Fair Trade Chocolate Takes the Trick Out of Trick or Treat

Reader Contribution by England Porter
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Every Halloween my mother would gather us all around after we had gone trick or treating, and asked for her Chocolate Tax, a small fee for enjoying the benefits of being her children. She may have worried about how much we were eating, but it didn’t cross her mind to worry about whether or not the chocolates were Fair Trade. Chocolate was a staple in our home, as it was and remains in many homes throughout America. Hot cocoa, candy bars, chocolate chip cookies — chocolate is everywhere! 

There is a huge market for chocolate, not only in the United States, but worldwide.The global chocolate market is projected to be worth $98.3 billion annually by 2016, according to MarketandMarket, a global market research company. That level of profit creates a strong incentive for companies to seek profit at all costs. When those costs start to include people, we have to wonder if the candy we’re eating has come down a long pipeline of exploitation and mistreatment of people farther down the food chain. Far too often it has.  

The chocolate that most of us eat is picked on farms primarily in Africa. A surprising number of agricultural workers are forced against their will to participate in the cultivation and harvesting of cocoa. Slavery and human trafficking are rampant in the industry and many of those who end up being trapped in this system are children. 

According to a report produced by Tulane University, in 2009, roughly 21 percent of children in Cote d’Ivoire and 47 percent of children in Ghana had been involved in cocoa farming operations within the last year. The majority of our chocolate comes from this region of Africa, and the proportion of children who are involved in the industry is alarming.

Cocoa is not the only agricultural industry that employs child labor, nor is it alone in utilizing trafficked or forced labor, but it is one of the more dangerous. In the Tulane study, it was discovered that around 50 percent (49.4 in Cote d’Ivoire and 53.7 in Ghana) of child workers in cocoa were injured on the job within the last year. This is compared to 25 and 37 percent in other agricultural fields in the same regions. Chocolate is dangerous, and if we aren’t careful about our purchases, we become tacit supporters of a system that trades childhood for chocolate.

Many of the brands that we know and love are involved in this system in very real ways. Hershey’s scored an “F” rating on its labor practices according to GreenAmerica.org. This means that they lack the Fair Trade, USDA Organic, UTZ, IMO Fair ForLife, and Rainforest Alliance certifications that ensure that they are following fair labor and environmental practices. But it’s only one company, so it can’t make that big of a difference, right? Wrong, Hersey’s controls more than a 40 percent share of the United States chocolate market. What it does as a company has a huge impact on the entire industry.

People are becoming more and more aware of this issue due to films like The Dark Side of Chocolate, or investigative reporting by news agencies such as CNN. We are beginning to see the tide shift on the issue of chocolate.

Now you know, but that’s only half the battle. American consumers must also take action. Many think this calls for a boycott of companies like Hersey’s in favor of other more humane brands. After all, we’ve all heard the old adage “put your money where our mouth is,” and while that may be a good start, I don’t think it goes nearly far enough. I think that you have to use both your buying power and your words.  

Giving up chocolate doesn’t necessarily change the system, and comes at a cost to the person making the sacrifice (depending on how much she or he loves chocolate). In my experience, if people are given the choice of giving up something they love, or ignoring the overwhelming evidence that their actions are having negative impacts, most people will ignore the facts. Changing the system means that we will have to change the way that people think about chocolate, which won’t be easy unless people have viable alternatives to the chocolate that we buy.

If we must have chocolate for our holidays (and our day-to-day lives, and believe me … we must), there are other options than simply giving up our favorite treat. Companies like Alter Eco, Coco-Zen, Divine, Equal Exchange, Shaman, Sjaak’s, Theo Chocolate and Green & Black’s, all score an “A” rating on labor practices according GreenAmerica.org

But just choosing better chocolate is only half the story. We can stop buying anything we choose, but unless we tell the companies why we’ve changed our product choices, how can we expect them to change their products? Some people are already working on combining buying power and voice. Raise the Bar is taking action on chocolate labor practices, by calling for incremental, quantifiable and attainable action steps that Hershey’s can take to change their practices.  

Hershey’s is already  responding to the pressure, and recently announced that it is going to seek certification of all of its chocolates by 2020. Social movement is making a change, but we have to demand more. A change by 2020 means nothing to the child who is being injured in the field today, or the child who will be trafficked in tomorrow. We must push for swifter and more concrete action instead of vague and distant promises.

American consumers have an amazing ability to change the practices of companies and industries that we purchase from. Our voices dictate the market, and we have the ability to change the world around us not only by refusing to support flawed systems, but also by actively pursuing new and more equitable systems for the future. By buying Fair Trade chocolates this year, and by supporting movements to transition the entire chocolate industry towards more humane practices for tomorrow, we can make a difference. Maybe by next Halloween we will all be able to proudly say that we were able to ensure that the chocolates being handed out in our communities is part of a cocoa system that is truly fair. In the meantime, the companies listed above all have individual, bite-sized chocolates available right now (online or at a grocery or natural products store near you), and they’re a delicious way to start changing the world.

Photos by (top)Fotolia/Marco Mayer, (bottom) Endangered Species Chocolates