It took the threat of an embarrassing Super Bowl ad, but Hershey is finally starting to act like it gives a damn about forced child labor being a major ingredient in its cocoa.
The company recently announced it would start buying only Rainforest Alliance-certified cocoa for its Bliss Chocolate products starting later this year. The Rainforest Alliance is a reputable nonprofit whose certification system will help ensure that the cocoa is grown sustainably, which includes the monitoring of forced and child labor.
Coincidentally, Hershey's change of heart (after a decade of foot dragging) came a week after Raise the Bar campaign partner the International Labor Rights Forum announced its intention to broadcast a JumboTron ad critical of Hershey's cocoa supply chain outside the Indianapolis stadium where the Super Bowl took place.
But hey, sometimes it takes a stick rather than a carrot. I just hope the company quickly moves to certify the cocoa for its regular bars, not to mention its other brands, like Reese's, KitKat, and Almond Joy.
In other positive Hershey news, GreenBiz.com reports that the chocolate maker has achieved zero waste at four of its Pennsylvania facilities. However, I'd be more impressed if they weren't incinerating the 10 percent of their waste that is organic. Why not go for industrial composting?
Two stories recently landed at Wallet Mouth H.Q. that I wish I could say were jokes.
First, the Washington Postreports that a couple of high schoolers in New York discovered, through DNA tests, that 11 out of 66 food products they'd bought from an assortment of Manhattan markets had been fraudulently mislabeled, with "sheep's milk" cheese turning out to be from a cow and "sturgeon caviar" being revealed as Mississippi
Then, undercover Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigators succeed in getting Energy Star certification for 15 bogus products, such as an "air cleaner" consisting of a space heater with fly strips and a duster adhered to it. (Here's the link.)
The food-fraud story wasn't a complete surprise. After all, as I noted last year, a vendor at my local farmers' market clued me in to the fact that lots of supposedly 100% extra-virgin olive oil not only isn't extra-virgin but also is adulterated with other, cheaper oils. I also have friends who work for a company that provides "traceability services," helping food-industry clients ensure that their offerings are on the straight and narrow.
But until I read Sarah Lutz's story about the Energy Star kerfuffle, I didn't realize that products bearing the highly regarded blue-and-white logo are not tested before they go to market (merely "some" are scrutinized after they are on the market). The ersatz air cleaner even lacked a required disclaimer and safety-standard number... and still got certified. All GAO investigators had to do was tell the authorities in an email that the product met the standards.
This is a pretty big blow to what I had always considered a credible certification system. People can get tax credits with certain Energy Star purchases, fer cryin' out loud. I can only hope that "Energy Star-Gate" will help the system grow some teeth.
And if it doesn't, we can take heart in the fact that the growing field of smart appliances will shine light into the dark crevices of mislabeled appliances, eventually rendering energy-efficiency fraud a thing of the past.
As for the food scams, that's a tough one, seeing as how the FDA can barely keep up with contamination issues, and better funding for the agency seems unlikely in this economy. But is it really so unreasonable to hope that the FDA could integrate traceability systems like the kind offered by my friends' company into its workings?
At the very least, the feds should approve food-category-specific standards (mentioned in the Washington Post story), such as those petitioned for by honey and olive-oil groups (the latter has been waiting nearly 20 years!), so that companies would be able to sue competitors suspected of selling impure products.
Creative Commons-licensed tarot image by Flickr user Maitri.
Speaking of transparency, outdoor-sportswear maker Patagonia has pulled back the curtain on the environmental effects and manufacturing processes behind some of its clothes with a cool new web feature.
The Footprint Chronicles tells the life story of five Patagonia products, showing the path each travels from design through fabric acquisition and processing, and finally to the distribution center. Each stage of the process has a thumbnail photo that you can click on for additional reading or videos on specific factories, sourcing philosophy, etc. And each product’s page details the total distance it traveled, its CO2 emissions, the total amount of waste it generated, and its energy consumption.
It’s a pretty neat tool—it reminds me of Timberland’s Nutrition Facts–esque labels from a couple years ago, only with more detail. (Hmm, I wonder if Patagonia will ever put this info on its labels in some form?)
