Scharffen Berger had a meteoric rise as one of the Bay Area’s most beloved brands and of course, a favorite of chocolate lovers across the United States. Founded in 1997, the artisan-made chocolate, much of which was made in a vintage machines including melanguers brought over from France to the company’s factory in Berkeley, was a huge hit and reached the seven-figure annual sales mark in just a few years.
Hershey’s bought the company for a reported $20 million in 2005. And soon, along with other brands under the Hershey’s umbrella, Scharffen Berger was dogged by accusations of dubious sourcing and child labor practices. Hershey’s was slow to address those problems until recently, and after growing pressure from a variety of stakeholders, recently announced that it will purchase only 100 percent certified cocoa by 2020. That news, however, was too late for Whole Foods, which announced yesterday (the day after news of Hershey’s commitments) that it was removing Scharffen Berger from its stores’ shelves.
Non-profits, including Green America, Global Exchange and Raise the Bar, hailed the move, which they claim was a result of 15,000 customers contacting the company to demand they hold Hershey’s responsible for child labor countries that produce cacao. The about-face by Whole Foods comes only two weeks after the retailer refused to sign a letter urging Hershey’s to commit purchasing cacao grown only under fair labor practices. Other high-end Hershey’s brands, including Dagoba, sources cacao from Rainforest Alliance-certified growers, but label or no label, criticism of Hershey’s proved to be unrelenting.
Raise the Bar has been beating the drum loudest in their insistence that Hershey’s address child labor within its supply chain. The coalition has urged Hershey’s to track its raw materials down to the farm level, verify farms to ensure they are not using child labor and nudge suppliers to pressure such farms to end those same practices. Its campaign dates back to 2001, and meanwhile a bevy of companies, from Mars to the catering company Bon Appetit, have pledged to fair trade-certified or more sustainable and responsible supply chains.
Whatever the facts may be, and no matter whether you feel Scharffen Berger is unfairly targeted or not, in this age of social media, customers’ concerns reign supreme. Human rights and the fair treatment of workers are no longer something just read about on the news. They are on the conscience of consumers and alongside them as they wander through store aisles and decide that’s on for dinner or for the commute to home or work. Companies have got to not only listen, but respond, or find that precious shelf space gone.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.
Image courtesy Scharffen Berger.