John Buckeridge wonders about the consumer’s ability to influence corporations

Getting governments or big businesses to change tack and adopt fair and just practices isn’t easy. In a democracy we get to vote out the politicians every few years if we don’t like their policies, which in theory makes them accountable to us. But we all know it’s not that simple. And with businesses, especially multinationals, it can seem impossible to get them to change tack. The public mood has turned against big business following the global downturn. Newspapers and two recent Hollywood films are hammering those at the top of global corporations who are characterised as greedy and uncaring.

So trying to get the big chocolate brands to follow the lead of small Fairtrade brands and stop selling chocolate that is tainted by claims of slavery and forced child labour has seemed impossible for years and years. But the campaigning has continued, and recently one of the big companies, Cadbury, broke ranks and announced its biggest brand, Dairy Milk, is going Fairtrade. Great news – which you can read more about in the news story (page 9) and the feature (page 28).

Cadbury’s decision could be a defining moment. I love chocolate – but I hate the stories about human trafficking from Ivory Coast and other places where children are being forced to work in barbaric conditions. Trouble is, even though I can say no to most things, offer me a bar of chocolate and my resolve crumbles like a Flake. To avoid adding to my guilty conscience I’ve tried to avoid chocolate that isn’t fairly-traded. But - from this summer it’ll be even easier. Every corner shop in the country sells Cadbury’s Dairy Milk – it’s the UK’s best-selling brand. Hurrah!

The chocolate industry will be watching closely…will Cadbury’s sales increase? Will the sales of its rivals suffer as people choose Dairy Milk rather than Galaxy or Yorkie? Big business can be as sensitive to criticism and public opinion as the jumpiest politician. Will the Brits continue to buy brands that are owned by Nestle and Mars – the two other big chocolate brands in the UK, or will significant numbers vote with their wallets?

Cadbury claims that years of campaigning by individuals and organisations such as Stop The Traffik have nothing to do with their decision. Hmm…I doubt that. But whatever motivated their decision we have the power to reward a positive change.

Meanwhile, Nestle made a cool £11bn profit in 2008. The many brands owned by this mega multinational include Nescafe coffee, Ski yoghurt, Shredded Wheat cereal, Buxton water and, of course, many chocolate and confectionary brands such as KitKat, Smarties and Quality Street. Nestle has faced criticism in the past for their marketing of baby milk formula in developing countries and have experienced boycotts of their products as a consequence. However Nestle appears to go from strength to strength, buying up more brands. It employs 283,000 people worldwide.

The other big chocolate brand in the UK is Mars Incorporated, which owns Twix, MMs, Snickers, Galaxy, and of course Mars Bars among others. Their own website boasts that Mars sells seven of the world’s top 20 best-selling chocolate snacks. So what will Nestle and Mars do? I don’t know. What I do know is they will be watching their sales figures like hawks. By making informed choices, consumers like you and me can influence the decisions these massive companies make. Remember that the next time you’re at the corner store, supermarket or petrol station, pondering which chocolate treat to choose.