Why Whole Foods Doesn’t Ask Hershey’s to Raise the Bar on Child Labor

Last month we reported here about a group of a group of independent natural food stores and co-ops that called for Hershey’s to fully commit to “using only child-labor-free cocoa produced under fair labor standards.” Sounds like a reasonable request, right? After all, we’re talking here about a very basic human rights issue. Well, apparently not all retailers see eye to eye – Whole Foods, for example, refused to sign this letter.

So what’s wrong with Whole Foods? Doesn’t it share the petitioner’s concerns regarding the estimates of the U.S. State Department that “more than 109,000 children work in the cocoa industry under the “worst forms of child labor,” and that some 10,000 or more are victims of human trafficking and enslavement”?

According to the organization Green America, Whole Foods refused to sign the coalition’s appeal, stating, “We evaluate only products being considered for sale within our stores…We do not include in our review any operational or management decisions of the (supplier).” This reply made Green American, International Labor Rights Forum and other organizations very upset, and they’re now calling for Whole Foods consumers to sign a petition asking the retailer to rethink its position and sign the retailers’ letter.

So why Whole Foods doesn’t want to push Hershey to raise the bar? If you look at Whole Foods’ website, signing the Hershey’s letter should be a no brainer. After all, the company writes very clearly on its website: “At Whole Foods Market, we’re not just about selling groceries; we believe we have a responsibility toward all people involved in our business. This includes shoppers, shareholders, team members and suppliers as well as producer communities in developing countries. We also believe we have a responsibility toward a healthy planet. Whole Trade helps make it easy for you to shop with conscience. Every purchase of a Whole Trade product is like a vote for a better world.”

The company also adds that “all of the products and fresh produce from our Whole Trade® producers meet the four key criteria required by our Whole Trade® Guarantee: quality, premium price to the producer, better wages and working conditions, and the environment.” So, apparently Whole Foods’ requirements of its own program are very rigorous, but it might be that this is not the situation with its requirements from its corporate suppliers.

But wait a second, what about Whole Foods’ ban on selling overfished species in its seafood departments, issuing new sustainable packaging guidelines to suppliers, or announcing a Premium Body Care standard for personal products? In each of these cases Whole Foods established rigorous standards that applied to its corporate suppliers. It also didn’t seem to have a problem informing its personal care product suppliers that they need to verify their “organic” claims and meet the USDA standards.

In other words, Whole Foods doesn’t mind asking its corporate suppliers to adhere to strict guidelines when it comes to fish, packaging or beauty products’ organic claims. So, why it is so reluctant to act in a similar way when it comes to child labor? I believe that the answer actually can be found in the explanation Whole Foods provided. To understand it you should also need to have a look at the ideology that shapes the way Whole Foods operates – conscious capitalism, which is devoutly promoted by John Mackey, the founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods.

According to Mackey, in a capitalistic market “business is ultimately based on voluntary exchange; all the main constituencies of a business (such as customers, employees, suppliers, and investors) voluntarily exchange with the business to create value for themselves and for others… This voluntary exchange for mutual benefit creates the ethical foundation of business and that is why business is ultimately justified to rightfully exist within a society.”

Mackey doesn’t ignore the responsibilities of the business, but believes these are part of the voluntary exchange – “a business is still expected to behave ethically in its voluntary exchanges and to be responsible for any negative impacts it may create, for example, environmental pollution.” So in light of these ideas it shouldn’t surprise you that Whole Foods doesn’t think it needs to impact Hershey’s practices – other the ones directly related to the products sold at its stores. (A small part of Hershey’s chocolates business, the Dagoba and Bliss lines, are certified with the Rainforest Alliance, which might help Whole Foods to give Hershey’s a pass).

The whole idea that you need to play Blue’s Clues (or to be more accurate Mackey’s Clues) to figure out Whole Foods’ policies seems somewhat ridiculous, but that’s the way it is. As I mentioned here couple of months ago, the company lacks any structured reporting that provides a comprehensive look into its policies, targets and implementation on CSR issues. What we’re left with is a set of values, random initiatives and a lot of guestimation.

If there’s one encouraging sign we have here it’s the fact that Mackey’s ideas are based very much on expectations – therefore, if his customers will show him they expect him to act on Hershey’s, he will listen and eventually act. So now, Whole Foods consumers, it’s up to you.

[Image credit: Raise the Bar, Hershey!, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

4 responses

  1. It surprises again and again how easily the intellect can be deceived, and overrule the truth-aware heart. Being manipulated by a school system and academic curriculum damages so far, that any movement for justice and fairness fails under the hands of people who cannot maintain a clear mind that uncompromisingly stated: let them pay adults, let them make higher prices, lesser profits, let them do everything that is leveling the ground to the only correct situation. Children shall and must not die, and they are part of their parents. Don’t exploit, make the step into mankind’s future.
    Don’t get fooled by mind-twisting economists.
    You are running danger to lose you readership by abandoning your calling.

  2. I think the answer lies in the fact that in the last 100 years or so, nothing has been devalued as much as the human person. Seafood, packaging materials, and natural resources are seeing as precious items that must be cared for and conserved. Young children, especially ones living in impoverished nations, are seen as a cheap, renewable resource.

    Whole Foods is a classic example of an environmental protection policy that has been built up for the sake of the environment, and not the people living in it.

  3. My sense of the issue is that Whole Foods models itself on value norms, but less so on applied standards. The cocoa industry globally operates from several countries that lack strong governance (such as Nigeria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast, to name a few), meaning that it is difficult for retailers to affect positive change without some very comprehensive oversight and standards that are proactively applied. Perhaps Whole Foods does not feel they are positioned to be so proactive at this stage. The author is right in that it will ultimately be the Whole Foods customers (read, the market demand) that drive Whole Foods to either make a proactive switch or allow business-as-usual.

  4. Over the past five years I have seen a gradual obfuscation of “natural”, “organic”, “Fair Trade” and other labels. The development & establishment of these terms originally started as NGO movements and then various shades of of the original came to market . Most recently I find Whole Foods failing to define itself as the de facto large brand alternative to conventional farming / agricultural and human rights protection in the consumer products industry. We are entering very short window of time where we need to make serious directional changes in how things are extracted, used, and disposed of on this planet. I am not speaking of just carbon fuels, or water, but of people too. I am disappointed that Whole Foods feels they can “skate by” by minding their own business.

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