Chocolate is an indulgent, delicious pleasure for many of us. But it may also be the cause of exploitation and environmental destruction.
Chocolate is an indulgent pleasure for many of us. A delicious, sweet treat. But for many who have worked to bring us our affordable luxury, it is the cause of misery and exploitation. Behind the scenes of this $130 billion industry is a dark history rooted in severe poverty and tied to modern slavery, exploitation of women, human trafficking and child labour.
Chocolate is the product of the cacao bean, which grows primarily in the tropical climates of Western Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Western African countries, mostly Ghana and the Ivory Coast, supply more than 70% of the world’s cocoa, which is sold to a majority of chocolate companies, including the largest in the world likes Mars, Nestle, Hershey’s and Godiva. In the Ivory Coast alone 60% of the export revenue comes from its cocoa. However, the average cocoa farmer in Ivory Coast is paid as little as 78 cents a day—well below the extreme global poverty line established by the World Bank of $1.90 a day.
Behind the scenes of this $130 billion industry is a dark history rooted in severe poverty and tied to modern slavery, exploitation of women, human trafficking and child labour.
Low wages mean parents can’t afford to send children to school so they work on the farm instead. Children as young as five, according to some reports, are forced to work alongside their parents on plantations. Others are trafficked onto plantations. They can’t attend school, and they are not free to go home and see their families. Many face violence and threats. This epidemic of child labour is one that chocolate companies promised to eradicate 20 years ago, yet the problem still persists.
According to a 2015 U.S. Labour Department report, 1.56 million children were engaged in dangerous labour in cocoa-growing regions, involving back-breaking manual labour swinging machetes to cut down and split open cocoa pods, and exposure to pesticides, for just 85 cents a day. Whereas many industries have mechanised over the decades, the harvesting and cultivation of cocoa is still all done by hand. Over the past decade, according to a US funded NORC report, the proportion of children in Ghana and Ivory Coast between the ages of five and 17 engaging in child labor increased from 6% to 33% in low cocoa production areas, and from 33% to 50% in medium cocoa production areas. And in 2018/19, 1 in 2 children in cocoa growing households were in child labor.
The world’s chocolate companies have missed deadlines to uproot child labour from their cocoa supply chains in 2005, 2008 and 2010. And there were few to zero consequences for failing to meet the goals of eradicating child labour. Considering that the majority of the world’s chocolate comes from West Africa, the odds are that you’ve eaten the product of child and slave labour.
Part of the problem is transparency and traceability. Chocolate bean provenance is chocolate’s biggest problem. The journey form bean to bar is rife with corruption, violence and exploitation, and environmental degradation and there is a long process before you eat your wrapped chocolate bar. As consumers we are very far from the origins, and most of us are completely disconnected from our food sources, and it is conveniently kept that way.
Cocoa farming is one of the leading reasons for deforestation in West Africa. Around a quarter of Ivory Coast’s current annual cocoa production of over 2 million tonnes comes from protected land.
On top of all this, chocolate is pretty unsustainable. Cocoa farming is one of the leading reasons for deforestation in West Africa, and poverty is driving this. Desperate farmers supplement their farms by growing illegally in fertile national parks, leaving behind scorched land as they burn old growth trees to make way for cocoa trees. According to Ministry of Water and Forest estimates, around a quarter of Ivory Coast’s current annual cocoa production of over 2 million tonnes comes from protected land. Ivory Coast lost around 85% of its forest since 1990 due to this type of illegal cocoa farming.
While the chocolate industry has struggled to come up with a solution for monitoring child labour and sustainability, this left room for third party non-profits like the Rainforest Alliance, Utz, and Fairtrade, to step in and provide labelling for products which met their requirements, including a prohibition on child labour. The Fairtrade system, which supports 1.65 million farmers and workers in more than 74 developing countries, guarantees a minimum price to cocoa farmers for their cocoa to protect against market volatilities. Chocolate marked with its logo guarantees ethical labour and wage practices have been followed. Rainforest Alliance places strong emphasis on conservation of the environment and farmers receive a variable premium on top of the market price. They work with cooperatives, as well as independent farmers.
The average cocoa farmer in Ivory Coast is paid as little as 78 cents a day—well below the extreme global poverty line of $1.90 a day.
While there is still much that needs to be done to eradicate slave and child labour, certification is a starting point, and purchasing from certified brands sends a message to chocolate companies that as a consumer you prioritise ethics. The eradication of child labour and enforcement of environmental standards requires the will of the chocolate companies and governments. But retailers are equally responsible, as their shelf displays dictate what we buy and they earn the largest share in the cocoa supply chain.
As long as the farmer is paying the price for our cheap chocolate, there’s no way it can be sustainable or ethical. So, vote with your wallet and look for the Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance logos next time you buy chocolate
Here are five chocolate brands doing it right.
Tony’s Chocolonely promise chocolate that it is 100% slavery-free. This Fairtrade and B Corp certified company know the group of farmers they do business with, and pay a higher price per kilo to farmers so they have a minimum living income. They create a direct traceable link between growers and chocolate which is detailed inside the (plastic-free and recyclable) wrapper. Take your pick of palm oil-free, chunky, dark vegan or milk chocolate including our faves, dark almond sea salt, and dark lemony caramel cocoa biscuit. Yum!
One of the most ethical chocolate makers in Britain, Seed and Bean are Fairtrade certified, have fully compostable packaging, and come in delicious vegan dark chocolate options in a variety of flavours including lavender, chilli and lime, sweet orange and thyme, and mint.
100% organic, vegan and Fairtrade, Divine is co-owned by cocoa farmers, allowing co-op members to share in profits and have a larger voice in the cocoa industry. Grown on small family-owned Ghanaian farms, chocolate is traceable from bean to bar The company is also B Corp certified.
Sourcing cacao locally from Ghana, Dapaah works directly with the organic cacao trade throughout the country. Practices are Fairtrade and farmers are paid wages through a profit share model. Each vegan chocolate bar is creamy, rich and utterly delicious!
Green and Black's Maya Gold chocolate was the first chocolate in the UK to be awarded the Fairtrade mark in 1994. Check out their organic vegan dark chocolate range.