Nestle praised for "bold" move

Nestle praised for "bold" move

An investigation by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) into Nestle's cocoa supply chain in Ivory Coast has uncovered numerous breaches of its supplier code and most crucially extensive use of child labour. Ben Cooper examines the FLA findings and their implications.

The long-running struggle to eradicate the use of child labour from West African cocoa cultivation witnessed one of its most notable developments in years last week, when a major investigation into Nestle's Ivory Coast cocoa supply chain, conducted by the Fair Labor Association (FLA) was published.

FLA reported its investigation, initiated at Nestle's behest following an agreement reached between the two parties last year, revealed "numerous violations of its labour code, especially with regard to child labour". Nestle said it supported all 11 recommendations in the report and planned to act on them. 

Nestle executive vice president for operations José Lopez said the use of child labour "goes against everything we stand for", and said tackling the issue was a "top priority for our company", as the company launched an Action Plan to run from 2012 to 2016 to address the issue.

Lopez reiterated this in a webcast on Friday, adding that he hoped the company's move would also "inspire others" to take similar steps.

Speaking to just-food, FLA chief executive Auret van Heerden identified three reasons why he believes this to be a game-changer. "I don't think Nestle would make such a high-profile commitment if they weren't absolutely determined to carry it through," van Heerden said. "They would be setting themselves up for a lot of criticism if they didn't carry it through now." 

He also pointed to the holistic approach Nestle had taken, scrutinising its supply chain "from headquarters all the way down to the field", looking at how well they were maintaining their own standards "all the way down the chain". 

He pointed to the measures the company was taking within its Action Plan to ensure that employees and partners at different points in the chain were clear about what was expected in terms of ensuring standards, and how scrutiny and measurement of performance against those standards would be improved.

Crucially, van Heerden said Nestle was taking individual responsibility for its supply chain. Hitherto, he said, companies had been too focused on collective industry efforts to tackle the problem rather than on what they should be doing individually. 

While remaining committed to collective efforts, Nestle's move was about a company "rolling up its sleeves" and working on its own specific supply chain. "That's a very fundamental shift in mindset."

This point was echoed by Peter McAllister, former head of the International Cocoa Initiative, the multi-stakeholder initiative set up under the terms of the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol, and now executive director of the Ethical Trading Initiative.

Describing the Nestle move as a "positive evolution" in the response to the issue, McAllister said the fact a major company had commissioned such an in-depth study of its supply chain by a credible, independent organisation, with the results being placed in the public domain, "was not an important point".

McAllister said: "There's an ownership issue that is really important. There have been lots of general studies, but there is no doubt that a specific study that tracks [a company's] actual supply chain, as much as you can, probably speaks more powerfully to corporate interests. What we want to see now are clear concrete actions and change in the conditions for workers and children."

So widespread is the use of child labour in the Ivorian cocoa sector that any company buying cocoa from the country is implicated in some way, and all have been subject to criticism from campaigners to some degree, particularly as the collective efforts to find a solution have been relatively unproductive.

However, the response from campaigners to Nestle's announcement was positive. Dr Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, said in a statement to just-food: "Nestle's decision in seeking independent advice and expertise is a welcome sign and hopefully this transparency continues during efforts to remediate the problems that have been identified."

Positive endorsement by external stakeholders is not only significant in terms of credibility. Collaboration with diverse stakeholders is vital for the effectiveness of any remediation strategy.

In that vein, Nestle has said its Action Plan will involve working with the ICI which also said it "welcomed the opportunity" to bring its child labour expertise to bear in helping Nestle implement its Action Plan.

Nick Weatherill, ICI executive director, described Nestle's action as "a very bold and very welcome move", adding that ICI was "very enthusiastic" about the transparency Nestle's recent announcement had brought to the issue.

However, pressure group Stop the Traffik expressed concern that Nestle's efforts were too focused on the Nestle Cocoa Plan (NCP), a sustainability initiative begun three years ago.  

Contributing to Nestle's webcast on Friday, Stop the Traffik Netherlands director Antonie Fountain said Nestle's move was a "good step forward in transparency", but suggested that most of the recommendations and actions were related to the NCP. 

Van Heerden sought to clarify the distinction between actions targeted specifically at the NCP and those applicable to the broader supply chain. He said: "If you look at our recommendations, I can tell you that 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9 and 11 all apply to the standard supply chain as well, so it is not restricted to the Nestle Cocoa Plan."

Nestle has also stressed its Action Plan is aimed at achieving incremental change, the phased process for improving child labour monitoring at co-ops through its partnership with ICI being an example.

Nevertheless, like the other companies, Nestle does buy most of its cocoa through large-scale cocoa processors, and campaigners have long complained it is the serious engagement of these companies that has been most lacking in the collective response so far.

Van Heerden believes this latest move represents a good chance to foster that sort of engagement, pointing to an overture Olam International had already made to FLA regarding its supply chain. 

"Nestle certainly have started that discussion with a lot of their business partners. I'm hoping that Nestle's buying power could persuade maybe even a Cargill or an ADM to come to the table as well." He also believes the action Nestle has taken could be a "boilerplate" for other branded companies in mapping their supply chains.

McQuade said he hoped Nestle's move would foster more "co-ordinated action from governments, civil society, cocoa traders and chocolate manufacturers".

Critically, Nestle's move has coincided with the stepping-up of government action on child labour. ICI points out that over recent months the Ivorian government has "made great progress", driving through major reforms, passing child labour legislation and unveiling a new National Action Plan to combat child labour.

The combination of the strong lead being taken by the world's leading food producer - Nestle buys around 10% of the world's cocoa crop and also about 10% of the Ivory Coast production of 1.3m to 1.4m tonnes - and the Ivorian government ramping up its response arguably offers a greater opportunity for a meaningful breakthrough on this issue than has been seen for many years.

Indeed, Nick Weatherill believes the combination of having "the right structures and frameworks in place at national level" together with "new commitments and new initiatives on the industry side" represents "a very fertile opportunity" to drive change.