Hershey’s Social Responsibility: A Case Study on How the Rise of Social Media Holds Companies to a Higher Standard

The production and selling of chocolate is around a $100 billion USD per year global industry (Martin, 2017). However, while chocolate may be a big business, there have been many instances of social injustices and questionable business practices thought it’s history. Given that over half of the world’s confectionary market is completely dominated by 5 major players; Mars, Kraft, Nestle, Ferrero and Hershey, all of these companies could have a tremendous impact on efforts to rectify injustices and improve business practices (Martin, 2017). Unfortunately, historically some of these companies, Hershey for example, have not only failed to take an active social role but have actually contributed to the problem. Recently, however Hershey and other major companies have experienced a shift in their company culture and have actively invested their resources into increasing social responsibility and sustainability. This shift and changed attitude can partially be attributed to the rise of social media and the consumer’s growing awareness, investment, and involvement in how companies operate.

History of Hershey

Historically Hershey has not always utilized the most socially responsible business practices. One extremely controversial issue within the chocolate industry is the issue of sourcing. Amongst the many ethical problem that can arise in the process of sourcing cocoa is the issue of acceptable labor conditions. This particular issue has seemed to cause trouble for Hershey’s business on more than one occasion. At the turn of the 20th century it was discovered that slave labor was being used at the Cadbury cocoa farms located in São Tomé and Príncipe (Higgs, 2012). Cadbury, experienced both government and public backlash for his continued involvement within the areas, until finally in 1910 the company formally boycotted cocoa from São Tomé and Príncipe, and moved their operations to the Gold Coast in Africa (Higgs, 2012). Unfortunately, Hershey their American counterpart chose not to participate in the boycott, thereby facilitating the existing infrastructure of slave labor and allowing it to continue well in the mid-1900s (Martin, 2017). This is not the only instance of questionable cocoa sourcing during the Hershey’s history. More recently, Hershey has also received a considerable amount of unfavorable coverage based on the working conditions and the use of child labor in cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire specifically along the Ivory Coast (Phillips & Caldwell, 2005).

Hershey’s Shifting Values and Increased Social Responsibility

Although Hershey has had a history of questionable and controversial business practices, the company is now contributing to efforts to rectify social injustices and improve working conditions within the chocolate industry, by increasing their own social responsibility. In 2014, the company also released their first corporate social responsibility report in attempt to increase transparency and accountability, stating that they wanted to “reimagined [their] corporate brand, with a clean, modern identity.”

This video highlights some of the initiative that Hershey has taken on  in order to improve their social responsibility. Some of the accomplishment that they highlight are helping cocoa farmers increase their productivity, reducing waste and water use to increase environmental sustainability, and investing in children and their future. They specifically mention how they are supporting a cause in Ghana known as Project Peanut butter as well as how they have built a school on the Ivory coast and are investing in education at home in the United States.

The Role of Social Media

This increase in social responsibility from not only Hershey, but also other major companies, can be attributed in large part to the rise of social media and the growing awareness and interest of the consumer. Snider, Hill, and Martin (2003) discuss how the internet has given the public access to certain information and has reduced companies’ ability to act as gatekeepers of information to their stakeholders. As a result of this vast expansion of information accessibility, consumers are now more concerned than ever that the companies they are buying from and supporting are not only producing high quality product, but also doing it in a way that is ethically sound. In fact a study conducted by Maignan and Ralston (2002) revealed that one of the main reasons that companies listed for committing to socially responsible behavior was pressure from stakeholders, notably consumers, to behave in socially responsible ways (Campbell, 2007). With the introduction of social media, consumers have a new tool to apply this social pressure with. They are now able to give immediate and very public feedback when their standards for product quality and social responsibility are not being met and companies are responding accordingly.

These tweets are examples of how social media, in this case specifically twitter, has increased the accountability of Hershey. The tweets range from being about issues of quality, to product innovations/requests, to issues about ethical business practice. Despite the wide range of topics that are covered in tweets @ Hershey, Hershey makes a point of responding to every one. This illustrates just how important and powerful social media feedback can be.

One example of social media having a extremely significant and immediate impact on a company’s business is the recent Kendall Jenner Pepsi Commercial fiasco.

Pepsi aired this commercial featuring Kendall Jenner in early April of this year. The video was immediately met with criticism and public outrage on social media about the video being appropriative and tone-deaf, by using serious political issues to sell soda.

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Many people complained that it trivialized decades of protests against police brutality, as well as trivializing the black lives matter movement, specifically because of the image towards the end of the commercial of Kendall Jenner handing the police officer a can of Pepsi, which many compared to the now famous image captured of Ieshia Evans at a protest moments before her arrest. This tweet, shown above is just one of many tweets complaining about the lack of social awareness that was displayed in this ad.

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One particularly notable tweet came from Bernice King, Martin Luther King’s daughter. She too found the pepsi commercial to be appropriative and trivializing of the hardship and struggle that her father faced in the fight for civil rights.

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Within 24 hours, due to the public uproar and continued outrage expressed over social media Pepsi pulled the ad, which probably cost millions to produce and issued a public statement, which they shared across multiple platforms of social media, apologizing for “missing the mark.” While Hershey has never faced social media back lash of this magnitude, the pepsi example clearly illustrates what a huge and swift impact social media and public response can have on how companies conduct their business and represent themselves.

Is it all Enough? Hershey’s Lack of Transparency

Although it is evident that social media has the potential to hold companies accountable and enact tangible change, it may not have a broad enough reach to completely revolutionize the chocolate industry and all of the social injustices occurring within the business just yet. True, Hershey seems to have taken great strides in increasing their company’s social responsibility and investing their resources into making sure that they are improving working conditions and making the world a better place. But, are they really doing enough? One thing that I did find disheartening was the underwhelming amount of company transparency and lack of emphasis on their work in social responsibility on their website.