But I must confess that my first reaction to the data behind the curtain was tinged with disappointment. The Wool 2 Crew sweater, for example, travels a total of 16,280 miles (thanks in part to its wool’s origins in an eco-friendly New Zealand ranch), generating 100 times its weight in carbon dioxide emissions. As the webpage itself states, “This is not sustainable.” And the Synchilla vest, which is (happily) made from all recycled materials and is itself recyclable through Patagonia’s Common Threads program, still generates 44 times its weight in emissions, despite the fact that its mileage figure of 5,150 is significantly less than the crew’s.
First reaction aside, though, I applaud Patagonia for launching the Footprint Chronicles and being willing to give us the straight dope. That in itself speaks volumes about the company’s ethos—clearly, it’s genuinely interested in engaging with consumers on these issues rather than making vague claims of responsibility and then hoping no one asks for elucidation (like some companies). Personally, I’m more likely to buy a jacket whose environmental footprint I can know something about than one that’s shrouded in mystery.
Furthermore, it’s good for consumers to be educated about what a globalized economy looks like. Certain products may be better than others in certain regards, and certain companies may have a higher commitment to lessening their impact on the earth than others, but the fact is that most products zip around the globe, merrily generating waste, warming the atmosphere, and expending energy before they land on store shelves. The more people realize this, the more attention will be paid to making smart choices given the current realities.
One thing I was excited to see, in several of the Footprint Chronicles product pages, was reference to a third-party auditing firm. To get more details, I talked to Nicole Bassett, Patagonia’s social responsibility manager. Turns out Patagonia works with a number of different auditors, not just Global Standards (which is misidentified as Global Solutions on the website). “We want to work with local auditing firms as much as possible because of their knowledge of local law and language,” she said.
So are all of Patagonia’s factories being constantly audited? Not exactly. Bassett herself schedules the audits “when we want to know about a factory’s social compliance.” (I meant to ask how often that happens and what the triggers are, but didn’t). An audit is scheduled for each new facility that the company starts using, Bassett said, and she also checks on factories that have been in Patagonia’s supply chain for years.
While I had her on the phone, I asked why the Footprint Chronicles had such scarce information on the natural-latex components for the Honeydew shoes. The reason is that the shoes are actually made by a company called Wolverine. “We just don’t really have the expertise in shoes,” Bassett explained. “So we license our brand name to Wolverine,” and Patagonia simply hasn’t been able to get all the numbers from Wolverine yet. Bassett said she expects the information to be available on the next version of the Footprint Chronicles, which should come out in April, and should also include four more Patagonia products.
In a recent post, I mentioned a green-minded shopper butting heads with Macy’s over being given an unwanted plastic bag. Now comes an interesting paradigm reversal: I never thought I’d see the day when the Middle Kingdom out-greened the U.S., but China just banned plastic shopping bags. (Although, to be fair, I must mention that San Francisco recently beat it on that front with its own ban.) Starting in June, the production of totes less than 0.025 mm thick will be illegal in China. What do you say to that, Macy’s? (And when are you going to respond to my email?)
It’s great to hear about the plastic-bag prohibition, but my smile fades when I read stories like this one from the New York Times, which reminds us that worker abuse in China is still common, despite the fact that many businesses are starting to get a clue about CSR (corporate social responsibility) and take such issues seriously. Indeed, a number of big companies now hire auditors to inspect their supplying factories.
I’ve discussed problems in the social auditing industry before, and they reappear in this article: factories being warned about audits beforehand, managers bribing inspectors, etc. I’d like to think that China’s new labor law, which just went into effect at the beginning of the month, will help, but I have my doubts (though I applaud it as a first step). In a country where corruption is so rampant, the enforcement of laws is so fickle, and independent unions remain prohibited, it’s hard to be overly optimistic about labor.
Pumpkins are sprouting up on front steps, and synthetic spiderwebs are spreading throughout windows and doorways in my neighborhood. In a week, trick-or-treaters will blanket the area to collect all manner of sugary confections. But just as Halloween has a dark side (from its origins in warding off evil spirits to such present-day irritants as oversexualized kids’ costumes), so do all those sweets.
Top candy manufacturers such as Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestlé—the makers of most of the treats that will fill those bags on All Hallow’s Eve—have long been criticized for sourcing their cocoa from West African producers with unsavory labor practices. Chocolate isn’t the only culprit, of course; social and environmental injustices can lurk behind other ingredients and in other parts of the supply chain as well.
