Is sweetness your weakness?
Jo Southall probes the cavities in the ethical performance of the sweets and mints market.
The primary ingredient of nearly all sweets is sugar, well known for its drastic effects on tooth decay and weight gain. With the nation facing an obesity and diabetes crisis the impact should not be played down. The sugar market in the UK has seen quite a shake-up in recent years, with Tate & Lyle going Fairtrade on all its retail sugar, and organic and Fairtrade sugars available everywhere from supermarkets to train buffet cars. And that’s reflected in a number of sweet brands on the score table offering Fairtrade and organic alternatives. We took an in depth look at sugar a couple of years ago.
Leaders and laggards
There are some clear ethical leaders and laggards in the sweets market. Our best buys are distinguished by company ethos – offering ranges that are either all organic, fair trade, vegan or vegetarian. And there are a number of higher scoring companies typically smaller, often family-owned businesses which also offer Fairtrade or veggie/vegan sweets. There’s even a Fairtrade option available from the Promotional Candy Company, who make sweets containing company logos for promotional use. At the other end of the scale we have the multinational giants, a supermarket (Morrisons) and private equity company (CVC Capital).
On the scoretable we show the highest scoring type of each brand – in other words if the company has organic products we show these, but it does not necessarily mean all of the company’s products are organic.
The response of Ferrero, Mars and Nestlé to these health concerns is to cite their support for initiatives such as Media Smart (a non profit ‘media literacy’ programme for young children focused on advertising) and Epode, an EU project aimed at childhood obesity prevention), as well as their own marketing policies. For example Mars stole a lead on rivals when it stopped directing advertising to children under 12 years old worldwide in 2007, following increasing criticism of the industry.
Despite this you have to wonder at some of the company’s marketing. Log onto the UK M+Ms website – first having to “certify you are aged 12 or over” – and you are confronted with a building emblazoned with the words “Sexy Sweet”, offering the enticement: “All the M+Ms product information revealed through really hot stripteases”. One click gets you inside the building, where the M+Ms cartoon characters familiar to many children recline in a dimly lit bar. Clicking on them takes you into the audience whilst they indulge in some pole-dancing before performing a striptease in which they take off their brightly coloured shell. And thus, in one fell swoop, children are both sexualised and encouraged to eat unhealthy food. Any adults hoping to spice up their life with this little animation will be disappointed to learn that the next click merely leads to bog standard product facts such as nutrition information.
Although the M+Ms example was the most worrying that this writer came across, it was by no means the only example. The Millions website proudly proclaims that Millions are “the ideal sweet for eating in class – so small they are undetectable!”
Campaigners point out it’s also where sweets are sold that’s an issue – not least positioning of sweets at checkouts. The British Heart Foundation and the Food Commission have also criticised the provision of sweets at leisure centres.(1)
But fear not, help is at hand from the Food Commission with their antidote to unhealthy food marketing aimed at kids – www.chewonthis.org.uk - an interactive website designed to arm kids with knowledge about the tricks that marketeers use to lure them in.
We’ve taken a tough line and any company that could be seen as marketing to children – such as the promotional use of cartoon characters – has received a negative mark in the Irresponsible Marketing category.
So let’s get the ball rolling by letting sweet companies know ethical consumers care about carnauba producers. DanWatch’s research suggests that if sweet producers request and support it, the suppliers are ready for positive change. So once again, it is up to us ethical consumers to tip the balance and put the pressure on the sweets companies to pay a fairer price for this ingredient and facilitate improvements.
Combined print and web subscribers can email the companies through our website. Alternatively send your letters to Ethical Consumer and we’ll send them on.
Carnauba – the ingredient you’ve never heard of
Below Peter Bengsten, a researcher with Danish organisation DanWatch, reports on tough working conditions in the carnauba wax supply chain. Carnauba is commonly used to stop sweets sticking together. Responsible companies publish ingredients listings on their websites, but it’s just as likely to be used by those companies that don’t publish their ingredients. Ethical Consumer and DanWatch found carnauba in the ingredients lists of Bassetts (Kraft), Haribo, M&Ms (Mars), as well as Best Buy VegeBears and high-scoring Scrumptious Sweets.
