Ben Cooper believes Nestle’s response to the investigation into its Ivory Coast cocoa supply chain by the Fair Labor Association has the potential to move the needle on what has been frequently described as an intractable issue.

Nestle’s announcement late last year that it had asked the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to undertake a thorough investigation of its Ivory Coast supply chain offered an opportunity to inject new impetus into the becalmed efforts to address the issue of child labour in Ivory Coast cocoa production, dating back to the signing of the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001.

While Nestle’s Action Plan, published with the FLA findings last week, is at this stage no more than another set of intentions, this time there is considerable cause for optimism.

In the first place, this is one single company – and a very powerful and influential one at that – saying ‘this is our problem and we’re going to sort it out’. 

There is an odd dichotomy around this issue. While it is generally acknowledged that it can only be solved by collective action and the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders, the collective industry response seems sometimes to have militated against individual companies taking sufficient responsibility. It is, as several observers have noted, everybody’s responsibility and no one’s. 

Indeed, it has been alleged by some that the industry response has been too much about “handling” the issue, and dealing with the politics, rather than about actually grappling with tackling the problem itself.

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There was a telling moment during the webcast Nestle hosted on Friday when Nestle executive vice president for operations José Lopez was asked the direct question: “How long has Nestle been using child labour?”. His response: “For as long as we’ve been using cocoa probably.”

In the early days of Harkin-Engel such a direct question would almost certainly have been met by a reference to the general intractability of a sector-wide problem rather than the simple and candid admission of a truth which applies not only to Nestle but to all its major competitors and suppliers.

In fact, Nestle’s recent action can be seen as part of a gradual – though it has to be said very gradual – shift in the way companies with well known brand names have viewed the issue. 

While still supporting the collective push, companies like Mars Inc and Cadbury have made public statements on the issue and declared their own specific intentions. Nestle’s move arguably represents the strongest individual company action to date, and it may well prompt other companies to step up their own efforts.

The increasing attention by the branded companies also speaks to the general trend in corporate sustainability that has increasingly required companies to account for social and environmental impacts throughout their supply chain –  to “know and show”. 

Regarding human rights this evolution is reflected in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed last year. The due diligence companies are now expected to exercise involves a level of supply chain accountability far greater than that which might have been expected in 2001. 

Nestle’s insistence at the same time that this problem can only be tackled by stakeholders acting together should not be viewed as a resort to the tired platitudes of the last decade and more. 

While that truism has featured prominently in corporate rhetoric attempting to deflect criticism for the slow rate of progress, it remains nonetheless central to any attempt to tackle the problem. And the Nestle Action Plan includes many references to engagement with stakeholders and other actors along these complex supply chains. 

Most critically, for Nestle to have a chance of delivering on its undertakings it will have to engage the large cocoa processors which supply the majority of its cocoa in the task. 

For years, campaigners have complained that while all industry players have not acted fast enough, the level of engagement from the large processors, which do not have the same brand reputation issues to consider, has been particularly disappointing. Nevertheless, they buy and process the vast majority of the cocoa that eventually ends up in those chocolate bars. Their commitment and involvement in any solution is simply vital.

Campaigners have also questioned why companies such as Nestle have not done more to leverage their buying power and put pressure on the processors to do more. There is a strong underlying sense that Nestle has decided that now is the time to step up that pressure.

Another virtue of the Nestle response is, ironically, an apparent lack of ambition, or more accurately the lack of a specific deadline for eradicating child labour from its supply chain. This has generally been viewed as reflecting a realistic understanding of the scale and complexity of the challenge while underlining that Nestle is not looking to grab cheap headlines with audacious goals.

That said, the company has set a schedule for its three-phased programme between now and 2016, with public reporting on its progress also a feature. In an area where unrealistic targets have been set and missed, this more methodical approach has been broadly welcomed.

The other primary reason why this particular intervention may spark something of a step-change on this issue is that it coincides with ramped-up engagement in the issue by the Ivorian government, including new legislation and a National Action Plan to combat child labour. This could be a particularly happy coincidence for Nestle but a positive one for all engaged in tackling the issue.

There have been many false dawns in the history of this issue but at the very least this is a significant event in the battle against child labour in Ivory Coast cocoa production. Whether it is a seminal one depends not only on Nestle’s actions but on how other actors now respond.