How Ethical is the Chocolate Industry?
July 5, 2021 • 10 min read
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Throughout its 5000-year history, chocolate has been consumed in various forms, beginning with ancient Mesoamerica (presently, Mexico), where the first cacao plants were found. The Olmec were the first to turn the cacao plant into chocolate, drinking it and using it in sacred rituals and as medicine.
Our perception of chocolate has changed widely since its origins, from starting off as a ceremonial libation that was bitter in taste, to becoming the sweet, edible treat it is today. Chocolate, its meaning, and the way it is harvested has long departed from the reverence the Latin Americans had for it. Instead, it has become largely commodified, going from luxurious treat to average pantry staple.
When we take a look at the trajectory of chocolate and how it exploded into the mainstream market in the early 1900s, it’s no wonder that our appreciation of the celebrated cacao plant has been lost. As with everything in our history that has been colonized, meaning and ceremony are stripped away, leaving room only for production and profit. With that, comes a plethora of ethical issues, sadly aligning well with the loss of value for the product itself, the lives of those working to produce it, and the earth and plant matter that provides it.
With conversations around sustainability and ethics getting louder and louder these days, many of us are questioning our buying habits and the brands we choose to support. Savvy consumers are no longer satisfied to buy into the greenwashing of big brands, with transparency being demanded on all levels. The chocolate industry is one that has come under close scrutiny, with everything from wasteful plastic packaging to child labour rearing its ugly head.
Let’s take a deeper dive into how ethical the chocolate industry really is, and what brands we should and shouldn’t be supporting.
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Ethics and Child Labour
Despite pledges made by many of the big chocolate giants to put an end to using cocoa harvested by children, most of the chocolate we buy sadly still involves child labour.
Child labour is prominent in areas of West Africa on cocoa farms, with children as young as 6 working extremely long hours for less than $2/day. The Ivory Coast & Ghana are giant exporters of cocoa, producing around 70% of the world’s chocolate, with more than 2 million children working in the cocoa industry. A steady stream of buses from Burkina Faso and Mali arrive often, carrying passengers and trafficked children to work the Ivory Coast cocoa fields.
It can be hard to picture just how bad the situation on the farms really is, most of us visualizing a barefoot child picking cocoa beans. While that is part of it, the reality is far more dangerous, with young children being forced to swing machetes, carry heavy loads, and spray pesticides. International authorities consider this “the worst forms of child labour.”
For a treat that is, in the Global North, generally considered kid-centred and fun, having it come to us via the hands of a bonded adolescent who has been robbed of his own childhood is truly heartbreaking.
Some of the most well-known chocolate brands – Hershey’s, Mondelez, Godiva, Mars, Nestlé – are all complicit in this trade. Despite having signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol 20 years ago which promised to tackle child labour, very little progress has been made, and a report estimated that child labour in cocoa has actually increased by 14% in the last decade.
These missed deadlines to end the usage of child labour are largely due to the fact that these major companies still cannot identify which farms their cocoa comes from, and with that, if a child was involved in its harvesting.
Certifications have been proposed many times, but lack of financial support and indecision on how to go about implementing this has stalled any real efforts from taking place. Third-party organizations like Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance are a good start, but for the most part, haven’t done too much in terms of enforcement, as currently, third-party inspectors are only required to visit fewer than 10 percent of cocoa farms. Additionally, some certifications require the farmers to pay a fee in order to obtain the certification. This can cost thousands of dollars, money they simply don’t have. So despite their efforts, they might not be seen as a good option internationally, and this is another reason why financial support on the part of the chocolate makers is so vital for real change. But for the giants, a reason why they have been able to get away with not eradicating child labour is because there are virtually zero consequences if they don’t – no prison sentences, no fines. So why would they be incentivized to change?
Worldwide, 50 million people are dependent on cocoa for their livelihoods. Those working in the industry – growers, farmers, pickers – are mostly always living in poverty, and the low price of cocoa makes it difficult for farm owners to hire adults or pay fair wages. This is a chief reason why child labour has become so widespread.
From a family’s perspective, lack of money and access to schools is the primary reason why their children enter into the work force at such young ages. In fact, the annual farmer’s household income in Ivory Coast is only about $1,900 USD, which is far below the poverty line. Today, farmers only receive between 3-7% of the retail price of a chocolate bar, compared to up to 50% in the 1970s! This meager household income means that for many families, school fees are often out of the question. Many kids are also kidnapped from their parents and forced into slavery.
The best we can do as consumers is to be aware of what is going on, and refrain from blindly reaching for mainstream chocolate brands. Despite the third-party certifications not doing enough, they are still our best bet when it comes to making better purchasing decisions. As the VOICE Network states “there are several ways in which certification plays an important role to make value chains more transparent; it is one of the few ways by which higher prices and premiums can potentially be delivered to the farm gate, and certification plays an important role in supporting farmer organization.”
