Chocolate’s Impact on Modern Slavery

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Recently, a friend asked me to do a post on chocolate and slavery, a topic I wrote about years ago for my old blog. In that post, I discussed, without much research, the use of slave labor in the chocolate industry. At the time, I felt the only solution would be to boycott any chocolate unless it was certified some way as slave-free or fair trade. Over the years, as I’ve learned more about the complexities of the market, I’ve come to recognize that it’s really not that simple. Furthermore trying to avoid every item that may have been tainted by slavery or exploitative labor would be nearly impossible. I learned that slavery may have been used to build my cell phone, make my carpet and my clothes, harvest my shrimp, and mine my gold. And I also learned that “fair trade” isn’t always fair. carpet

In this post, I’m going to focus on chocolate and the complex nature of exploitation within the industry. But I will also focus on the hopeful side: what’s being done and how you can help.

Child Labor in the Cocoa Industrynino-cacao

Most of the world’s cocoa beans come from West Africa, specifically Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. In 2015, Tulane University released a report that estimated that over 2 million children were involved in “hazardous work” in the cocoa industry in that region. Some of these children may be the children of cocoa farmers; others may have immigrated voluntarily from neighboring countries to seek work. This is where it gets complicated: Not all child labor is technically “slavery,” but “hazardous work” is one of the worst forms of child labor as outlined by the International Labour Organization (ILO). These distinctions are important when it comes to laws, law enforcement, data, and research, but exploitation is exploitation, and our duty to be conscientious consumers remains the same whatever the form of exploitation is.

What about Fair Trade?

cacao2In that years-old blog post about chocolate, I put a lot of faith into chocolate that was fair trade or otherwise certified to be made without exploitation. Unfortunately, the truth is that the ideals of fair trade are much loftier than their realities. Fair trade isn’t bad, nor is it the cure-all I thought it to be. In a review of The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich by Senegalese development economist, Ndongo Samba Sylla, The Economist sums up two major problems with fair trade:

“Among the problems has been a proliferation of labels and organisations that make a living from certification and licensing use of the labels. There are over 600 labels in Britain alone. This has blurred the definition of what qualifies as fair trade.

Worse, there is little evidence that fair trade has lifted many producers out of poverty, not least because most of the organisations that are certified tend to come from richer, more diversified developing countries, such as Mexico and South Africa, rather than the poorer ones that are mostly dependent on exporting one crop. […] According to Mr Sylla’s calculations, for each dollar paid by an American consumer for a fair-trade product, only three cents more are transferred to the country it came from than for the unlabelled alternative.”

chocolate-pour_wide-48aea73792ce34715bdb1ab4dd058f99a649b9a5-s900-c85Mr. Sylla goes further to explain the thesis of his book in an article for The Guardian: “The unequal distribution of the gains of Fairtrade (FT) derives in a large part from the characteristics of certification. The certification system presents a twofold bias against the poorest developing countries. First, there are considerations related to the costs of certification. These being the same everywhere, they are relatively more expensive for the most disadvantaged countries, all other things being equal. Then, due to its sliding-scale price structure, certification is less costly for large producer organisations than for smaller ones. Finally, the cost of compliance with FT standards (changes in agricultural and administrative practices that often lead to an increase in working hours) is higher for small organisations due to their lower productivity and lower economies of scale.”

(You can find another robust explanation of the flaws of fair trade, particularly in relation to coffee — but the principles carry over — in Colleen Haight’s article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee.”)

So, what do we do?

If fair trade isn’t the answer, what is?

  • Do some research, find out which brands are committed to cleaning up their supply chains and/or operate on a direct trade (bean-to-bar) model, and share their stories. Many of them source their beans from South America; encourage them to expand their model to Africa.
  • Reach out to your favorite chocolate companies. Engage with them via social media. Hound them relentlessly about their corporate social responsibility and what they’re doing to ensure their supply chains aren’t tainted by exploitation and that they do their part to alleviate poverty in the places where they do business. Do the same with the International Cocoa Initiative and the World Cocoa Foundation. Remind them that voluntary self-regulation isn’t enough!  slavefreechocolate-300x300.png
  • Ethical Chocolate Companies, a list by Slave Free Chocolate – Some of these companies rely on certifications that may or may not be fair. Encourage them to reevaluate their methods and pursue direct trade models with more farmers in poorer countries.  
  • At the heart of the problem is poverty. Alleviating poverty and global inequality is key to ending many forms of labor exploitation. Support organizations who are working to make a difference, specifically in West Africa:

And if this seems overwhelming and you need some extra help or direction, contact me! Seriously, get in touch, and we can work on solutions together!

For More Information….


Fair Trade:

Supply Chains:

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