Sweets for the Season? Consider the Source

Image by Jessica Loaiza.

Chocolate—not all, but much of it—is entangled with an immoral global economy. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund contributed to the problem through neoliberal policies that undermined national pricing systems for decades. With farmers receiving only 6% of the multinational industry’s revenue, cocoa workers are deprived of fair pay for hard work.

By buying cheap chocolate, we enable Cargill, Hershey, Nestlé and other multinationals to exploit West African workers. Here’s a brief look at what’s still wrong with the industry—and what else these companies are selling to us.

Meet the “Architects and Defenders of the Cocoa Production System of Côte D’Ivoire…”

Two decades ago, in 2001, democratic Congressmembers Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel vowed to impose a certification process to make sure chocolate sold in the United States would be slavery-free. The Chocolate Manufacturers Association hired ex-senators Bob Dole and George Mitchell to lobby against it. A watered-down result, the Harkin-Engel Protocol, let companies avoid certification by agreeing to stop their worst practices, such as profiting from the trafficking of children, by 2005. In effect, companies bought not only time, but also the leeway to engage in illegal practices, because:

* The 1930 U.S. Tariff Act bans imports made through “forced or indentured labor.”

* The 1997 Sanders Amendment spelled out that this includes “forced or indentured child labor.”

And what’s the situation now? The big companies might be putting out a few token fair trade labels (such as Hershey’s barkTHINS®), yet the number of youths doing dangerous work on cocoa plantations has risen.

The cocoa plantations of Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana grow more than 70% of the cocoa sold by big brands. There are 1.56 million children harvesting the beans. Local traditions in which youths move among extended family circles have been exploited to facilitate human trafficking. And the major chocolate sellers are “not merely purchasers of cocoa from Côte D’Ivoire,” states a lawsuit against them. They are “the architects and defenders” of this system.

…Knowingly Profiting From Human Trafficking to Cocoa Plantations.

The suit, Coubaly vs. Cargill, was filed in the names of eight young. It recounts how Issouf Coubaly and co-plaintiffs were trafficked from their home country of Mali to the cocoa plantations of Côte D’Ivoire. They were under 16, and assigned to dangerous, unpaid work.

The defendants, sued under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, are Olam International, which produces ingredients and packaged foods in West Africa, plus a number of brands familiar to U.S. grocery shoppers:

* Cargill® Inc. (Ambrosia® Chocolate, Truvia®)

* Nestlé® USA (Toll House®, Libby’s®, Haagen Dazs®, Nestea®, Starbucks Consumer Packaged Goods, Gerber®, San Pellegrino®, Perrier®, Purina®)

* Mars Inc. (M&Ms®, Snickers®, Twix®, Milky Way®, Dove®, Extra®, Orbit®, Skittles®, Uncle Ben’s®, Pedigree®, Royal Canin®, Whiskas®)

* The Hershey Company (U.S. Kit Kat® chocolates, Zero, Symphony, Mounds and Almond Joy bars, Breath Savers, Bubble Yum, Good & Plenty, Hershey’s Kisses, Twizzlers, Jolly Rancher, etc.)

* Mondelēz (Toblerone, Cadbury, Oreo, Enjoy Life Foods®, Ritz, Triscuit, Wheat Thins, Sour Patch Kids, Green and Black’s, Chips Ahoy, Belvita, Hu, Perfect Bar).

B2B supplier Barry Callebaut USA (Bensdorp, American Almond, Gertrude Hawk Chocolates, etc.) is also named as a defendant. The suit calls all of the above companies out for knowingly profiting from human trafficking to cocoa plantations.

In July 2021, the businesses moved to dismiss the suit, challenging the plaintiffs’ standing, stating that forced work is against their corporate policies, and claiming they’re too far down the supply chain to be blamed. The plaintiffs’ opposition brief calls out the corporations’ “willingness to say virtually anything to preserve their cocoa supply system based on child slavery.” And it notes the passing of 20 years since these corporations signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol and promised to end their reliance on the “worst forms” of child exploitation by 2005. All the while, they have misled the public:

The chocolate companies gave themselves four extensions of time and now claim by 2025 they will “reduce by 70%” their reliance on child labor. Think about that – after 20 years, they admit they are still using child labor and won’t even stop in 2025. They have given themselves permission to profit from child slavery until they decide they will stop enslaving children.

You Can Put Lipstick on Nestlé, But It’s Still Nestlé. There Are Alternatives.

So Nestlé is wooing vegans with dairy-free versions of coffee creamers, ice creams, and Kit Kat bars. PETA says it’s excited about such products. Yet the very point of veganism, as defined by its originators, is to grow an anti-exploitation movement in “historical continuity with the movement that set free the human slaves.”

Is there a simple way to get vegan, fairly traded chocolate? A number of U.S. grocery and drug chains stock chocolate-covered coconut cubes (the ones in the blue bags) from Ocho. While this company is new to me, its website does state:

We officially partner with Fair Trade USA to ensure all of our cocoa was produced according to rigorous fair trade standards that promote sustainable livelihoods and safe working conditions, protection of the environment, and strong, transparent supply chains.

It’s interesting to find this, too, in Ocho’s Frequently Asked Questions: Are monkeys used in the harvesting of the coconut in the OCHO Coconut bar? Our suppliers do not use animals in the harvesting of coconut fruit. That said, not all Ocho items are vegan.

Divine Chocolate is also showing up in the retail chains now. The company has a long history of working with co-op farmers in Ghana. The company has a number of dairy-free offerings. The 85% Dark Chocolate Bar With Turmeric and Ginger is…divine.

When Elegance Matters, Choose a Small-Batch, Artisan Producer.

It’s the gifty time of year, so allow me to talk about an artisan chocolatier whose founder I actually know: Lagusta’s Luscious. Lagusta writes:

We believe the earth is a source of astonishing richness that must be respected, so we use good ingredients that are good to the earth. We believe animals are not on this planet for us to use, so we do not use animal products… 

We work closely with small farmers and producers in our beloved town of New Paltz, New York and across the country to source truly ethical ingredients.

The source of the chocolate itself is República del Cacao, in Ecuador.

Fairly traded chocolate comes with additional benefits for those who rightly insist on it. Fairly paid farmers are better positioned to invest in soil health. Chocolate in its purest form, with no dairy inputs, celebrates the character of the beans and their nutritional value.

If we buy chocolate, it’s incumbent upon us to consider the source. Imports rise in winter months, so now is an excellent time to raise awareness, to shift away from any items sold by the multinationals, and to support businesses that respect our planet’s astonishing richness.

Watch International Rights Advocates for further information on the cocoa litigation.

Photos: Bonbon Assortment and Peanut Caramel Bar With Nougat, courtesy of Lagusta’s Luscious.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.