We contacted the Fairtrade Foundation to ask them what prospects there were for Fairtrade carnauba:
“At present there are no plans to develop Fairtrade standards for carnauba wax. The process of standard setting is determined by demand from producers, matched with demand from the market and likely consumer take up”.
Hard work for your sweet tooth
Peter Bengsten, of Danish organisation DanWatch, travelled to Brazil to investigate working conditions at the bottom of the sweets supply chain.
Pearls of sweat are running down Pedro’s forehead. The dark, slim 19-year-old with disproportionately large hands bends over and puts palm leaves out to dry in the scorching sun. Here on the palm tree plantation 50 kilometers west of Fortaleza in north eastern Brazil, the temperature in the sun at midday easily passes 40°C.
Pedro is one of the 100,000 to 200,000 agricultural workers in the carnauba wax industry in the dry season, from August to December.
“I work when there is light. From five in the morning to five in the evening”, says Pedro. “This has been my job since I was 14”.
The carnauba palm grows only in the semi-arid climate of north eastern Brazil, amongst the poorest regions of the country. Around 15,000 tonnes are exported annually to the USA, Europe and Asia, where it is used primarily in cosmetics, polishes - and confectionary. In 2008 exports were worth €68.4m.
In its homeland the wax protects the carnauba palm leaves from drying out in the strong sun. Sweets manufacturers exploit carnauba wax’s unique properties as a coating - to prevent sweets like M&Ms and fruit gums sticking together, but it is also found in chewing gums and chocolates.
First the leaves are cut off from the top of the tall palm trees with a curved knife fastened to the end of a ten to twelve meter long bamboo stick. Workers must avoid being hit by the pointy palm leaves falling towards the ground. Far from everyone has protection for eyes, head and legs.
After this the leaves are stacked, and the agricultural workers – or donkeys if they can afford them – drag the leaves up to several kilometers to a clearing. Here the leaves are spread out to dry in the sun. To extract the wax, the palm leaves are beaten. Until last decade this was a job for women. Today, usually, it is done by machines mounted on trucks. Fine wax powder is flung into the air. Few workers wear masks and get it in their lungs. The powder is then boiled. According to the workers there is only one way to remove boiling wax from the body - by also removing the skin.
And yet, says Johannes Maehlmann, a carnauba wax trader who sells to Europe’s largest importer, German Kahl & Co: “You rarely find helmets, protective glasses or equipment that is more advanced than what was used a century ago”. Johannes has been in the business most of his life. He has not seen much development in working methods, he says.
This is the general view amongst exporters, trade organisations, landowners and the agricultural workers themselves. The tough conditions are no secret. It has simply always been like that.
Less than the minimum wage
Pedro with the big hands earns €1.2 Euro an hour, for 12 hours each day, five days a week. He does not complain. “I am happy for my job. There is no other work in the countryside in the dry season” Pedro says.
Deeper into the countryside wages are even lower. 100 kilometers south-east of Fortaleza, where the sun burns relentlessly, I meet Flavio, a landowner whose family has worked with carnauba for three generations.
Flavio’s agricultural workers earn as little as 100 Reais per week – not unusual in the business. That is €0.8 an hour and well below the Brazilian minimum wage of 510 Reais per month.
According to Jackson Dantas Coêlho, research co-ordinator for the Brazilian development bank Banco do Nordeste: “Only God knows how a Brazilian family can survive on a minimum wage or less”.
In the wax industry capital
Fortaleza, the biggest city in northern Brazil, is the capital city of the wax industry, where factories process the wax for export.
In the industrial area on the outskirts of the city, I am received by Director of the Pontes Group, Lara Pontes, in her air conditioned office. Pontes is one of the four major companies responsible for half of Brazil’s exports of carnauba wax.