See below for a list of brands to support (and not).
With global demand for chocolate and cocoa products higher than ever, we have to wonder what the environmental effect is when it comes to increased production. With deforestation, alongside child labour, a major issue in West Africa, our beloved bar of chocolate is starting to taste less and less sweet.
Cocoa trees need shade for growth, and it is indispensable for them in their early years. Currently in West Africa, other trees that naturally grow alongside cocoa (and that provide their shade) are being removed to allow for more cocoa trees to be planted, to keep up with demand. Often, the forest is cleared completely to encourage faster growth of the trees, and to increase total output. Like many of our poor global agricultural justifications that ensure constant production, under full-sun, the cocoa tree monocultures provide higher yields in the short and medium term, however in the long term, their productivity declines and they become vulnerable to disease. All of the interferences to their natural growth reduce crop yields every year, which means farmers will move on to new forests to begin the same process again, essentially slowly encroaching on old growth woodlands and clear cutting them so we can have our chocolate fixes.
The ecological impact of mass clearance is known to many of us who have seen similar patterns replicated in the soy, cattle, and coffee worlds. While these crops are far more significant in their scale than cocoa, impacts such as lower soil moisture content, lower soil fertility, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, disturbed rainfall patterns, local and regional environmental change, and destruction of livelihoods of those communities dependent on forest products other than cocoa are all aspects that are concerning for the long term. As Ghana and Ivory Coast are hot and dry zones, they are vulnerable to desertification, meaning the clearance of local forests only threatens to accelerate what climate change is already putting in motion.
Studies have found that moderate shade can bring just as valuable yields, meaning the forests don’t have to be clear-cut, and they can aid in carbon sequestering, biodiversity improvement, disease prevention, and soil improvement. This practice is called “cocoa agroforestry” and might be a positive way forward, though currently not much is being done to make this type of farming practice thrive.
Packaging and Waste
Let’s also not forget about the monumental packaging waste that is generated from mainstream candy bars. Most chocolate brands tend to wrap their candy in plastic wrappers, which we know to literally never decompose. It can take a plastic wrapper up to 1000 years to leave our earth. With the useful lifetime of these wrappers so fleeting compared to the eternity they are left on earth for, it can be hard to justify purchases of these types of chocolate that create so much devastation, from people to planet.
In fact, in 2019, a Twitter user shared a photo of an old Mars candy wrapper that he had found on a beach, perfectly intact. The date stamp on the wrapping showed the year 1986, more than 30 years ago!
Generally, fair-trade brands are more mindful, and use paper or cardboard wrapping that can be recycled and easily composted.
Spirituality and Meaning
As mentioned above, chocolate was first invented by shamans and Indigenous folk in Mesoamerica, where it was converted into liquid form used for spirituality, religious ceremonies, and healing. Though it has long departed from that original tradition in the mainstream, many people today still practice cacao ceremonies, and with our current new, new age spiritual wave, we’re seeing it gain popularity in circles outside of Central America.
It’s important to keep the original usage of chocolate in mind when we shop for and consume the bars we’ve become so familiar with. Like with so many industries before it, colonization and capitalism reached its long tentacles into the sacredness of cacao and changed it from something sanctified, into something “sinful” – this word applies here on so many levels. How many times have we heard people talk about a “sinfully good chocolate dessert” or “being bad” when they cheat with chocolate? Something that went from healing, sacred and blessed, became known as naughty, indulgent and unhealthy when it became mass-produced – it’s not a coincidence, is it? This isn’t just colloquial though, as we’ve now learned how the industry has become shameful and exploitive, so it applies in multiple ways.
