By Adeline Lambert and Sean Rudolph
Hershey’s recent pledge to “source 100 percent certified cocoa for its global chocolate product lines by 2020” came as a surprise to many cocoa activists. For over a decade, child labor advocates’ calls for the giant chocolate maker to meaningfully address farmer poverty and child labor on cocoa farms in West Africa have fallen on deaf ears. Even when measured against the other titans of chocolate, Hershey’s efforts up to now have been deplorably inept and completely underfunded. For example, Hershey has yet to offer a credible explanation or any meaningful data on the impact of their much-publicized cocoa-link program, which is barraging West Africa (a region troubled by low literacy rates) with text messages meant to improve farmers’ livelihoods and put an end to the worst forms of child labor.
Although we are hopeful that Hershey’s pledge to pursue certification on a massive scale will turn the page on the company’s lost decade of broken promises and stall tactics, consumers and activists have reason to be skeptical.
In Hershey’s press release, J.P. Bilbrey, the company’s president and chief executive officer, affirmed the move was “consistent with Hershey’s values.” Yet in spite of the company’s public relations spin, the big announcement came only a week after Whole Foods Market removed Hershey’s Scharffen Berger brand from its stores as a result of the chocolate maker’s failure to demonstrate a meaningful commitment to sourcing ethical cocoa. Although Scharffen Berger chocolates represent a small piece of Hershey’s chocolate empire, it represents an important effort to tap into the growing demand for high end chocolates in the United States. It’s no surprise then that Hershey also announced that Scharffen Berger will source 100 percent certified cocoa by the end of 2013.
Given that Hershey’s pledge may be more of a knee jerk reaction to losing important sales than a strategic move to bring the company in line with its core values, how can consumers and activists judge the company’s certification pledge? The following criteria provide a starting point for evaluating the type of massive certification program Hershey is apparently going to undertake.
2. Clear Benchmarks: How much certified cocoa is Hershey currently sourcing? How much certified cocoa does Hershey plan to purchase every year to meet the 2020 goal?
3. Certification Team: Does Hershey have a dedicated team in place to implement a certified sourcing plan so that the initiative does not hurt product taste, bean quality, and processing schemes?
4. Funding for Certification Capacity Building: How much is Hershey going to invest in building certification capacity as it scales up? Hershey won’t be able to fulfill its goal by simply buying cocoa from a third party certifier because there simply isn’t enough certified cocoa to meet Hershey’s overall need. The company will need to make a massive upfront investment in building certification.
5. Transparency: Will Hershey report on the impacts and outcomes of cocoa certification volumes as well as the impacts and outcomes of their efforts in source communities? Currently, Hershey has not provided any data on the impact of its efforts in West Africa.
If Hershey does not publicly answer these questions in short order, consumers and advocates would be well advised to consider Hershey’s announcement as little more than a public relations stunt.
Even if Hershey’s recent pledge is sincere, the fight to bring an end to the exploitation of children and farmers in West Africa’s cocoa industry is far from over. Third party certification is not the panacea cocoa activists once hoped it might be. Although some certification schemes may help reestablish the broken chains of corporate responsibility and improve farmers’ livelihoods by increasing yields and income, it is also possible that certification will suffer a fate similar to “independent” auditing firms in the apparel industry; where prestigious certifications have had little to no positive impact on working conditions, factory safety, or oppressive poverty level wages.
Just last month, the most deadly fire in industrial history raged through a certified apparel factory in Pakistan, highlighting the deep problems with corporate-funded certifiers. If the chocolate companies adopt similar programs – lacking in full public transparency and legal accountability to the farmers, children and workers in the supply chains they certify – little will be accomplished to help impoverished farmers and protect vulnerable children. Already in 2011, Theo Chocolate, one of the fastest growing fair trade bean-to-bar chocolate companies, clearly violated its certification obligations by carrying out an open anti-union campaign at its manufacturing facility in Seattle, while its third party certifier (IMO Group) refused to address Theo’s violations of international labor standards.
Furthermore, Hershey and the other giant chocolate companies have done little to nothing to address the fundamental power imbalance between West Africa’s cocoa farmers and the chocolate industry. Only a handful of companies control the entire cocoa market in West Africa, and the concentration of market power in recent years continues to place downward pressure on the prices farmers receive for cocoa. Until the chocolate industry is willing to address the fundamental structural inequalities in the cocoa supply chain, farmers will continue to face debilitating poverty and the worst forms of child labor will persist.
We are glad Hershey’s continues to move beyond charity programs and that Hershey’s president has accepted that Hershey must use its cocoa buying power responsibly. We will continue to push Hershey’s and the cocoa industry to stop exploiting cocoa farmers, workers and kids for profit. The fight to stop global companies from exploiting farming families and children is one that will continue across generations. As Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, wrote earlier in the year:
We are barely at a point now where chocolate companies are accepting accountability for their supply chains. They are asking themselves: “How much more do we need to pay to keep the kids out of our cocoa fields?” Unfortunately, few if any are asking themselves the right questions, such as, “How can we empower African farmers to demand a better price?” and, “How can we ensure workers throughout our supply chain are treated fairly?”
Adeline Lambert and Sean Rudolph work for the International Labor Rights Forum.