Ethical Consumerism Part 8 – Slavery in the Chocolate Industry

Even though we might be vaguely aware that slavery still exists, many of us think of it as a thing of the past, or a thing that is separate from us. When we pick up a mainstream chocolate bar, it may not occur to us that the cacao was harvested by children who were sold (or tricked) into slavery, shipped to a foreign land and forced into a childhood of hard labor under awful conditions. We tend to think: That must be a pretty rare event these days, and it doesn’t apply to the household brands we grew up with and feel nostalgic about. Right? Actually it very much applies to mainstream chocolate brands.

Slavery free by 2020?

In 2001, the US government abandoned plans to legislate a slavery-free chocolate label and instead settled on an agreement (the Harkin-Engel Protocol) that the industry would self-regulate. Years slipped by until, in 2009, Mars made a promise to have a slavery-free supply chain by 2020. After a few years the other major chocolate companies (Nestlé, Hershey, Ferrero) caved to pressure and followed suit. So, having been given time to adjust, are the big chocolate makers likely to reach their goal of being slavery-free by 2020? Short answer: No.

In 2015, a study conducted at Tulane University found that the number of children working in the Côte d’Ivoire cocoa industry had actually increased 51% since 2009. More details and numbers are available from Slave Free Chocolate and a 2017 report from the Global Slavery Index

Now, 2020 is just over a year away (it once seemed so distant!) and Nestlé have radically changed their goal: their new target for 2020 is that only 57% of their cacao will be certified in-house as slavery-free, while the remainder will be bought as normal on the commodity market. Of the mainstream global brands, my feeling is that Mars is making the most progress. But skip to the last section if you don’t need to hear more about slavery and just want a list of recommended slavery-free brands.

Doe v Nestlé

Three young men from Mali are suing Nestlé and others for childhoods spend in slavery. The case has gone through several iterations, and is still ongoing – you can read about it here.

The individuals alleged they had been trafficked from Mali as child slaves and forced to work harvesting and/or cultivating cocoa beans on farms in Côte d’Ivoire. The plaintiffs allege that they were forced to work long hours without pay, kept in locked rooms when not working and suffered severe physical abuse by those guarding them.

Plaintiff John Doe II witnessed guards cut open the feet of children who attempted to escape, and John Doe III knew that the guards forced failed escapees to drink urine. (Source)

Although Nestlé benefits from low cocoa prices brought about in part by forced labor, they weren’t prosecuted because there’s no evidence that their day-to-day business operations in the US involve direct arrangement of slavery.

Commodity markets: an ethical problem.

A central facet to the problem is that, unlike smaller chocolate-makers who deal directly with growers and cooperatives, giant corporations like Nestlé, Hershey, Mondelēz, Lindt and Ferrero buy most of their cacao on the commodity market. The price of cocoa on the commodity market has not experienced any kind of consistent growth for four decades (the price has fluctuated around $2000 per ton since the 1980s) while the companies that process this product into plastic-wrapped junk food have flourished.

Nestle stock versus cocoa commodity price, 10 year charts, larger
Nestlé stock price (upper chart, Yahoo Finance) versus the cocoa commodity price (lower chart, Nasdaq) for 2008-2018.

Slavery-free chocolate brands

Meanwhile, there are many chocolate makers who are already making chocolate from slavery-free, sustainably-grown cacao. Here’s a list of approved chocolate brands from Slave Free Chocolate. 

Besides plain chocolate that’s miles ahead of Hershey and Nestlé, many of the ethical brands have started making great chocolate bars containing everything from toffee to ginger (e.g., Equal Exchange, Alter Eco and Endangered Species). There are now also sustainable and slavery-free versions of specialty items like peanut butter cups (e.g., from Theo).

Three slavery-free chocolate bars: Theo orange dark chocolate, Equal Exchange Panama, and Alter Eco Dark Coconut Toffee
Three slavery-free chocolate bars that I think all deserve 5/5 Green Stars. (Here’s an example of a Green Stars review, for the Panama bar)

In general, cacao can have a pretty positive impact or a very negative impact, on both the social and environmental side.

Bad chocolate: grown without shade (resulting in deforestation, even in National Parks) using some of the nastiest chemicals in agriculture and harvested by child slaves. If the product also contains palm oil then (with very few exceptions) you double the chance of deforestation and human rights abuses. Plastic packaging.

Good chocolate: Grown under the shade of a rainforest canopy and traded at a fair price that supports the local community. Paper packaging.

Bear this in mind if you write a Green Stars review of a chocolate bar – and please let me know if you do!

23 thoughts on “Ethical Consumerism Part 8 – Slavery in the Chocolate Industry

      1. Oh man, you nailed that. Between the day job, the business, condo drama, and trying to raise protections for all New Mexico’s horses–well, in the words of Prince Humperdinck, “I’m swamped.” *laugh*

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Interesting article and also not thinking about these things although deep rooted in my brain thought these were a thing of the past . We’re about to face chocolate rationing because of political decisions in the UK possibly and understand chocolate in general is facing a world wide shortage soon. The thing is, what would a World be like without chocolate?
    But -a lot of people do jobs where they arn’t treated properly – on different levels – because the alternative would be – no jon and no money.
    I lifted large sacks of peat in a nursery as a teenager and a woman – in the UK because we were expected to perform the same as men – sort of if you want teh job, this is what you have to do and in countrys like Sweden – women want to be treated equally to men. Its a can of worms

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    1. I’m glad you brought this up, because its important to make the distinction. Children helping out on the family farm or working part time to earn some pocket money is common, of course, and generally fine. Then there is Child Labor, which involves children working at a level (number of hours and/or difficulty of the work) that deprives them of education and childhood. Beyond that is Forced Labor (slavery) where the child (or adult) is basically a captive.

      From the ILO: “Forced labour refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.”

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      1. hi – im just saying, sometimes we ry so hard to put our way of life onto another cuture and we destroy it. although it looks bad – somehow it works. Unless we are prepared to wade in there and take over.

        I dont know anything about this, its just a feeling and some of the thimgs ive heard but maybe England did teh same in India and other places recently. Do we have a right. Shouldnt we just help people.countrys to help themselves in whatever way they see fit?

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      2. In this case, we’re talking about international slavery trades, not a cultural quirk. The best way to help communities in West Africa and other areas to help themselves is by buying products (such as chocolate) that involves direct trade (/fair trade) that supports local communities.

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  2. I wrote a screenplay with this as the backdrop. It’s amazing how the world abuses children. I guess our country did this, too, as early as the 20’s and 30’s, and maybe later, and we only stopped because of a brave photographer (whose name escapes me) who managed to get inside factories posing as a bible salesman and then took pictures of the kids working in scary situations that he then shared with the world. Cocoa is worse, though, because those children are severely mistreated. It is no problem at all to switch to fair trade chocolate that pays a living wage and doesn’t destroy the environment in the process. Thanks for this article.

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      1. One of when most disturbing things was the way they lured kids as young as 8 away from their families with the promise of a paycheck (the families were usually very poor and needed the money) and a bike. 🚲 😩

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