The images above are all screen shots from different company homepage, In the upper left corner, you will see a screenshot from Hershey’s homepage, in the lower left hand corner is a screen shot of Mars’ homepage and the upper and lower righthand images are screenshots of Nestle’s company homepage.

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Zooming onto the main menu of Hershey’s page, you can see that they don’t have any type of link to learn more about their social responsibility. At first I wanted to give Hershey the benefit of the doubt, so I clicked on their link to learn more about their story, to see if there was any mention of social responsibility on that page. I also clicked on their option to learn more about simple ingredients to see if while they were talking about their simple ingredients they also mentioned how they were ethically sourcing them.

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What I found was slightly disappointing, these are screen shots from the “Our Story” page (left) and the “Simple Ingredients” page (right). As you can see from the images, the informations is very heavily geared towards the wants and benefits of the consumer and doesn’t really make any effort to talk about socially responsibility at all. It seems like their only concern, at least as it is portrayed on their main website, is their responsibility to their consumer. In fact it was so difficult for me to find any mention of community involvement or social initiatives on their main website that in order to find out more about Hershey’s social responsibility initiatives, I actually had to specifically google “Hershey social responsibility” in order to find anything at all.

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In contrast, when you zoom onto the main menu options of the Mars and Nestle home-pages, you can see that right away there are options to learn about “Nestle in society” or how Mars is “Doing Our Part”. Once you visit their actual pages you can tell that both companies have taken great lengths to advertise their altruistic efforts and initiatives, and make their practices transparent and easily accessible. In fact their social responsibility and the initiatives that they are taking to make the world a better place are not only mentioned on these specific links, they are also integrated into their “About us” and “Who We Are” pages.

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The images above are screenshots from Nestle’s “About us” page (top image) and Mar’s “Who we are” page (bottom image). As you can see, both  Nestle and Mars have not only taken on missions to making the world a better place, but have integrated those missions into their core values and made them central to the overall goals of the company.

It seems to me like Hershey is unfortunately lagging behind their competitors in corporate transpanrency and committing to socially responsible initiatives and activism. An article by Newman, O’Connell and Exchange (2010) seems to indicate that this lack of transparency from Hershey is not only purposeful, but also indicative of socially irresponsible business behaviors specifically in reference to their sourcing practices. Newman, O’Connell and Exchange (2010) claim that despite almost ten years of commitments from Hershey to take responsibility for their cocoa supply chains and improve conditions for workers, significant problems such as, abusive child labor, trafficking, and forced labor continue to persist.

So, why is there such a difference between the seeming efforts of Hershey and its competitors? One thing that I think is interesting to note is the fact that both Mars and Nestle have expanded their businesses into other consumer packaged goods, from frozen foods, to beverages, to even pet care, while Hershey has really stayed with in the confectionary niche. Is there something about the confectionary market that allows for companies to escape harsh and intensive public scrutiny and thereby requires less social responsibilty? These are essential and pressing questions that we must figure out if we want to really push for social responsibility from all companies. We have seen the power of social media and have examples like Pepsi to prove that businesses will make major changes to their company’s culture, structure and operating environment, when there is enough social outcry for them to do so.  Admittedly, the issue of cocoa sourcing may not be as sexy, thrilling, or star studded as the issue of Kendall Jenner’s pepsi commercial, but we need to find a way to bring the indiscretions of companies like Hershey to the forefront of the publics attention in order to get the conversation trending and really push for tangible change.

Works Cited

Campbell, J. L. (2007). Why would corporations behave in socially responsible ways? An institutional theory of corporate social responsibility. Academy of management Review, 32(3), 946-967.

Higgs, C. (2012). Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press.

Martin, C. (2017, February 1). Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food: Mesoamerica and “the food of the gods” [Lecture]. Cambridge, MA.

Martin, C. (2017, March 1). Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food: Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor [Lecture]. Cambridge, MA.

Newman, T., O’Connell, E., & Exchange, G. (2010). Time to Raise the Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility Report for the Hershey Company.

Phillips, R., & Caldwell, C. B. (2005). Value chain responsibility: A farewell to arm’s length. Business and Society Review, 110(4), 345-370.

Snider, J., Hill, R. P., & Martin, D. (2003). Corporate social responsibility in the 21st century: A view from the world’s most successful firms. Journal of Business ethics, 48(2), 175-187.

Media Cited

“Responsibility.” Corporate. Hershey, n.d. Web. 05 May 2017. https://www.thehersheycompany.com/en_us/responsibility.html

Account, HERSHEY’SVerified. “Tweets with Replies by HERSHEY’S (@Hersheys).” Twitter. Twitter, 05 May 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

KendallnKylie. “Kendall Jenner for PEPSI Commercial.” YouTube. YouTube, 04 Apr. 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

Maya. “The Best Example of White and Economic Privilege/ Ignorance I’ve Ever Seen. Never Forget Ieshia Evans. #Pepsi Pic.twitter.com/lXeTp7OBMj.” Twitter. Twitter, 04 Apr. 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

Account, Be A KingVerified. “Media Tweets by Be A King (@BerniceKing).” Twitter. Twitter, 05 May 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

“Pepsi Statement Re: Pepsi Moments Content.” PepsiCo. N.p., 5 Apr. 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

Null. “Home.” Franchise. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2017.

Nestle.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2017.

“Mars, Incorporated – Global Petcare, Chocolate, Food, Candy, and Drink Brands.” Mars, Incorporated. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2017.

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