Then there’s the health aspect of the annual feeding frenzy; the statistics on childhood obesity today are nothing if not worrying.
In response, some forward-thinking people and organizations have come up with a couple of interesting twists on Halloween. Corey Colwell-Lipson, a mother who was inspired by the households in her Seattle-area neighborhood that gave out non-candy items last year, founded Green Halloween, an initiative that encourages parents hand out healthier edibles (like organic juice boxes) and keepsakes instead of confections. It also advocates for focusing more on costumes and the social aspects of the holiday than the caloric ones. (Thanks to Lonnie for turning me on to this one.)
Meanwhile, Global Exchange is publicizing reverse trick-or-treating, in which costumed kids give fair-trade sweets and informational postcards to the households they’re supposedly hitting up. I tend to share World Changing’s skepticism of just how fun this would actually be for the little tykes, but hey, it’s worth a try.
In any case, I like the fact that so many people are “thinking outside of the candy box” (to quote Green Halloween) this year. Hmm, Mr. Wallet Mouth and I have a bunch of leftover blinky dice we had made as gifts to hand out at Burning Man; perhaps those would make good treats (not for compulsive swallowers, though). At the very least, we’ll have to scare up some fair-trade chocolate. Mmmm!
Last month I blogged about trying to get info from shoemaker Earth about its factories in China (link).
Why would a company with such a progressive image, I wondered, not be happy to verify its glowing assertions about the safety and labor-friendliness of its overseas contractors by having those operations inspected by one of the many third-party certifying organizations that exist for this precise purpose?
Why, in short, should consumers trust any corporation to effectively police itself?
(Since my original post, I’ve learned that problems still exist even when such certifiers are used, but I remain convinced that auditing is the best way to go.)
Five and a half weeks after my inquiry (which went unanswered, so I sent two more emails and left one phone message), Earth customer service finally responded. After disingenuously claiming to have received only my first email (I know that at least one of my later messages went through, because I got an out-of-office reply), the representative wrote:
We do not have specific answers for these questions, and I’d rather not open up the conversation.
We hold our facilities in China to the utmost
standard both environmentally and socially. Our shoes are manufactured
in a controlled, clean, and safe environment that is inspected, not
only by our top executives, but also by larger US corporations. Our
factory and offices are cleaner than most US plant and our workers are
living and eating far above Chinese standards. Ten years ago, our
workers were walking or pushing used bicycles to go to work, today
several of them have their own cars. In short, US companies are
pushing the envelope and raising up the bar for a better living and
better environment. Thanks to companies like us, we influence changes
and improve people’s life. I hope this information helps.
A few thoughts that might get Earth more grounded:
1. If you don’t want to have a conversation about these issues, you shouldn’t use them as a marketing ploy.
2. You can’t make claims about something that consumers care about and that has an effect in the world and then refuse to back them up.
3. Cutting-and-pasting unverifiable cherry-picked anecdotes does not reassure informed customers asking crucial questions. Rather, it insults them, invites claims of greenwashing (etc.), and pisses them off.
I followed up (politely) asking what “larger US corporations” means. What type of corporations? Fellow shoe manufacturers, perchance?
Evidence suggests I should hear back, oh, maybe by the end of September.
Yesterday I was shopping at my local REI, and I couldn’t help but notice how many of the windbreakers I was trying on were made in China.
Since I’ve been blogging about such issues of late, I decided to ask whether REI uses an auditor to ensure that the Chinese-produced apparel it sells is made in factories that adhere to decent labor standards. The clerk I approached said she thought so but wasn’t sure, so she paged a manager. The manager said yes, there was some type of auditing, but he didn’t know any of the details, like whether REI did it itself or hired an independent certifier. He suggested that I call or email the company to get in touch with someone who worked in the area of social responsibility.
While I was glad that my inquiry didn’t meet with blank stares, it’s a shame that even a retailer that identifies so highly with green and worker-friendly principles doesn’t have structures in place to disseminate this type of information to customers on the floor.
Concerns about sweatshops and ethical-labor practices have
been on the contemporary public radar ever since the early to mid-1990s, when
the Kathi Lee Gifford child-labor fiasco and other scandals erupted in the
I’ve been learning as much as I can about these issues
recently, and I was excited to discover the existence of auditing organizations
such as the Institute for Marketecology, Social Accountability
and Verité that conduct independent inspections of
factories and other types of production facilities to ascertain whether certain
codes of conduct are being met. If the facility passes muster, it gets a
certified stamp of approval.
