The Rainforest Action Network is taking Hershey (NYSE: HSY ) to task for its handling of palm oil supply and related environmental and social issues. However, a recent Halloween trick to denigrate Hershey only made the environmental organization look bad -- and may even tarnish its credibility.
This past weekend the Rainforest Action Network let loose with not one, but two fake press releases regarding Hershey's palm oil use. The first release claimed that Hershey was vowing to change its ways regarding its unsustainable palm oil supply chain.
Then, still in the guise of a representative of the Hershey corporate communications office, the organization sent another "press release" -- a strong and snarky rebuttal to the first hoax press release.
The Rainforest Action Network went all-out in its fakery. The first mock press release was headed with the overly hashtagged "#Hershey announces '21st Century Responsible #PalmOil Plan,' hosts Strawberry the #Orangutan at Chocolate World."
I'll leave interested readers to dig deeper into the Rainforest Action Network's call to action, as well as the Strawberry the Orangutan storyline involved in this confusing theater disguised as an activist "action."
The release continues with a litany of responsible Hershey initiatives followed by a fake pledge: "The company is now expanding its responsible sourcing initiatives to another sector, palm oil, to modernize the production of palm oil and to eliminate 'Conflict Palm Oil' entirely from its products by 2015. This new commitment is undertaken to ensure that Hershey products that contain this controversial commodity are no longer associated with deforestation, orangutan extinction, human rights violations or climate change pollution."
Act 2 was a fictional Hershey rebuttal. Here's a snippet from that second release:
"Hershey takes our responsibility to our shareholders very seriously and the fact is palm oil is the least expensive and most readily available edible oil on the international market place. While we appreciate the difficult situation palm oil production has created for orangutans and Indigenous peoples in Indonesia, our company simply cannot justify the extra expense it would entail to source palm oil responsibly at this time."
It's all a bad joke
In the end, the entire push smacked of what the faked Hershey response stated it was: "a tasteless stunt." It's also almost impossible to follow, which makes the entire ruse even worse. "Confuse and conquer" is not a nice way to deal with the public, no matter which side of the debate you're on.
It's hard to figure out bizarre campaigns like this one. Instead of building awareness of serious sustainability and social issues, they simply preach to the choir. They close doors to true understanding among exactly the people these organizations should be trying to reach.
But this isn't the first time an organization did stupid things to "raise awareness."
I'm no fan of Monsanto (NYSE: MON ) , but many of the social media anti-Monsanto memes that occasionally float around simply spread bogus claims. One said just about every major consumer goods company is "owned" by Monsanto, which is simply not true. Sadly, many people think memes like this constitute legitimate information.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has often shot itself in the foot with over-the-top animal rights and pro-vegan campaigns that alienate rather than convince. In 2009, a particularly awful one aimed at children cited fish as "sea kittens." PETA offered sea kitten cartoons and even sea kitten stuffed animals. This stunt obviously stuck with me as an example of unproductive ways zealots seek attention.
Companies like McDonald's have taken tons of flak for trying to appeal to children through Happy Meals and other promotions. (Tobacco retailers were the vanguard of this kind of criticism.)
Campaigns like "Save the Sea Kittens" illustrate the opposite side of the spectrum, which is just as uncool -- traumatizing kids who may occasionally eat tuna sandwiches or fish sticks and teaching them about intense guilt. Is it OK coming from a different source?
Honesty and real positive action
There are better ways to educate people about issues like palm oil's sustainability problems and how to reverse the situation.
For example, simply outlining the environmental and social problems is the logical way to go. The truth is jarring enough.
Meanwhile, how about celebrating the companies that are recognizing problems on issues like palm oil sourcing, and are actually working to take it out of their supply chains? When companies start to respond, others often follow suit, leading to real changes in sourcing.
For example, Unilever's (NYSE: UL ) website completely acknowledges the serious problems associated with palm oil production. It cites deforestation in places like Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as the climate change issue. It reveals jarring facts: areas close to the size of Greece are cleared every year.
Unilever not only acknowledges the problem, but it is one of the companies that has vowed to set a target for sourcing all of its palm oil supplies from certified, traceable suppliers by 2020. And that isn't a joke.
Trying to trick people, including kids, into feeling guilty about certain Halloween treats is just not cool. I focus a lot of my own investment analysis on environmental and social issues, and I care deeply about them. However, I can't stand any counterproductive temptation to intentionally mislead people.
I haven't seen an official Hershey response to the fake press releases on its website at last check. However, Hershey's Facebook wall has quite a few posts from people saying they "stand with orangutans" due to the Rainforest Action Network action.
Here is Hershey's response on the page: "HERSHEY'S: We hear you ... and appreciate you taking the time to reach out. We wanted to share that in 2011, we committed to use 100% Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified palm and palm kernel derivatives by 2015. We're pleased to report that starting in 2014, 100% of the palm and palm kernel derivatives purchased by The Hershey Company will be Mass Balance certified by RSPO -- one year ahead of our 2015 commitment."
Dressing up in costumes for Halloween and trick-or-treating is a fun activity for kids. Disguising the truth to push an agenda is how entities of all kinds -- activists, corporations, and politicians -- play dirty.
Rainforest Action Network is currently chortling about crashing Hershey's party -- too bad it crashed everybody else's, too.
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