In partnership with urban health foundation Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, ShareAction today launches a new campaign to tackle rising childhood obesity levels in the UK.

The campaign, called ‘Healthy Markets’, will harness the power of the investment system to create and support healthier options for UK consumers.

The campaign will bring investors together to ask major food and drinks companies operating in the UK market to produce healthier, affordable products, limit marketing of sugary products to children, and provide clear and accurate food labelling.

Institutional investors recognise the risks that food and drink consumer goods companies pose in their portfolios. There is an increasing swell of political and public support for action in this space, with regulation already in place in the UK for sugary drinks and voluntary targets set for companies to reduce both sugar and calories across other product categories. With customer preferences shifting towards healthier and low sugar products, there are financial, reputational and operational risks for companies that fail to respond.

This is particularly evident in the sugary soft drinks market where the number of sugar taxes has tripled across the world, to 42, in the last four years. In 2018, AG Barr, a manufacturer of known UK brands such as Irn-Bru, completed a major reformulation programme to make 99% of products exempt from the UK sugar levy. At the same time, they had an 8.9% increase in sales and 6.4% improvement in gross profit.

Currently, one in five children starting primary school in the UK is overweight or obese and this figure rises to one in three by the time they reach secondary school. This has huge economic and social costs to society, including an estimated £6.1bn cost to the NHS per year, not to mention the many impacts on children themselves.

ShareAction, in partnership with the Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI), will benchmark major retailers and manufacturers in the UK market to analyse their current performance in this space and inform direct engagement with firms. The campaign will then develop a set of individualised company demands for action that contributes to reducing levels of childhood obesity in the UK.

The campaign is funded by Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, an independent foundation which focuses on complex health issues prevalent in urban areas, including childhood obesity. The charity is the first health foundation to help spearhead a responsible investment campaign of this kind in the UK. The campaign is supported by a growing group of advisory partners including Jamie Oliver GroupThe Children’s Food CampaignThe Sugar Smart Campaign, Action on Sugar, The Food Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Catherine Howarth, Chief Executive of ShareAction, said: “We’re proud to be working on this socially-important new project and to be supporting investors to make a positive impact on the lives of young people. Long-term investors looking for healthy, sustainable returns should be taking a critical look at companies whose profits are driven by a sugar high. With the sugar tax a reality and many consumers making healthier choices, there’s a compelling case for companies to support people in making healthy choices. We believe it makes particular sense for pension funds to focus on public health given its relevance to the lives and well-being of millions of UK pension savers.”

Kieron Boyle, Chief Executive of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, said: “Childhood obesity is a complex, societal issue, which means we all have a part to play in addressing it. Evidence shows that our eating and drinking decisions are heavily influenced by the food environments around us, and these in turn by the actions of retailers and food manufacturers. In the lower-income, urban areas where we work – neighbourhoods with the highest rates of childhood obesity – it can often be difficult to find food that is affordable, tasty and healthy. We’re excited to explore with ShareAction how encouraging responsible investment can help improve the availability of healthier options for everyone.”

Inge Kauer, Executive Director of the Access to Nutrition Initiative said: “We are pleased to be supporting ShareAction by developing, in the first instance, a bespoke benchmark to track the contribution of the UK’s largest retailers to tackling childhood obesity. ATNI’s Investor Signatories – a global grouping of more than 60 investors with around $7 trillion in assets under management – draw on our Indexes when engaging with the world’s largest food and beverage manufacturers. We hope that the UK benchmarks we develop for this campaign will similarly inform the work of ShareAction and its investor coalition to press for more urgent and far-reaching change by the UK’s major food companies.”

Alison Corfield, Head of Campaigns at Jamie Oliver Group, said: “The health of our children needs to be put at the heart of business decisions, and food and drinks companies have both the ability and a responsibility to drive meaningful change in this area.  We at Jamie Oliver Group fully support the new ShareAction campaign to work with investors and shareholders to better reflect what consumers want – more transparency and accountability from the people running those corporations. We want to collectively create a food system that we are proud for our kids to inherit.”

Dr Kawther Hashem, Campaign Lead at Action on Sugar, said: “We fully support this new initiative from ShareAction on tackling sugar and obesity through the shareholders of major food and drink companies. This is very overdue and we strongly hope to see a change in the culture of these companies that is indicative of creating healthier food environments for all their customers, particularly children.”

Barbara Crowther, Co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, said: “In a context in which one in three children leaving primary school are overweight or obese, investors and shareholders can play an incredibly powerful role in championing business models based on healthier, less sugary food. From introduction of unhealthy food and drinks taxes to tighter advertising and promotions restrictions, any forward-looking, responsible company should now be looking to align its product ranges, recipes and marketing strategies towards healthier and more sustainable lifestyle options. This campaign provides a fantastic new platform for investors to play their part in helping transform the food environment for parents and children alike.”

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  • For more information, please contact Beau O’Sullivan on beau.osullivan@shareaction.org or +44203 475 7859
  • ShareAction’s vision is a world where ordinary savers and institutional investors work together to ensure our communities and environment are safe and sustainable for all.