Out of this world – Mars

Chocolate company Mars has set an audacious target to certify its entire supply chain of cocoa by 2020. Tom Idle talks to the company's director of plant science, Howard Shapiro, to find out more

As the world’s biggest manufacturer of chocolate, Mars Incorporated understandably considers the future supply of cocoa to be important. That is why the company – maker of Twix, Starburst, M&Ms and Snickers to name just a few – has teamed up with the Rainforest Alliance in a bid to get its entire cocoa supply certified as sustainably produced by 2020. In fact, Mars aims to buy enough certified cocoa so that the company’s Galaxy chocolate bar can bear the Rainforest Alliance seal of approval by early next year.

This is an ethical initiative; a corporate giant and a leading NGO teaming up to redouble their efforts in helping thousands of farmers meet social and environmental standards. But, as Howard Shapiro, the firm’s global director for plant science and external research, says: “It’s also a business decision.”

What will this partnership actually mean for farmers?

Mars has fundamentally changed the way cocoa is farmed, and we commit to certify our entire cocoa supply chain by 2020. The Rainforest Alliance is one of several certifiers we will work with globally.

The commitment will drive up standards. The certification practice is a series of annotations of information that have to be met for certification to be offered.

The standards are thought-through and we make sure they include some of our concerns. And the Rainforest Alliance commitment alone is 20 times more than any other chocolate company was prepared to do right now.

So, has the chocolate industry been too slow to respond to the issue of sustainable farming?

Like any industry, there has always got to be someone that decides to take a stance. Mars is quite fortunate in that it is a privately owned company, so we think generationally. We believe we have the ability to take the future in our hands.

This is about business though, isn’t it?

Absolutely. Our commitment to sustainability is serious and long-term and this announcement is the first. But, no questions, this is about business.

This is not about philanthropy. We hope to move the entire segment forward with our progress in the supply chain, to have a complete and total analytics of the supply chain from the community to our factory door.

But it is about business and it should be about business.

What can businesses like Mars achieve, that the Rainforest Alliance cannot on its own?

We are the world’s largest chocolate company. We have a voice through all of the institutions we belong to – from the World Cocoa Foundation to the World Bank.

One can lead or one can follow and we feel it’s important to have leadership. We have decided that a long term view is the only way to go. It’s not a matter of saying this methodology of certification is better than that. It’s a matter of saying that, in the long term, the way to sustain the world community of cocoa producers is to go toward sustainability – not only from an economic stance, but from a social and environmental one too.

Do your customers really care about what you are trying to do?

Consumers care about everything corporations do today. The ability to get information about everyone is instantaneous by the methodologies of the web. Our consumers want us to have a sustainable supply chain that is fair and equitable and in order to do that one has to start some place.

And for us the place is specifically working with the people who grow the crop itself; working on their performance so that over the next ten or 12 years triple the yield and reduce the number of trees they have to produce so they can put other kinds of trees in their agroforestry system, like medicinal trees or oil-based trees so that increases their ability to be higher performing producers.

Part of this is to protect the key remnant forests of neo tropics, where cocoa is grown, from being cut down and taking land that has been abandoned and making it useful for tree crops.

So, you don’t worry that people might consider this as greenwash?

We worry everyday that what we are doing is interpreted as greenwash, as you’d hope we would. The reason we chose Rainforest Alliance was because we felt their reputation was impeccable and they have worked with large corporations.

Our credentials in the area of greenwashing are really rather impeccable.

Why do you think Mars has taken such a strong position on sustainability issues?
Our five principles – quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom – are fundamental to the success of the company.

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