Willy Wonka and the Guilty Secret of Chocolate

Smooth, tasty, and comforting, chocolate is a household staple for millions. However, our favorite sweets are hiding a dark secret and it’s time we confronted it. Whatever your chocolate bar tells you, it definitely has some serious human rights issues at its core.

Chocolate and the world

The global chocolate market is due to reach $140 billion by 2024.  Little to none of this will end up with the people who do the most arduous work. Cocoa farmers make $3-$5 a day and usually must support 1-10 dependents. 45% of that labor is done by unpaid women. If that still doesn’t make you feel a tinge of guilt, consider the fact that there are around 2.1 million kidnapped and enslaved children working in cocoa in Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire, the two largest cocoa producing countries in the world.

Since the mid-2000s (and the Harkin-Engel Protocol of 2001) pressure has mounted from governments and consumers alike for chocolate companies to change their sourcing policies. In 2012, Ferrero and Mars pledged to end cocoa related slavery by 2020. Writing this in 2019, means they failed. And so has every other major chocolate brand, from Hershey’s to Cadbury’s to Toblerone.

Cocoa Chaos

So, what makes it so hard to do? Why is slave labor and the abuse of children such an attractive business proposition for large chocolate companies?

To answer this, you should know the situation. Ghana is the second largest producer, with a government that takes an active role in reducing inequalities. Ghana accounts for 20% of all cocoa production. This production is 99% family farming on leasehold land. Families tend to work on 1 to 3 hectares of land, renting from landowners, and are unable fix their own prices. Farmers must be part of an association to sell chocolate, and the association must find buyers through the Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) who set national thresholds to ensure minimum wages, which is the first bit of good news in this article.

A cocoa farmer can expect to face poverty, dangerous working environments, and a fluctuating market price – that is if they are not a child. If you are a child, one of those 2.1 million children in the cocoa industry, you are likely unpaid, used for backbreaking work that may stunt your growth, hungry, scared and far from home. Cocoa to you is a plant that you farm, you’ve never had chocolate, and there’s a good chance you never will.

After the farming and buying process cocoa goes to a low-level manufacturing company in Ghana to separate the cocoa liquor, butter, and solids. These are low-value processes and the outputs are sold to “Big Cocoa” name brands such as Mondelez, Nestle, Lindt et al. These companies “add value” to the materials by adding sugar, fats, butter and snazzy packaging. While the Ghanaian cocoa farmer gets $3 a day, the low-level European chocolate maker, works in a safe environment, and is paid equitably – about $10 an hour.

This means that we know that certain parts of the supply chain are unfairly remunerated and that the demand for cocoa perpetuates structural poverty. Some regulators such as COCOBOD seek to avoid this unfairness by ensuring minimum prices for farmers. However, those minimum prices are based on market fluctuations. End-product chocolate prices do not tend to fluctuate down, they tend to shrinkflate. Meaning the price stays the same but the size of the chocolate reduces for the end buyer. This all leads us to the mystery at the heart of this story. Large international multi-billion-dollar companies are not subject to market fluctuations, but impoverished farmers are.

Solving Slavery

“We need to do something,” I hear you cry. If you remember back in 2001 Ferrero and Mars agreed to, and, slowly but surely, so did Nestle, Cote D’or, and other major players. But here’s the rub. To pay your farmers equitably you need to know who your suppliers are, you need to analyse your value chains and which parts are using unethical means. You need a system in place, and that’s historically expensive. You also need to absorb that initial price increase for your raw materials. To date, no international chocolate company has made either of those leaps.

For the price issues, that is a necessary change, as manufacturers and consumers we will have to absorb the cost of ethics with our chocolates. Increased demand for variety and the slow fragmentation of the market is increasingly allowing smaller companies access to a once highly consolidated market. Consumers have demonstrated they are willing to pay more for these categories. 70% of consumers of general goods say they would not buy from companies if they knew that they had slavery in their supply chain.

So, the only thing left is how to evaluate the supply chain, which is what Swiss NGO, slavefreetrade, is now doing. Using distributed ledger technology (blockchain), slavefreetrade’s platform monitors the supply chain using its sourcing system. Including one-click source reporting to government bodies, public acknowledgement, and a badge for slave-free products, updates on sources in your supply chain, and databases of slave-free suppliers.

By bringing as many people as possible into reporting and being transparent about their experiences working in the cocoa industry, we can encourage positive change. Transparency is our friend, even if big cocoa is terrified by it. Clear maps to show the journey of your chocolate from cocoa farming to consumer sales not only mean that as a consumer you can see how your chocolate is made, it also brings clarity for buyers, and helps traders rely on stable, ethical and above-board suppliers, farmers, and partners.

So next time you feel like having some chocolate, take a moment to choose a chocolate that doesn’t have that bitter aftertaste that slavery leaves in the mouth. And keep watching for that slavefreetrade logo.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on July 23, 2019.


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