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Hershey: What Happened to Putting a Smile on Children’s Faces?

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Hershey is an iconic American brand, bringing chocolate treats to children since World War II. And personally, I’m a sucker for Hershey’s Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. So like many Americans, I felt a sense of betrayal when I learned last month that Hershey has recently pledged to phase out producers that use child labor to process cacao beans from West Africa over the next eight years (an announcement which has since prompted a lawsuit by a group of investors claiming Hershey knew that its ingredients came from West African suppliers sourcing from farms built on illegal child and forced labor).

Several aspects of this news surprised me. First, why had Hershey not addressed this issue more proactively in the past, given its stated commitment to consumers, community, and children? And second, now that phasing out child labor is a priority, why would it take eight years to get there? Online research and a conversation with Hana Ivanhoe, Advocacy Manager for Fairfood International, helped me to sort out these issues and learn more about the complicated world of cacao bean processing.


The first aspect I was curious about was Hershey's history with child labor. Surely they knew this was an issue, and could have been doing more to address it before the most recent scandal blew up and led to boycotts by Whole Foods and other retailers? Turns out that it did indeed have this issue on its radar: Hershey signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol back in 2000, agreeing to eliminate child labor in its supply chain by 2005. The agreement was also signed by Hershey’s largest competitors Mars and Nestlé. But a 2011 report titled Time To Raise the Bar from a coalition of organizations including Green America, Global Exchange and the International Labor Rights Forum, describes Hershey as "the lone holdout" among companies that signed the Protocol more than ten years ago.


Another important piece of the puzzle when it comes to environmental and social sustainability for cacao bean producers is that there are several different possible certification protocols. According to Ivanhoe, many organizations working on these issues believe that the Fair Trade certification is the only one that adequately addresses the child labor issues at the heart of Hershey’s current problems. But Hershey’s Bliss Bar and Dagoba brands, both of which were acquired during the last few years, are already sourcing chocolate that is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which focuses more on environmental concerns rather than labor standards.

And finally, Hershey is a member of multi-stakeholder industry groups such as the World Cocoa Foundation, which may be developing standards and best practices of its own. The preponderance of certifications can be difficult for consumers to sort through, but the most important thing for Hershey is to choose a certification protocol and begin to build a plan and timeline for implementation.

Why Eight Years?

Interestingly, Ivanhoe’s reaction to this timelinewas the opposite of mine: “When I hear eight years, I wonder how is Hershey going to eradicate child labor in its supply chain when they've made so little progress so far?” She went on to point out that Hershey has to do a lot of work to get there. First, it needs to increase the traceability of cacao bean sourcing. Today, it doesn’t have the tools and mechanisms in place to adequately know which producers’ beans are coming from for any given brand.

Hershey also doesn’t have much in place in terms of internal controls, so it needs to start from scratch on that as well. And depending on which certification protocol it chooses, it may face supply issues. Hershey needs to work with its suppliers to help them to address the issue of child labor, get certified, and be able to continue to supply the massive amounts of beans it needs. This requires both financial and time investments from Hershey.

All told, Hershey has not made it a priority to put together a viable plan to help its cacao bean suppliers end the use of child labor at their facilities. And without that concentrated effort, Hershey will continue to violate the brand attributes of consumers, community and children that have made it “America’s Chocolate Company.”

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