On this World Chocolate Day, let’s rethink the big cocoa – Food Tank
Today is World Chocolate Day. On the face of it, this is a vacation for me, a bonkers chocolate addict looking for a sugary treat to get me through the second half of my day, every day. Yet I know his real goal is to sell me more products, to make me look beyond the seedy underbelly of the chocolate industry where people work in poverty to afford me luxury. Therefore, I suggest that we take this âholidayâ to think critically about what mass chocolate really represents in the world.
July 7, 1550 is believed to be the day the conquistador Hernandez Cortes brought chocolate to Spain from what is now Mexico. Tying the day back to Cortez’s ‘discovery’ gives us a glimpse of what lies beneath that shiny wrapper: the exploitation of people of color in the Global South that dates back some 500 years. After Cortez brought the cocoa to Spain, the colonizers cultivated the crop using enslaved indigenous peoples, decimating these populations with disease and violence; eventually, cocoa farmers began to enslave the people of West Africa to cultivate what would become a staple crop.
And that legacy continues today: the Supreme Court ruled in NestlÃ© USA and Cargill v. Doe â in which six complainants who were trafficked from Mali as children and forced to work on cocoa plantations in CÃ´te d’Ivoire brought the truth about child exploitation in the industry to the light. On June 17, 2021, the court ruled that the lawsuit against NestlÃ© and Cargill under the Foreigners’ Liability Act could not proceed because the abuses in question had taken place abroad.
While disappointing, advocacy group Fair World Project notes that the ruling does not deny the existence of hazardous child labor throughout these companies’ supply chains. An estimated 1.6 million children are involved in hazardous work in the cocoa sector, some in forced labor and trafficking. This can be an underestimation as it is difficult and dangerous for auditors to access plantations where such circumstances occur.
Today, many adult farmers who grow cocoa have never tasted chocolate as an end product. And adult cocoa farmers earn less than US $ 1 a day, well below the cost of producing cocoa and educating their families. The real cost of chocolate production has been paid by the cocoa growing communities for the benefit of the few.
At the root of this exploitation is an extractive business model that relies on poverty prices for farmers. This extractive model is behind a horrendous lack of transparency made possible by complicated supply chains with many barriers between farmers and chocolate brands. Only 44 percent of NestlÃ©’s cocoa can be traced back to the cooperatives that produced it; and 51 percent of Mars brand cocoa is traceable to farmer cooperatives in its own supply chain.
What these statistics tell us is that chocolate companies do not know whether their supply chains are based on modern slavery, exploitative conditions or child labor. They don’t even want to know either: this opacity, many critics note, is built into these supply chains to give big companies plausible deniability. And as the Supreme Court case makes clear, these supply chains can work for companies to keep human rights violations abroad and out of sight.
This is unacceptable.
On World Chocolate Day, we should celebrate the potential for significant reforms in chocolate. Dr. Bronner’s, my family’s known soap and body care company, founded in 1948, which I run with my brother, is launching a line of fair trade and organic chocolate bars this year because we know from our supply chain partnerships that the chocolate industry can be ethical if companies prioritize mutual cooperation for profit. We were inspired by fair trade chocolate pioneers like Alter Eco and Equal Exchange who have proven that chocolate can be made better – paying fair prices and transparency of the supply chain are key to that.
The move towards fair trade chocolate should not be driven by appeals and lawsuits that bring chocolate makers out of the race to the bottom. We need an industry-wide change: The chocolate created without slave labor in modern times shouldn’t be a ‘perk’ offered by some brands, forcing customers to make the decision as if they chose between nuts, raisins or caramel.
On the contrary, Big Cocoa should have principles deeply rooted in its DNA that would make supply chains based on exploitative practices unthinkable; and to the extent that they don’t, we have to force them to.
There isn’t enough marketing clever enough to make the perpetuation of the shameful legacy of colonialism taste sweet – we need to change the chocolate business for good.
Photo courtesy of Tetiana Bykovets, Unsplash