Some of the spiritual benefits of chocolate and cacao include heart opening, a connection with your spiritual wisdom and guides, helping bring about your sovereign state by releasing blocks, creating a connection with your higher self, deepening your connection with feeling within your body, balance with both masculine & feminine energies, and enhancement in creativity and clarity. This is some seriously powerful stuff, and our removal of it from the way mainstream chocolate is harvested, made, and consumed blocks us from receiving any of the actual benefit it was designed for. Woah…
To try and recapture some of this lost importance and meaning, not only does buying direct trade chocolate greatly impact your absorption of it on a spiritual and metaphysical level, but it also reconnects us to the original intention of it. Perhaps we can alter our view of chocolate by interacting with it more mindfully. Ways we can do this is by:
- Buying better (direct and fair trade, slave-free, pure cocoa, dark instead of milk, plastic-free, reconnecting to the earth, the people, the farmers, the plant). When we buy better, we’re automatically in a more conscious and aware state
- Consuming less out of habit and greed, and more thoughtfully (quality over quantity, and meaningfully over bingeing). Pay attention to when your body actually needs and craves chocolate, versus when you’re consuming it just because. If we keep in mind how luxurious and rare it’s meant to be, our appreciation of it will swell, and we’ll approach our consumption of it in a more grounded way
- Paying attention to its healing properties (when consuming direct-trade & dark). Real chocolate is amazing for spiritual healing, but also physical. It’s full of magnesium, antioxidants, and minerals
- Drinking it ceremonially to invite in your spirit guides (buying from brands that don’t indulge in cultural appropriation)
Brands that use Child Labour
There are many chocolate brands that still use child labour, many of which are industry giants and well-known worldwide. Their deceit doesn’t end with their labour practices though, as many of the giants that sell cheap chocolate are getting away with as little as 11% cocoa in their bars. In America, the FDA only requires 10% cocoa in a product for it to be considered chocolate, and is now considering allowing vegetable oil to replace cocoa butter, which is commonplace in British milk chocolate. In the EU, this kind of chocolate must be labeled, and is sold as “family milk chocolate”. In the US, most of these mainstream chocolates must be labeled “chocolate candy” as they can’t claim to be real chocolate. The products these children are slaves for aren’t even fully chocolate, and are filled with unhealthy replicas, GMOs, sweeteners, emulsifiers, chemicals and fillers. With that said, dark chocolate is always your best bet – with everything from cleaner ingredients to a better mouth-feel, overall satisfaction to actual health benefits.
A well-known, household name, Hershey’s is the top producer of chocolate in America with many brands under the umbrella. Hershey’s purchases their chocolate from the Ivory Coast and they actually have admitted that child labour is used to make their products, yet they haven’t done anything about it.
While claiming to condemn child slavery, this brand makes their famous sponge chocolates with cocoa produced in the Ivory Coast, a supply chain that is murky at best when it comes to transparency.
Another household name, Nestlé is headquartered in Switzerland and most of their cocoa comes from West Africa. Though their code of conduct prohibits child labour in their practices, researchers have found more than 3,000 children working on cocoa farms that produce their chocolate. They have yet to properly address this.
Known worldwide as a luxury chocolate brand, Godiva has become synonymous with elevated boxed chocolates for gifting. The luxurious aspect ends there though, as despite having stated that they plan to “purify” their supply chain by 2020, no concrete steps were laid to make this happen. Godiva has the least amount of transparency when it comes to their cocoa suppliers.
Another giant that we all know, with many chocolate bars under the umbrella, Mars has acknowledged their use of child labour, and in 2016 had stated that by 2020 they will eradicate slavery from their production practices. However once again, no moves have been made to make this happen.
Some other unethical companies NOT to support are Ferrero, Toblerone, Green & Black’s (after they got bought out by Mondelez, their traceability and certifications switched to in-house schemes which do not hold the same caliber as when they were independent, even though they are still considered fair-trade – but proceed with caution here as their ethics are unclear), and Lindt/Ghiradelli.
These brand names are chocolates that are housed under the above parent companies, and should be avoided, when possible. We acknowledge that price point and accessibility might hinder one’s ability to choose fair-trade options, so this list is for those who are able to.
H E R S H E Y’ S
- Almond Joy
- Bark Thins
- KitKat (US)
- Milk Duds
N E S T L É
- KitKat (Global)
- Toll House
- Milky Bar
- Quality Street
M A R S
- Mars Bar
- Milky Way
- 3 Musketeers
O T H E R S
- Green & Black’s
F A I R T R A D E B R A N D S
While full transparency can be hard to come by in the cocoa industry, these brands are believed to be doing better. Some hit all the marks, while others only some. For a more comprehensive list, click here.
Before purchasing, some things to keep in mind are to look for certifications, such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance. You should also look for a short supply chain. Phrases such as “Direct Trade” and “Bean to Bar” often mean that the chocolatiers behind the brand travel directly to the farms, develop relationships with the farmers and workers, and pay them directly for their beans, instead of a percentage going to a middleman. Also, chocolate from Central and South America is usually produced without slavery, so look for organic chocolate originating from these areas.
- Alter Eco
- Anima Mundi (for ceremonial drinking cacao)
- Beyond Good
- Dark Forest Chocolate
- Denman Island Chocolate
- Divine Chocolate
- Dwaar Chocolate
- Endangered Species
- Equal Exchange
- Giddy Yo Yo
- Habitual Chocolate
- Mexican Arabica Bean Company
- Montezuma’s Chocolates
- Purdy’s Chocolate
- Ritual Chocolate
- Taza Chocolate
- Theo Chocolate
In conclusion, we echo Paul Schoenmakers’ statement: “Nobody needs chocolate. It’s a gift to yourself or someone else. We think it’s absolute madness that for a gift no one really needs, so many people suffer.”
For more information, “The Dark Side of Chocolate” is an amazing documentary that offers a very revealing look into child trafficking and labour in Ivory Coast.
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