Chocolate is often thought of as a “guilty pleasure,” but for those who are concerned about the environment, ethical labor practices and sustainable production, a leading chocolate maker is offering some new reasons to feel good about the decision to indulge. The Hershey Company announced earlier this month that it will transition to the use of 100 percent certified cocoa by 2020. The company says it will also “accelerate its programs to help eliminate child labor” in cocoa-growing regions of West Africa. The company is not the first chocolate maker to announce a move to certified cocoa, but as one of the biggest, its announcement is making significant waves in the industry.

For those who might wonder what “100 percent certified” means, the company’s announcement says the cocoa used “will be verified through independent auditors to assure that it is grown in line with the highest internationally recognized standards for labor, environmental and better farming practices.” Organizations that provide those certification standards include Fair Trade  and the Rainforest Alliance. Looking for more clarification about how the company intends to adhere to these standards with regard to the eradication of child labor, we asked Hershey spokesman Jeff Beckman exactly what is meant by the company’s statement that it hopes to “help”eliminate the practice, and whether that implies tolerance on any level. No, says Beckman.

“The Hershey Company does not tolerate child labor in cocoa producing regions,” he replied in an email. “We are working with public and private partners to eliminate this issue. We’ve gone to tremendous efforts in recent years to have a real and lasting impact where cocoa is grown. We believe these programs are substantial and are making a significant difference on the ground in West Africa.”

The company says it is already invested in a number of programs designed to improve conditions in West Africa, including a distance learning program in Ghana that connects Ghanaian school students with US kids through a live video link, construction of a school in the Ivory Coast, the “CocoaLink” mobile phone network for cocoa farmers in West Africa, and the “Learn to Grow” training farm in Ghana, among others.

An Industry Trend

“Hershey’s announcement is certainly important to the industry,” writes Susan Smith of the National Confectioners’ Association, who adds that other leading chocolate companies are making similar commitments. (Another big name in the industry, Mars, is among them  :  the company has also pledged to use 100 percent certified cocoa by 2020 and states on its website that it was the first global chocolate brand to make that commitment. ) According to Smith, the trend really began in the late 1990s, when companies took a closer look at work being done by the decades-old American Cocoa Research Institute. The Institute’s mission was to improve cocoa farming around the world. But Smith says the cocoa companies “realized that the assistance being provided through research initiatives just wasn’t enough and that cocoa farm families needed better training and access to basic services, including education for children, health care, clean accessible water and sanitation.” The announcement by Hershey, and the impetus that it will provide for other companies to match those efforts, will be “one more step along the journey to ensure that cocoa is a viable, attractive and fulfilling way of life for future generations,” Smith says.

The shift by other chocolatiers is likely to be encouraged by market factors as well as by ethics: Hershey is the largest chocolate company in North America, and its commitment to certified cocoa is expected to increase the supply of certified cocoa on the world market. Hershey’s demand will be “immense,”says Beckman. He adds, “We will be working with a number of certifiers to reach 100 percent certification, and we expect that the certifiers will scale up their certified cocoa volumes to meet our growing requirements over the next eight years.”

Effect on Consumers

Consumers who are already eco-savvy are likely to take the environment into account when they make buying decisions, about everything from cars to candy bars. But do candy industry experts think the “100 percent certified” designation matters to the sweets-purchasing public as a whole?

“Yes, but to different degrees,” says Smith. “However, most consumers want to feel assured that the delicious chocolates they purchase have been produced in an environmentally and socially sound manner. Certification is one way to convey that assurance.”

As for whether the use of 100 percent certified cocoa will raise prices for the consumer, Hershey is remaining noncommittal for now. “We can’t speculate on the future product pricing or the market cost of the commodities we use in our products,” comments Beckman, who cites “a number of input factors” in pricing. He adds, “As certified cocoa becomes more widely available, the cost of certified cocoa may moderate over time.” If the suggestion appears to be that yes, retail prices will go up, that may be the case: but it may be weighed against other factors. For many consumers who consider sustainability in buying decisions, a higher price has traditionally been acceptable.

Some Products Available Now

While consumers will have to wait until 2020 for all Hershey products to be made with certified cocoa, the company will offer some items sooner. Its Bliss chocolates will be Rainforest Alliance certified by the end of the year, and its Dagoba chocolate line is already 100 percent Rainforest Alliance certified. At the same time it announced its plan to move to 100 certified cocoa for all its products, Hershey also said that its Scharffen Berger chocolates will source 100 percent certified cocoa by the end of next year. Of course, there are other products on the market for chocolate lovers who can’t wait: The Rainforest Alliance provides information about certified cocoa products on its website, and the Fair Trade USA website has a section devoted to chocolate.

Still looking for a reason to indulge? NCA’s Susan Smith has two. “Chocolate is a wonderful delicious product that delights your taste buds and may have a positive effect on your health,” she notes. “Those are pretty important attributes, too!”