What YOU Can Do

Is There Slavery in Your Chocolate?

I’m a chocoholic.

You too?

Maybe it’s the way chocolate melts in my mouth or how the rich flavors roll over my taste buds, but either way, it’s addicting. There are so many tantalizing flavors: sea salt caramel, roasted almond, raspberry truffle, or even chili pepper.

I’m not the only one, of course. Americans consume 2.8 billion pounds of chocolate every year, which breaks down to over 9 pounds per person.

But the history of chocolate has a dark side.

Ever since Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés brought cacao beans back to Spain in 1528, slavery has been the main ingredient in chocolate. Known as the “food of the gods,” the raw cacao beans have throughout history been harvested at the expense of the poor and underprivileged, whether it was the Aztecs of yesterday or the Ivorian children of today.

Is There Slavery In Your Chocolate?

Let’s trace this back to the root of the matter–namely, the cacao tree.

In the humid jungles of the tropics, ripe orange and yellow cacao pods are sliced from cacao trees. Inside the pod, around 40 cacao beans are encased in a sweet pulp. After being fermented, dried, and shipped to a processing plant, the beans are transformed into the cocoa powder, butter, and chocolate we all know and love.

cacao pod
photo by Pixabay

Have you ever thought about who grows and harvests the cacao beans?

The numerous small cocoa farms in West Africa (most notably Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana) produce 70% of the world’s cocoa. These farmers, however, are very poor. The average daily income of a cocoa farmer is $0.78, compared to the $2.51 deemed necessary for a living income. Faced with continuing pressure to produce more beans for less money, the indigent farmers resort to the cheapest labor available: children.

But the children in the villages near the cocoa plantations aren’t the only underage workers. Seizing the opportunity for easy cash, traffickers smuggle children from Burkina Faso and Mali across the border into Côte d’Ivoire and sell them to the farmers.  Many of these children are between ages 5 and 11. They may have been tricked, coerced, or promised money to send home to the family, but most receive very little payment–if any. The children don’t know the local language and are forced to work long hours in the cocoa fields, wielding machetes, carrying heavy loads, and working with pesticides. If they work too slow or try to run away, they are beaten. How’s that for a childhood?

Schools, healthcare, and clean drinking water are often not present in these farming communities. But to me, the most mind-blowing fact of all is that most cocoa farmers have never even tasted a finished chocolate bar.

cacao beans
photo by Pablo Merchán Montes

Rumors have ebbed and flowed, but facts are seldom known.

The chocolate exporters and companies were aware of the atrocities, but the cheap cocoa made slavery easy to overlook as a “necessary evil.” In 2010, Danish journalist Miki Mistrati set out to see for himself whether or not the rumors were true. The result was a documentary called The Dark Side of Chocolate, and it was eye-opening. Now that raw footage revealed children being taken over borders against their will and cracking open cacao pods with machetes, the major chocolate manufacturers could no longer cover up the facts in the name of net profit.

After the negative publicity, the chocolate companies took action, and began incorporating in their products cocoa that had been traded fairly. In 2012, Mistrati produced a sequel called Shady Chocolate, revealing that the chocolate companies claimed to have the child labor issue under control. Upon further inspection, however, we see it is still quite easy to find children working on cocoa plantations, carrying machetes, and dragging heavy loads.

Since then, there has been some change.

Over the years, abolitionists and activists have been putting pressure on the chocolate giants. As the awareness grows on the entanglement of slavery and chocolate, little by little, plans have been implemented and goals have been set. Many big-name chocolate companies, such as Hershey, Nestlé, and Lindt & Sprüngli, have created their own cocoa sustainability programs and attempted to address the child labor issue.  Third party fair trade certification programs have formed, aiming to funnel more money to the starting point of the supply chain to lift farmers out of poverty. Schools have been built, giving the children a place to go besides the cocoa fields.

But we’re not done.

According to the 2018 Cocoa Barometer, 2.1 million children still work the cocoa fields in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana alone. Granted, this a complex problem and far from easy to solve, especially since the entire chocolate industry will have to work together to commit to slave-free chocolate. Right now, the price of cocoa is very low, which doesn’t help the poverty-stricken farmers.

Paying the cocoa farmers more for their cacao beans is one solution, but cocoa traders and grinders say they will only pay more for the beans if the chocolate companies themselves pay more for their cocoa. Then the chocolate companies blame retailers for pressure to keep prices low. The debate has been stuck at this point for a decade.

Fair trade chocolate

Here’s where you come in.

It’s possible to buy slave-free chocolate. In fact, I bought some last week at Meijer! Before, when buying chocolate, I’ve always gone for the Ghirardelli bars or Lindor truffles without even looking at my other options. After discovering that my favorite chocolate brands were made at the expense of others, I was appalled. Could I never again eat chocolate with a clear conscience? Check out the 2019 Chocolate Score Card and see what grade your favorite chocolate gets–if you dare.

The good news is that nowadays, we have a plethora of options for affordable, ethical, delicious chocolate. There’s a whole row of fair trade chocolate brands at Meijer, and I’m sure your local grocery store has options as well–if you take the time to look. My current favorite is the silky smooth Dove dark chocolate, which is Rainforest Alliance Certified.

What do I look for?

Near a corner or on the back of your chocolate product there will be a small label, which may say “FairTrade,” “UTZ Certified,” or “Rainforest Alliance.” There are many other certification labels, but according to expert Hamish Van Der Ven, these three are the most ethical. To receive certification, the chocolate company has to apply to one of these third parties, which verifies that the company’s ingredients meet certain standards. While they all prohibit forced labor and child labor, each certification brand takes a different approach.

FairTrade  guarantees a minimum price for cocoa farmers and focuses on alleviating poverty. UTZ and Rainforest Alliance  focus on helping farmers increase productivity and quality, which in turn will increase farmers’ incomes. Some companies label their products as “sustainable,” which usually means the cocoa was sourced through certified farms.

sustainable cocoa

I do have to make one unfortunate disclaimer. If we lived in a perfect world, then the fair trade theories would be perfectly implemented. We don’t, of course, so sometimes, the farmers don’t receive the promised money, and sometimes, the promised schools are never built. There can be a variety of reasons, including civil war or corruption in the cocoa-producing countries.

In light of that, here are a few more ways to help.

Look for chocolate brands advertised as “bean-to-bar.” This means the company is fully transparent, accountable, and knows exactly where their cocoa comes from. Do your own research. Dig in to the endless information Google offers to find out where you can buy ethical chocolate. Write to your favorite chocolate company and tell them you don’t want your guilty pleasure to also be guilty of child labor. Finally, buy dark chocolate, which contains more cocoa, which means more money goes back to the farmers.

The fact remains that as consumers, you and I have power. We can shout with our dollars. As Christians, we have a responsibility to be good stewards. We should do our best to buy products that aren’t made at the expense of others. As Americans, we have it so good here. We can afford to make an effort to give others a chance at a better life.

So, when you buy chocolate for your significant other this Valentine’s Day, go for the slave-free chocolate! It’ll taste sweeter.




“Better is a little with righteousness, than vast revenues without justice.” Proverbs 16:8

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