It seems human rights abuses aren’t the only labor issues companies need to watch out for in their supply chains. Here, Thailand-based Theppadungporn Coconut Company details how it partnered to create the first audit scheme specifically designed to uncover monkey labor.
Was a monkey forced to pick the coconut that became the water, milk or cosmetic product in your kitchen or bookshelf? If it came from Thailand, it’s a real risk. The use of monkey labor in the Thai coconut industry has long been criticized as being inhumane and cruel to the animals, who are kept in crowded cages and forced to harvest coconuts in sometimes dangerous conditions.
Theppadungporn Coconut Company (TCC) — a third-generation, family-owned company that, over the past half-century, has grown into one of Thailand’s leading exporters of popular coconut products including coconut milk, coconut water and more to the United States and dozens of other countries — was confident that its suppliers weren’t using monkey labor. As it turned out, just stating that was not enough — the company had to be able to prove it.
“When we were accused of using monkey labor, we realized that we have to be more transparent — to ensure and show that there is no monkey labor in our supply chain,” Teetiphun Theppadungporn, International Marketing and Sales Manager at TCC, told Sustainable Brands™. He’s referring to a 2019 investigation from PETA Asia, which alleged that one farm producing coconut milk for TCC’s Chaokoh brand was using monkey labor.
But how exactly does a company verify that workers — human or otherwise — aren’t being exploited in its supply chain? It’s not a service you’ll find on the websites of any major auditors, not an option in supply-chain tracking software programs. To demonstrate that its supply chain was free of monkey labor, TCC had to work with third-party partners to help create entirely new auditing and monitoring mechanisms.
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“Auditing has been difficult,” Theppadungporn says. “It’s the first audit in this scheme, because no one has been auditing monkey labor before.”
TCC decided to work with Bureau Veritas, a leader in this space with extensive ties in Thailand. Together, they created a new methodology and embarked on the hard task of mapping the supply chains, doing field visits and collecting data. So far, “the results show that our supply chain is clean,” Theppadungporn says.
Monkey labor may get headlines, but it’s a relatively minor issue in terms of scale; it’s only used in Thailand — not other major coconut-producing countries such as Indonesia. Sri Lanka or the Philippines. But it does point to the need for companies all along the coconut supply chain to be proactive when it comes to sustainability. Coconuts grow in tropical regions — alongside other commodities such as palm oil, bananas, cacao and soy, which have been accused of enabling deforestation, labor rights violations and more.
“It’s time for us to be aware of sustainability; and as an industry leader, we want to be the one who leads the change in the coconut industry — both in Thailand and the world,” Theppadungporn says.
There are industry-wide efforts, too — such as the newly launched Sustainable Coconut and Coconut Oil Roundtable — which aims to bring public, private and civil society partners together to improve sustainability in the coconut industry, recognizing that working together can be more powerful and impactful.
“The launch and the signing of the Sustainable Coconut Charter was the first important step,” Massimo Selmo, Chief Procurement Officer for Barry Callebaut — a Swiss chocolate maker and major coconut consumer, said in a press statement. “Now it is time to take action and transform its principles into concrete actions on the ground.”
As for monkey labor? While Theppadungporn is confident that monkeys aren’t being used by its suppliers, he knows that other growers in Thailand are still taking advantage of this unethical practice. He hopes that TCC’s pledge will inspire other Thai coconut companies to also make a similar shift and put an end to this practice for good.
“We want to work with all coconut manufacturers in Thailand,” Theppadungporn says. “As the leader in the industry, we want to be the one who leads and drives the change.” To start this, TCC is working with the nonprofit Wildlife Friends Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate abused monkeys — no matter where they are found.
TCC’s experience shows that being willing to be open, transparent, and work with partners on supply chain issues helps build trust with customers and consumers. That is the power of backing your sustainability claims and statements with independent, verifiable evidence.