A proposed class action lawsuit alleges The Hershey Company and Rainforest Alliance have falsely and deceptively marketed the former’s organic and plant-based chocolate bars as ethically sourced and “sustainable.”
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According to the 34-page complaint, the supply and production processes for the Hershey products at issue “contribute to grievous and unsustainable labor abuses, including the worst forms of child labor and/or forced labor” and other exploitative labor practices endemic to the cocoa industry.
The case says that although the Rainforest Alliance seal, which contains the words “People & Nature,” is prominently affixed to Hershey’s organic and plant-based chocolates, including Hershey’s Organic Milk Chocolate Candy Bars, Hershey’s Special Dark Organic Chocolate Bars and Hershey’s Organic Miniatures Milk Chocolate Candy Bars, the products, in truth, are “the result of child labor and destructive environmental practices such that they are harmful to ‘people’ and ‘nature.’”
The use of fair and sustainable labor methods is of growing concern to consumers, who increasingly seek out products sourced without forced labor, child labor or exploitative labor practices, the suit relays. Per the complaint, cocoa farming is one such industry with a known history of utilizing child and forced labor for production, in particular in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, the two countries from which about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is sourced.
According to the suit, Hershey, one of the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers, claims to have achieved “100 percent certified and sustainable cocoa,” in part by sourcing through Rainforest Alliance-certified cocoa farms. The case shares that Rainforest Alliance is an international, non-governmental body whose seal, bearing the group’s green frog logo, represents that a product has been certified as produced by farmers, foresters and/or companies “working together to create a world where people and nature thrive in harmony.”
The lawsuit alleges that despite Hershey’s “100 percent sustainable” claims, the company has only 68 percent sourcing visibility by volume, meaning that only 68 percent of its cocoa comes from known farmers and farmer groups and is independently verified.
“The simple fact is that Hershey does not know whether 32 percent of its cocoa volume is sustainable—or not,” the filing charges. “Without the ability to trace 100 percent of its cocoa, Hershey cannot substantiate its claims that the cocoa in its Products is 100 percent sustainable and thus, the statement in Hershey’s consumer marketing materials is false.”
Further, although Hershey also claims that its cocoa is “100 percent independently verified” by Rainforest Alliance, the chocolate maker knows that the group’s cocoa certification process “uses a weak ‘assess and address’ approach” that “allows farms with instances of child labor, forced labor and/or other unethical labor abuses to remain certified.”
“In contrast to its marketing representations, Rainforest Alliance is not able to confirm that the cocoa it provides to Hershey is responsibly harvested, and this ‘assess-and-address’ approach, as Rainforest Alliance calls it, is mere guidance, not ‘verification,’” the suit contests.
The lawsuit says that investigations have revealed that unfair labor practices and child labor have been found on Rainforest Alliance-certified farms and that the group “has done little to improve the problematic working conditions for cocoa farms and their families.” Per the case, reports have found that fewer than 10 percent of cocoa farms certified by organizations like Rainforest Alliance “are actually inspected.”
The filing goes on to summarize that by deceiving consumers about “the nature and quality” of its chocolate, Hershey is able to sell more of the products at higher prices and steal market share from competitors. At the same time, Rainforest Alliance deceives consumers given that it lacks sufficient mechanisms to ensure that any of the cocoa used in the products it certifies is actually sourced ethically and sustainably, the suit argues.
The lawsuit looks to cover all consumers who have bought Hershey’s organic and plant-based chocolate bars that contain Rainforest Alliance-certified cocoa in the U.S. within the applicable statute of limitations period.
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