Thursday, October 22, 2015
Regular readers know that I write a lot about business and human rights and that I have posted about a number of lawsuits brought in California alleging violations of consumer protection statutes and false advertising claiming that companies fail to disclose the use of child slavery on their packaging. The complaints allege that consumers are deceived into "supporting" the child slave labor trade. The latest class action has been filed against Hershey, Mars, and Nestle. Back in 2001, these companies and several others signed the Engel-Harkin Protocol (drafted by Congressman Engel) in an effort to avoid actual FDA legislation regarding "slave-free" labeling. Nestle has touted its work with some of the world's biggest NGOs to help clean up its supply chain for all of its human rights issues, not just in the cocoa industry. Nestle denies the allegations and actually has an extensive action plan related to child labor. Mars and Hershey also denied the allegations.
I am curious as to whether shareholders demand action from the boards of these companies or if the steady stream of litigation being filed in California causes companies to invest more in supply chain due diligence or to change where and how they source their materials. The real question is whether consumers actually care. Today I conducted an unscientific poll. I asked my business associations and civil procedure students to vote on whether they would continue to buy their favorite chocolate if they knew that child slaves were used in the cocoa harvesting. I made them close their eyes so they wouldn't feel self-conscious about their answers and asked for their honest feedback. About 90% of students in both classes said that they wouldn't buy the products. We will see what happens to their moral outrage if I bring in Halloween candy next week. My business associations students also believed that shoppers who saw signs in grocery stores about child slaves wouldn't buy the candy either. This is in fact the theory behind many of the name and shame campaigns such as Dodd-Frank conflict minerals.
Maybe it does work. I am against the Dodd-Frank legislation for a variety of reasons, but when one of my students came in my office a few minutes ago and pointed out my Soda Stream bottle she said "you know that there is a huge conflict with that company and Israel, right"? I admitted that I knew. And yes, I am going to Bed, Bath, and Beyond this weekend to buy another brand. I have been shamed, even if she didn't intend to so do.