“We have set up a fund that aids children living in the vicinity of the factory”, says Lara Pontes. However, the Pontes group does not have social responsibility initiatives that reach the agricultural workers who supply wax to the factory.
I was told the same when speaking to CEO Ana Carolina Fontelene from Foncepi, the biggest wax exporter: “We do not make control visits of working conditions in the countryside. Our customers only ask for information about the working conditions in the company,” she says. “But it is interesting. We will consider doing it in the future.”
Today there are no organisations in Fortaleza promoting improvements in working conditions in the countryside. Until a few years ago, Instituto Sertão was a persistent advocate for improving the working conditions of agricultural workers.
According to Oscar d’Alva, a former employee: “None of the major exporters were interested in making initiatives to improve working conditions in the countryside or to raise the wage level of the agricultural workers.”
“Very simple initiatives can make a difference,” says Oscar: “In order to increase safety, one could give masks to those working with powder and light-weight rods for those cutting leaves off palms. That way productivity could also be increased.”
Social responsibility is not unknown in the wax industry – but it has not reached working conditions in rural areas.
“It is the first time that I have heard a European journalist asking about the workers in rural areas”, says Edgar Gadelha, president of Sindicarnauba, the trade organisation of wax exporters in the state of Ceara.
However, when it comes to quality control, organic farming and projects for children, Brazilian companies are on the way. Several of the major exporters in Brazil have ISO certified quality systems. Both Foncepi and Carnauba do Brasil, another of the four major wax exporters, now sell organic wax. Furthermore, Carnauba do Brasil are examining what to do in order to become certified for CO2 emissions, says head of exports Marina Azevedo.
Edgar Gadelha of the trade organisation Sindicarnauba, happily talks about social responsibility and has, for several years, collaborated with the American wax company SC Johnson, which he praises for social responsibility. Gadelha owns a small company, Natural Wax, and is dedicated to preserving endangered natural areas and developing sustainable factory production.
“Maybe the exporters are ready to take more social responsibility now,” says Oscar d’Alva. “If changes are to happen… the major importers and end-users have to come into play. They have to demand social responsibility.”
Download more information in the Carnauba Wax Background Paper.
DanWatch is an independent research centre based in Denmark that researches corporate social responsibility of companies with interests in the developing world.
Biona receives a positive Company Ethos mark for producing all organic, vegetarian products, Yummy Earth for all organic and vegan, and Traidcraft for its fair trade policies. VegeBear’s gets half a positive mark for all products being vegetarian but loses a mark in Irresponsible Marketing for using cartoon characters on its packaging, against best practice regarding marketing to children.
CVC Capital Partners (Chewits) owns 55 companies worldwide, employing over 400,000 people, including majority control of Formula One and PBL Media, Australia’s largest media group.
Food giant Kraft (Bassett's, Trebor, Maynards) controversially took over Cadbury’s last year pledging to retain a key factory near Bristol, only to announce its closure, losing 400 jobs, days after gaining control. Boss Irene Rosenfeld declined to explain the decision to a committee of MPs investigating the takeover. Kraft subsequently went on to announce ownership of Cadbury would move to Switzerland, costing the UK undisclosed amounts in tax. Kraft’s UK & Ireland President will be headlining at the Responsible Business Summit in London in May, billed as “Europe’s leading summit on corporate responsibility”. Make of that what you will.
Nestlé is subject to boycott calls from Baby Milk Action (see our Baby Milk buyers' guide for more on the long running boycott) and from Uncaged for animal testing. Brands made by Mars Petcare UK were also listed by Uncaged campaign as ‘brands to boycott’.
Scrumptious Sweets specialise in organic, veggie and halal (non-veggie) products.
1 British Heart Foundation and Food Commission 2009: “A fit choice? A campaign report on the provision of children’s food in leisure venues.”