What a great idea: a way for consumers to ensure that
they’re not subsidizing exploitative business practices, and for responsible corporations
to put their money where their mouths are. I’ve even started pestering
companies to encourage them to take part in such certification programs.
So imagine my dismay when I came across this Business Week article about Chinese factories that deceive auditors in order to be certified. It’s well worth reading in its
entirety, but the gist is that nowadays it’s commonplace for factories in China to maintain extra sets of books containing falsified records, and to distribute
scripts for workers to recite if they are questioned by inspectors. Not only that, but “a new breed of Chinese consultant has
sprung up to assist companies … in evading audits,” the article states.
Pretty depressing, huh? But not entirely surprising.
still digesting the contents of this article, but a few thoughts come to mind.
One is that, as much as I sometimes enjoy heaping scorn on big business and
calling large companies “evil,” it’s not always as black-and-white as that. After
all, big players such as Disney, Nike, and Wal-Mart regularly use auditing
organizations, and the large-scale pressure these companies provide has
undoubtedly helped check some of the worst abuses. The system is certainly
imperfect, but at least these institutions are in place; that’s the first step
to meaningful reform.
Another thought is just how much, for me, China represents so many of the complexities, contradictions, and shortcomings of the
global economy. I’ll no doubt be thinking about that tonight when I see Manufactured Landscapes, a new
documentary about Edward Burtynsky, whose awe-inspiring photographs capture
just how massive industry in China is.
Have you ever bought Dolores brand canned tuna? If so, you may have unwittingly subsidized dolphin-killing fishing practices. Not that you would have known, because the product would have had a “Dolphin Safe” label on it.
An article in the latest issue of Earth Island Journal details a case of illegal non-dolphin-safe tuna importation and fake labeling on the part of PINSA, Mexico’s largest tuna processor. Cans of the fish ended up on the shelves of supermarket chain Food Lion.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. A complaint from the International Marine Mammal Project, an Earth Island Institute project, resulted in the seizure of a truckload of the tuna at the U.S.-Mexican border and a fine to the importing company. Food Lion has stopped selling Dolores tuna and renewed its pledge to buy only dolphin-safe tuna.
The same article describes a similar case in which IMMP monitors found that one of the 382 companies participating in the organization’s Dolphin Safe program was buying tuna from a fleet that didn’t comply with program standards. After an ample warning period, Asiservy cannery was removed from IMMP’s list of dolphin-safe tuna companies. Major importing associations have been advised of its delisting and are expected to stop purchasing the tuna.
It’s a good reminder of the important role nonprofits play in the realm of consumer activism.
A few years ago, I decided to stop buying leather shoes. After all, I reasoned, I’m a vegetarian (well, actually, a “fishetarian,” since I do occasionally eat fish), and it would be inconsistent to reject beef but still buy leather products. So, on a trip to New York a couple years ago, I went on a minor shopping spree at Moo Shoes and purchased several vegan pairs, among them, a pair of black Mary Janes made by the Earth shoe company.
Fast-forward to this week, when I came across this long but interesting blog post highlighting the contradiction between the vegan ethos of nonexploitation and the fact that most shoes, leather-free or not, are made in Asian factories whose labor standards are waaaaay lax compared with those of the first world. Granted, many of the employees in those factories are no doubt thankful for their jobs, but their working conditions would probably give many Western consumers pause.
The post also makes several criticisms of Earth, including the fact that the interiors of the company’s shoes feature the image of the American flag—which I actually remember seeing in the store and thinking, “Oh, cool, these were made domestically”—but with the words “Designed in USA” in very small type under Old Glory. At that point I had to stop reading and grab my shoes to see for myself. Yup. Not made in U.S.A. Designed in U.S.A. Pretty cheeky, huh?
And also somewhat bizarre, given that the Our Company page of Earth’s website is very up front about the fact that its shoes are made in China. It even casts that as a good thing, because it means better value for the consumer. As for labor conditions in the factories, “Family members and executives go there frequently
to watch operations and working conditions.... The factory and offices are up to par
with many US plants, and our workers enjoy a lifestyle above Asian
standards.... In short, Earth, and other US companies operating in China’s
special industrial zones, have created a new life for Chinese workers.
