taxes,” the scale of the obesity challenge cannot be ignored. The World Health Organization reports that over 500 million people are obese, and its worldwide prevalence has doubled since 1980. Obesity is the fifth leading risk for death, leading to 2.8 million fatalities each year. In addition to its rapid growth in the U.S. and Europe, emerging markets such as Brazil, China, and Russia are showing upwards of a quarter of the population battling obesity. Bank of America Merrill Lynch recently released a report identifying efforts to reduce obesity as a sustainability “megatrend” with a shelf-life of 25 to 50 years. The report argues that “obesity may be the most pressing health challenge facing the world today because of both its direct impacts and ripple effects on chronic diseases, such as diabetes.”

For the food industry, health and wellness have been difficult topics to tackle. There’s been a tendency towards the defensive—shielding behind a few nutritious products on menus (or in stores) and promoting the consumer’s freedom to choose. However, with the rising costs of managing obesity—for society, governments, and business— and increasing regulatory movement, food companies across the value chain— from retailers to restaurant operators to food producers—will be expected to take a proactive approach to the way they produce, sell, and market food. Health and wellness will need to stop being a side dish and instead become an integral part of companies’ CSR strategies backed by genuine commitment to help consumers make informed choices and to enable access to healthy and affordable food.

How can companies integrate health and wellness into their CSR strategies? How can health and wellness shift from being a sustainability risk to an opportunity for the food industry? BSR will be exploring these questions as part of our research on the intersection of health and wellness and corporate responsibility.