By Kate LaForge
It’s estimated that consumers spend nearly 2 billion dollars on chocolate every year for Valentine’s Day. Anyone who spends any time in the candy aisle of grocery stores (ahem) would be hard pressed to not notice an explosion of gourmet chocolate options in the past couple of years. These brands are plastered with labels proclaiming fair trade and environmental responsibility — charging anywhere from $3 a bar and upwards from there. Do these often exorbitant prices reflect actual fair labor practices? And if so, is the state of labor rights in cacao production really so bad as to necessitate this entire cottage industry of gourmet, ethically conscious producers?
The answer is an overwhelming yes, cacao farms in some regions of the world commit not only unfair labor practices but regularly engage in human trafficking and forced labor. Roughly three-quarters of the world’s cacao comes from farms in West Africa where slavery, forced labor, and hazardous child labor still exists on cacao farms. According to Anti-Slavery International 284,000 children work in hazardous conditions on cacao farms, and as many as 15,000 of them have been enslaved through human trafficking.
In 2001 US Congress took action by passing the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a voluntary public-private agreement between the government and cacao producers. Originally, the Protocol forced companies to pass a certification process to obtain a “Child Labor Free” certification but unfortunately intensive lobbying from Big Chocolate successfully vetoed this requirement. Ten years after the passage of the protocol the largest chocolate producers (Hershey’s, Nestle, and Mars are considered among the worst offenders) have failed miserably to improve labor standards — according to a report published in 2015, child labor on cacao farms has increased by 18 percent since 2001.
So what do these labels actually mean? Labels like Fair Trade, Equal Exchange, and Rainforest Alliance (which puts more emphasis on conservation) are awarded to companies for proving ethical practices in labor and pricing. However, the standards for certification vary widely and there exists widespread criticism of the expensive certification process required to obtain them. Some opponents argue that the payment required in exchange for the certification ultimately excludes those who need the business and certification the most – poor farmers operating on a small scale.
Thankfully, there are organizations monitoring the production of cacao and working towards improved conditions. The Food Empowerment Project has released a well-researched list of companies that source their cacao from places where slavery and child labor is not practiced.
Consumers should not have to choose between ethics and affordability, but until the chocolate industry is willing to prioritize ethical production fair trade chocolate will remain at a price point out of reach for many consumers. As consumers become more conscious over time and support companies that produce ethical chocolate this practice may slowly change. This was recently exhibited by McDonald’s announcement of a shift to antibiotic-free chicken, a response to lagging sales and the desire of consumers to “feel good about” what they’re eating at McDonalds. One can only hope the chocolate industry will follow suit and shift towards ethical production, so one day everyone can enjoy delicious, delectable, ethically-produced chocolate purchased from conscious companies worth supporting.