Exclusive: Mars calls for ‘uncommon collaboration’ tackling cocoa sector sustainability challenges

Harper McConnell, VP of sustainability at Mars, speaks exclusively to Confectionery Production at this year's World Cocoa Conference. Pic: Neill Barston

Tackling the many challenges faced within supply chains offers major tests, but as Harper McConnell, VP, of Mars cocoa sustainability explains from the recent World Cocoa Conference, there’s hope on the horizon. Neill Barston reports

As Harper McConnell addressed the World Cocoa Conference’s array of 1,000 senior delegates from across the globe, she called upon the sector to unite in action on delivering a better future for farming communities. (You can watch our exclusive video review of the event here).

The Mars global vice president for cocoa sustainability spoke earnestly of the need for a spirit of collaboration to be enhanced across an industry that is still facing significant environmental and humanitarian challenges.

Indeed, her message echoed that of the company’s executive board member, Frank Mars, a full six years before her, at the last edition of the cocoa conference.

Back then, he stressed the business had a clear responsibility for playing its part improving conditions in the sector, through investment in scientific solutions and direct support for farmers was
imperative for his firm to deliver on. While the company has made strides with its own sustainability programmes in that period, the Covid-19 pandemic, geopolitical condition, and sheer market forces over the past few years have meant that industry progress has been impeded.

But, as Harper McConnell noted, there is cause for optimism as the industry seeks to move the dial in the right direction of ensuring that there really is a cocoa business left for the next generation of farmers.

Speaking exclusively to Confectionery Production, she said: “I think it’s all about uncommon collaboration at the end of the day, because we all have a role to play, whether that’s governments, companies, and our suppliers as well.

“We all intervene at different key stages of the supply chain, and we really all have to partner in a different way moving forward.  I think the second point would also be for the industry to think beyond today, and to consider what the world is going to look like at this fast-moving pace and how can we support farmers to professionalise and leverage technology moving forward as well, because we’ll find ourselves in a very different place than we are five years from now.”

“So we’re on track, so 2025, we’re going to meet several commitments, so we’ll be 100% responsibly sourced cocoa by the beginning of 2025. We’re also on track to meet our climate agreements.

“Mars has an ambitious target to cut our emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 across the board. So cocoa is a big part of that, and we’re happy to report that we’re surpassing that goal for 2025.

“So, I think we’ve made some really solid progress and now the significant hard work will start to begin again after 2025 when you start to have to make continuous smaller gains across surpassing some of the obvious ones.”

As previously reported, last year, the company issued a key update to its Cocoa For Generations programme that reported all of its key ingredients’ crop supplies used for its products including Snickers, Mars, M&M’s Dove/Galaxy, Maltesers for its European customers in Europe have already achieved its core sustainability target.

Furthermore, the study examined transforming cocoa production through new climate-smart technologies, using its advanced research centres that open up possibilities for agronomy and smallholder farmers.

Linked to this, last year, the company introduced a key application that lets farmers assess the health of cacao trees, which it has hailed as a game changer. In terms of its actions on tackling child labour, which remains a key issue within supply chains for Ghana and Ivory Coast, the business is continuing to work with Save the Children and CARE International.

As part of this, it is working to support women and girls socially and economically, as well as enhancing access to quality education – which Harper also spoke at with a significant panel at the World Cocoa Conference on female empowerment within the sector.

The sustainability VP added: “Over almost 40 years, Mars has invested in science and technology research all the way from supporting the mapping of the cocoa genome to having a full team of plant scientists.

“And so, we are now looking at how we really leverage all the science and technology and all the research that we’ve done to actually operationalise it, to equip whether it’s governments, whether it’s suppliers with the research that we have. So, I think that’s number one. Secondly, we are looking to help support boosting the income of farmers through our sustainability projects,” explained the sustainability specialist, who had joined with Mars 18 months ago, having previously worked as global director of coffee and cocoa sustainability for the Starbucks Group.

Formative experience

To her credit, Harper has very much ‘walked the talk’ in experiencing life on the ground in Africa, spending nearly a decade in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which she described as ‘my biggest education,’ working with cocoa cooperatives and farmers to help drive vital exports for the sector.

As she reflected, it’s an industry that has continued to offer multiple tests, but it assuredly one that she has found deeply rewarding in her career to date. What keeps her passionate about her global role?

“I’ve been working in coffee and cocoa sustainability for about 15 years in different respects. So, what really in inspires me is the combination of the business to both give economic opportunity to communities, while also addressing the impact that it has on climate.

“I think there’s very few industries where the two come together so closely, and so acutely. There’s no shortage of challenges to solve, so I’ve never gotten to a day where I’m like, “Oh, I think I did a good job. I think I’m done today.” So, it’s that continuous challenge really that keeps me working.”

As she continued, the company’s core sustainability programme offers a genuine chance of delivering the kinds of long-term systemic changes required and demanded within the sector.
It’s a sentiment that was very much reflected throughout this year’s cocoa conference, that solutions for the long-term needed to be adopted urgently.

“It’s not just about this year’s business results. We really go back to our performance of our compass of four quadrants, which of course is business performance, but also our positive societal impact as well. So, we’re supposed to see business really through those four lenses that shows cocoa is at the heart of Mars.”

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