Ever seen a headline like this?
Chocolate Giants Pledge to Eliminate Child Slave Labor
Of course you have. It’s been running in trade and other business magazines for decades.
Child slave labor is an ugly but long-established fact of the cocoa/chocolate industry. To describe it briefly, a majority of the world’s supply of cocoa comes from two small West African nations, Ghana and Ivory Coast. The farms that produce the cocoa tend to be small, and many of them use children as laborers, in conditions that amount to slavery. Some poor families even sell their children to farmers, or to labor brokers who supply farms.
The big candy manufacturers are constantly making pledges to eradicate child slave labor that never get fulfilled. They promised to eliminate it by 2005, then 2008, then 2010.
Nope. Between 2013 and 2019, the prevalence of child labor in agricultural parts of Ghana and Ivory Coast increased from 31% to 45%, according to a survey by the U.S. Labor Department conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago.
It’s possible to buy chocolate that is certified as Fair Trade, but that’s mostly limited to expensive, artisanal bars that tend to be sold in places like Whole Foods and chocolate boutiques. The mountains of cocoa used for mass-produced bars, nuggets, chips, coatings, ingredients, etc., still comes from those sketchy sources.
Enter Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch outfit that calls itself “an impact company making chocolate” and claims to be the largest chocolate brand in the Netherlands. It was founded by a trio of journalists who were outraged by the child labor situation and determined to promote ethically sourced chocolate.
I have no idea how good their chocolate is, but these people are masterful trolls. Right now you can buy, at Whole Foods, chocolate bars from Tony’s that amount to parodies:
Counterclockwise from the top, these are meant to remind you of of Toblerone (Mondelēz), Kit Kat (Hershey/Nestlé), Twix (Mars) and...I’m not sure about the last one, although to Erin Hallstrom, our digital editor, it looks like Callebaut. It’s not just the labels, either; the candy inside resembles the target. For example, the Kit Kat parody is “Milk chocolate with wafer and cookie pieces.” All the labels bear imprecations: “...because all chocolate should be made without modern slavery and illegal child labor.”
Paul Schoenmakers, whose title at Tony’s is “head of impact,” says that voluntary measures and self-regulation aren’t enough. “With these bars, we aren’t pointing a finger,” he said in a statement. “We’re raising our voice, again, to raise awareness, and start a movement for necessary positive change. We’re not assigning blame; we’re calling on everyone to take responsibility. If we want 100% slave free to be the norm in chocolate, we need legislation, and we need everyone to play their part.”
I don’t know how much of an impact the spoof bars will have, but Schoenmakers is right. As the years roll on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that what we’re getting from the chocolate giants about child/slave labor is basically lip service. That became clear in 2011, when an industry trade group claimed in a letter to the Labor Department that tracing the provenance of its cocoa to ensure it doesn’t come from child/slave labor is just too daunting a task.
That’s a load of chocolate-colored stuff. Product tracing has made huge strides, though blockchain and other technologies. If Cargill can tell you which farm your Thanksgiving turkey comes from, I have a hard time believing that the chocolate bigwigs can’t trace the source of a load of cocoa beans.
It’s not that they want to use child labor. It’s that the first one to go ahead and pull the plug on unethically sourced cocoa will find its supply costs shooting up to the point where it will be at an insurmountable competitive disadvantage. All the seals of approval and glowing press releases in the world won’t help you if your products cost 5% or 10% or 15% more than your competitors’.
That’s why governments, in Africa and in the West, have to step in and do their job, which is to set minimal ethical standards. As long as it’s cheaper to make something that a lot of people want by making other people suffer on the other side of the world, that’s what’s going to happen.