We are pushing the envelope and raising the bar; fighting for better
living and a better environment. We have and will continue to influence
changes to improve people’s quality of life everywhere on Earth.”
As I read those words, I could feel my skepticism hackles raising. From what I’ve read about these special manufacturing zones, they represent a complicated web of contractors, subcontractors, and go-betweens. Orders can float from factory to factory, and oftentimes companies don't even know which facility is making their goods.
Luckily, there is another way: third-party certifiers such as Social Accountability International and Verité, which work with companies to ensure that the workers producing their goods are treated ethically.
So here’s the message I emailed to Earth a couple days ago (no response yet; I’ll let you know if/when I hear back):
I was just reading the Our Company page on your site, and my interest was piqued by your words on China. You say, “Family members and executives go there frequently to watch operations and working conditions.”
Here’s the thing, though. These days, companies are falling all over themselves to make claims about how green and socially responsible they are. Consequently, there’s a lot of greenwashing going on. The smart consumer doesn’t simply believe everything she hears or reads.
For a company’s CSR claims to be worth anything, it’s important for them to be backed up. So I was wondering if Earth is considering using the services of an independent third-party certifier, such as Social Accountability International’s Corporate Programs, or Verite, which New Balance uses. If not, why not?
I was also curious about the environmental impact of Earth’s shoes. You say that you are an environmentally responsible company, but are your shoes manufactured in an eco-friendly way? I can’t seem to find any information about this on your site, and factories in China are famous for how polluting they are. Do you have any oversight in this regard?
I encourage any readers out there to send similar notes
to companies whose products they are concerned about. Let me know what
comes of it!
December 2010 I haven't actually bought anything from Po-Zu yet, but I appreciate their awareness of the fact that many vegan shoes are made of petroleum products and aren't necessarily better for the environment than leather footwear. Po-Zu seems to set a high bar for itself when it comes to ingredients and supply chains.
March 2010 After running out of dish soap, I started using our good old bars of Sappo Hill out of necessity. But you know what? Our dishes are just as clean, and when I pick up the soap at our grocery store, the only packaging on the bars is the price tag. And did I mention the soap is awesome? We love the oatmeal bar.
February 2010 TMI alert: If you're a squeamish guy, read no further. I'm done with tampons! Instead, I'm using the DivaCup.
January 2010 Mr. Wallet Mouth and I both love Pact. Its underwear is made of organic cotton, and the company donates 10% of its sales to worthy environmental causes. Not only that, but the company is serious about eco-friendly packaging. Each pair of undies comes not in a plastic bag but in a little cloth pouch made from fabric remnants. I'm also impressed with how responsive Pact is over email; when I asked a packaging question, I got a nice reply from the CEO.
December 2009 After reading about Skoy Cloths, the biodegradable paper-towel alternative, on Fake Plastic Fish, I bought a bunch for stocking stuffers and my own kitchen, and I'm now a fan. They're lasting a long time, despite repeated washings in the laundry, and they arrive with minimal packaging.
October 2009 I was already of fan of Straus yogurt (see June 2007), but now I love it even more. According to Michael Straus, a son of the company's founder, Straus yogurt "is made, cooled, and set in stainless-steel vats, unlike most yogurts, which are poured while still hot into plastic cups to cool and set." As someone who's concerned about plastics and chemical safety, I'm happy to hear that!
July 2009 I'm using a lot more baking soda now that I'm making more of an effort to clean the house in a nontoxic way. But from now on I'll be buying Bob's Red Mill, since Arm & Hammer engages in animal testing.
July 2008 Started feeling extra-good about buying one of my fave meat substitutes, Tofurky, after learning that its maker, Turtle Island Foods, is an independent, family-owned company (Unlike Boca Foods, which is a subsidiary of Kraft, and Morningstar, which is owned by Kellogg).
April 2008 I'm going to start buying my canned beans from Eden Foods, for two reasons: it uses custom-made cans that don't contain bisphenol A, and it's an independent, family-operated company.
February 2008 From now on, whenever I order takeout or ask for a doggy bag, I’ll make sure to avoid #6 polystyrene containers (and, of course, Styrofoam).