News Analysis: Is animal welfare on your agenda?

The RSPCA is recognising companies' animal welfare policies via an awards scheme. Tom Williams asks whether it will compel firms to improve their practices.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) is throwing down the gauntlet to companies over their treatment of animals.

From 27 June, firms from five consumer categories will be invited by the charity to demonstrate their enlightened animal welfare policies (PRWeek, 17 June).

The RSPCA is asking food retailers, restaurants, fast-food outlets, fashion houses and cosmetics companies to put themselves forward for the 'best performer' and 'most improved' gongs. Winners will be able to bathe in the glow of their ethical achievement and parade their Alternative Award in front of anyone who is interested.

The concept behind the awards is not entirely new. Rival pressure group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has held similar ceremonies in the US for two years. Last year's Proggy awards recognised companies for everything from Social Cause Book of the Year to Best Animal-Friendly Toy.

'Any opportunity that we have to draw attention to companies that follow best practice is a good thing,' says PETA Europe manager Stephanie Corrigan.

'People do get good PR out of things like this and it is very important they realise that.'

Positive focus

The RSPCA is similarly keen to accentuate the positive. Project manager Julie Briggs is at pains to point out that the charity will not be 'naming and shaming' companies that do not come up to scratch: 'We want to reward companies for progress they have made in their animal welfare policies rather than beat them up.'

The RSPCA is using the results of a MORI survey, showing that four out of five people want businesses to be clearer about their animal welfare policies, to help promote the awards.

Another statistic being used is that 55 per cent claim they would pay more for goods from companies with a good animal welfare record.

But the pressure on companies to change their policies can only be effective if consumers take the awards seriously. It is therefore no accident that the agency for the event, Seventy Seven PR, is briefed 'to generate awareness of the awards among consumers, so that businesses will see the benefit of entering the awards'.

The real test of the agency's mettle will be whether its national media campaign can set alight the animal welfare debate to the point where not making the shortlist for an award becomes a commercial liability.

Conducting a CSR-based awards ceremony - which rely, as the Alternative Awards will, on companies' own description of their policies - is not without its pitfalls.

Business in the Community suffered embarrassment last year when Marks & Spencer cut its community and staff secondment programmes just two weeks after BitC named the retailer its Company of the Year. But Briggs says the RSPCA has anticipated the potential embarrassment of a company to which it has bestowed an award being exposed for bad practice.

'When we give a company this award it will come with the caveat that we have the right to withdraw it if the company does not fulfil its commitments,' Briggs says. 'This is about us sending a message to consumers that a company that supplies them has responded to their concerns about animal welfare. We would not want to mislead consumers.'

In a particularly pointed comment, Briggs makes clear that, while the RSPCA will not name and shame in the run-up to the awards, it would not hesitate to tell the media if it strips a company of one of its accolades.

The Guardian industrial correspondent Terry Macalister says CSR initiatives are 'fraught with difficulty', but argues that the Alternative Awards could be a PR coup for the RSPCA, whatever the actions of companies after they have won their prize.

'If a company does win an award and then backtracks, the size of the stick with which it will be beaten will be that much bigger,' he says.

Worthless exercise?

Some CSR practitioners have their doubts about how effectively an NGO such as the RSPCA can use such an initiative to change corporate policy in a meaningful way.

Good Business co-founder Steve Hilton says the RSPCA's Freedom Food campaign, which since 1994 has accredited companies involved in food supply by assessing all elements of the production and supply process, has failed to have the desired impact.

'Agricultural assurance is a complex business with a number of sophisticated schemes already in operation: it's an area that could do without simplistic grandstanding by the RSPCA,' Hilton comments. The RSPCA dismisses his criticism, pointing out that all members of the scheme are subject to annual assessments and spot checks by the charity's team of scientists and animal welfare experts. 'This is a full-time job for us,' says Freedom Foods press officer Rebecca Ralph. 'Freedom Foods is not something we've just plucked out of the air.'

The Alternative Awards will not need the same army of scientists, based as they are on a kind of contract between the NGO and companies keen to clean up their animal welfare act.

As the RSPCA's latest attempt to get companies to treat animal welfare seriously, this awards ceremony is likely to attract media attention when it takes place at the Natural History Museum in October, having already attracted one or two high-profile names to the judging panel (see box).

But the RSPCA and Seventy Seven PR must be ready for the media scrutiny, and criticism, that could follow.

HOW THE AWARDS WILL WORK

The RSPCA Alternative Awards deadline for submissions is 15 August.

Winners will be revealed at the Natural History Museum on 12 October. The judges, by category, will include:

- Food retailers Dr Geoff Spriegel, former Sainsbury's director; Richard Johnson, presenter of BBC2's Full on Food; John Webster, professor at Bristol University; Kevin Hawkins, director-general of the British Retail Consortium

- Restaurants/fast-food outlets Johnson, Spriegel, Webster

- Fashion Wayne Hemingway, Red or Dead founder; Lisa Armstrong, fashion editor of The Times; Paul Smith, retail services head, British Retail Consortium

- Cosmetics Gerard Duve, former Superdrug director; Jo Fairley, Mail on Sunday columnist.

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