It was supposed to be a day when Hershey, the US chocolate maker, was to demonstrate its commitment to all things CSR.
The issue of corporate and social responsibility is becoming critical for businesses of all shapes and sizes. NGOs and advocacy groups are growing in number and in voice, while consumers the world over are, via the Internet, becoming ever more knowledgeable about the products they buy.
A coherent, joined-up and, crucially, proactive CSR strategy is a must for big business – particularly those with consumer-facing brands.
In publishing its first CSR report, Hershey must have felt as though it was demonstrating to investors, consumers and other industry stakeholders that it was serious about corporate and social responsibility.
The company no doubt hoped the launch would gain extra resonance for taking place on the anniversary of the birthday of Milton Hershey, the philanthropist and founder of the company.
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However, the day soon turned sour when, to coincide with Hershey’s CSR report, a clutch of NGOs issued their own report that criticised the company’s record on issues from cocoa sourcing and labour standards to sustainability.
In wide-ranging criticism of the US chocolate giant’s record on corporate and social responsibility, NGOs and human rights groups accused Hershey of sourcing cocoa from African farms that use forced and child labour.
Tellingly, in the report, Hershey also suffered in comparison to Nestle, often the bete noire of NGOs. That alone suggests Hershey has some work to do in convincing the NGOs of its commitment to working on cocoa sourcing, labour abuses and CSR.
Hershey, however, will need to be proactive and confront any concerns about the business head on.
When the company was contacted by just-food yesterday in the wake of the NGO report, a Hershey spokesman declined to respond directly to our questions and referred us to passages of its newly-launched CSR report.
When a company’s CSR reputation is on the line, its policies need to be explained and its plans outlined. Acting with apparent disinterest towards questions about its programme for corporate and social responsibility will do the company few favours.
Hershey is keen to insist it can compete head on with its larger, global rivals. In the field of CSR, however, rivals like Nestle and Cadbury have stolen a march on Hershey and, with consumers taking a growing interest in issues like Fairtrade, Hershey could suffer if it is seen as less committed as some of its rival brand-owners.