Wokewashing at Hershey’s

Photograph Source: Paulo Ordoveza – Public Domain

A 27-year-old transgender woman in Canada has become a target for every right-wing troll with a Facebook or Twitter account. Fae Johnstone’s offense is to be one of five accomplished young women whose faces appear for a limited time on wrappers for chocolate bars manufactured by Hershey’s Canada. The wrappers celebrate International Women’s Day, which took place on March 8.

Fox News noted that “Disturbed Twitter users hammered the new ad for presenting a transgender woman as Hershey’s representation of the pro-female celebration.” I’ll say they’re disturbed. Typical comments: “Why does @Hersheys hate women?”; “Nothing like parading a biological male out for International Women’s Day”; “My kids can’t even eat candy without being groomed?” and “The left continues to force feed their far left agenda, on pushing this transgender stuff on the American people.” Commenters threatened a boycott against Hershey or vowed to switch to European chocolate.

The far-right Focus on the Family website broke out the scare quotes to proclaim: “Hershey’s Canada Celebrates ‘Transgender’ Activist for International Women’s Day,” and described Johnstone as “a man who claims to be a woman.” That’s harsh, but keep in mind that Focus on the Family is still reeling from women being given the vote.

Johnstone, who advocates for transgender rights as executive director of Wisdom2Action Consulting Ltd., told PinkNews that she has “received a tsunami of hate in my mentions, DMs and inbox.” Transphobes don’t always stop at vicious comments. Six transgender women have already been murdered in 2023, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Haters think that’s a terrific start. Michael Knowles, a Daily Wire podcaster, told the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 4 that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” Knowles later claimed unconvincingly that he meant eliminating an ideology, rather than eliminating people.


Does Hershey’s care about LGBT people? I doubt it. The HER FOR SHE campaign is an instance of “wokewashing.” Forbes magazine, not exactly a progressive stronghold (it ran an ad campaign proclaiming itself a “Capitalist Tool”) says:

Woke-washing is a term used to define practices in business that provide the appearance of social consciousness without any of the substance. A woke-washed business could theoretically promote the opposite of racial equality within its walls while championing causes of social justice to the outside world.

Forbes is talking about racial issues, but woke-washing works just as well with LGBT+ concerns. The HER FOR SHE campaign lets Hershey pose as a warm, inclusive, woke company. It’s a con, but right-wingers thought Hershey’s was sincere. Naturally, they went ballistic.

Hershey’s is anything but progressive. The chocolate industry is massively destructive both of people and of the natural environment. The HER FOR SHE campaign creates a distraction from the child labor and deforestation that go into making your chocolate bar.

Slaves to Chocolate

Sixty per cent of the world’s cocoa beans are sourced from just two countries: the West African nations Ghana and Ivory Coast. The US Department of Labor estimates that 1.56 million children, some as young as eight years old, are harvesting cocoa in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Cocoa harvesting is dangerous work. Child laborers are wounded by the machetes they use in cutting bean pods off cocoa trees. They suffer exposure to pesticides.

The fair trade labels on some chocolate bars (but not on Hershey’s) are no guarantee that children haven’t been exploited. As one observer remarks: “Sadly, it is virtually impossible today to separate cocoa that is cultivated by ethical producers from cocoa that is cultivated by abused children. Harvests from multiple plantations are typically mixed together in local markets before being sold for export.”[1] The NGO Slave Free Chocolate estimates that only about 5% of cocoa is sourced from fair trade certified farms.

In an effort to follow the sourcing of cocoa beans, in February Ivory Coast’s Coffee and Cocoa Board began issuing electronic cards to plantation workers. The cards are intended to curb deforestation and child labor, as well as ensure that workers receive a fair price for their crops. The cards, which go into effect this October, will also deposit workers’ wages into bank accounts—the first bank accounts many Ivory Coast workers will have ever had.

Former child laborers have sought justice in US courts—an odd place to seek justice. Former child laborers in Ivory Coast sued in the US for being held as child slaves in violation of international human rights law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held for the child plaintiffs. The US Supreme Court reversed on the grounds that the conduct at issue had occurred outside the US. This makes Nestlé USA, Inc. v. Doe the Court’s worst pro-slavery decision since Dred Scott. Yosef Brody in Counterpunch points out that the Supreme Court is saying that “US chocolate manufacturers cannot be held legally responsible for the exploitation of enslaved children, even if their business model depends on such abuse.” Thirteenth Amendment? What Thirteenth Amendment? (The Supreme Court sent the case back to U.S. District Court for a new trial.) We should start worrying about how the 6-3 conservative Supreme Court will respond as child labor returns to the US.[2]

The Future of Responsible Sourcing

As the new century began, Congress considered passing legislation on forced labor in the chocolate industry. Industry lobbyists put a stop to that. Instead, chocolate manufacturers and the US compromised on a voluntary, nonbinding agreement, the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol. The eight largest chocolate companies in the world—Hershey among them—put their signatures to the agreement.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol did not call for eliminating all child labor, only its “worst forms,” as defined by the International Labor Organization. Even this modest aim failed to be achieved. Two decades after Harkin-Engel, child labor and slave labor continue to be rampant in cocoa production.

Harkin-Engel’s failure is not surprising. That’s what happens to toothless schemes for voluntary industry self-regulation. Think back to the 2017 UN Climate Change Conference. Major chocolate companies, including Hershey’s, promised to stop sourcing cocoa from protected forest areas in Ghana and Ivory Coast. Yet deforestation continues at a rapid pace.

Another example: the world has blown past the 1.5ᵒ C threshold for averting climate catastrophe. That’s because the international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions depend on voluntary compliance. There are no mechanisms for enforcement or penalties for infractions. Of course, these agreements fail.

The HER FOR SHE campaign envisions a world of socially responsible corporations who do the right thing without being forced to by laws and binding treaties. They do the right thing because they are “good corporate citizens” who love the LGBT community, workers in the Global South, the environment, and so on.

That world doesn’t exist under capitalism. We have woke-washing instead. Woke-washing will continue so long as we have an economy based on profit, not people.


[1]  Yoram Brody, The Long Arms of US Slavery, COUNTERPUNCH, Oct. 5, 2022.

[2]  Tom Conway, The Unconscionable Push to Bring Back Child Labor, COUNTERPUNCH, March 10, 2023; Eve Ottenberg, Child Labor Is Back…With a Vengeance!, COUNTERPUNCH, Mar. 17, 2023.


Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.