Tony’s Chocolonely burst onto the chocolate scene in 2005 with promises of slave free, Fairtrade chocolate and a desire to draw attention to the numerous social injustices within the chocolate industry. The intentions of Tony’s founder, Teun van de Keuken, are powerful and persuasive.
And with their characteristically bold packaging, they have brought the issue of slave labour in the cocoa industry right to the supermarket shelves – putting the issue quite literally before our very eyes.
In our virtual and face to face tastings, and at all of our fairs, one of the most frequently asked questions is: “what about Tony’s”?
And it’s a very good question… and there have been an increasing number of critical articles about Tony’s. So we’ve done a little digging, diving into their story, their claims – and the claims made against them.
We’ve come out very impressed by their marketing skills. They’ve done a great job at building their unique brand whilst simultaneously raising awareness of the problems of child slave labour in West Africa.
But this brand-oriented emphasis comes at the expense of even more important issues like the root causes of child labour and poverty in West Africa, the terrible deforestation that accompanies mass produced cocoa and the obesity and sugar-addiction epidemics exacerbated by cheap confectionery.
The History of Tony’s Chocolonely
To reiterate: Tony’s was founded with the best intentions. A Dutch journalist named Teun van de Keuken (AKA Tony himself) was shocked when he read about illegal child labour and slavery on cocoa farms in West Africa. He launched an investigation into it using his consumer watchdog show, ‘Keuringsdienst Van Waarde’ in 2003. The team discovered that there were 2.1 million children working illegally on cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and 30,000 instances of human trafficking and slavery.
Rather theatrically, Teun ate a pile of chocolate bars on television and turned himself in to the Dutch Authorities as a ‘chocolate criminal’. Teun was not prosecuted, so (on the advice of a lawyer) he found 4 boys who had worked as slaves on a cocoa farm in Ivory Coast to give statements about what they had endured. He was still not prosecuted, but having given the world tangible evidence of the horrors behind their favourite chocolate brands, he was able to successfully launch Tony’s Chocolonely.
Whilst the messaging behind Tony’s brand is great for raising awareness around the prevalence of child labour on cocoa farms, Tony’s actions as a company have been challenged and criticsed.
In fact, at the beginning 2021 Tony’s were removed from the Slave Free Chocolate List due to their involvement with Barry Callebaut; a company which has admitted that its own supply chain is not free of child labour or slavery.
And a decade earlier in 2010, it wasn’t until they got called out by Dutch TV show, Een Vandaag, that Tony’s stopped using child labor to harvest their hazelnuts sourced from Turkey…
Brand over bar…
Teun truly brought in the marketing heavyweights when it came to the presentation of his new ‘slave-free’ chocolate idea. The bright bold messaging of Tony’s was actually brought to you by the same people who marketed the delightful Innocent smoothies brand we’re so familiar with today.
In an interview with Sonder & Tell, Tony’s marketing manager, Nichola Matthews, described the company as ‘an impact company that makes chocolate, not a chocolate company that makes impact.’ It’s possible that, by placing so much emphasis on the message (or ‘impact’), Tony’s are missing the point: that they must actively pay more for farmers to live, and to not cut down rainforest – both of which are made possible by craft chocolate.
The 150+ craft chocolate makers that we work with are incredibly attentive to every step of the chocolate-making process (quite literally from bean to bar). And the result of this is not only a positive impact on the world, but it’s also what enables them to craft great chocolate bars with unique flavour profiles.
Whereas the vast majority of dark, milk, inclusion and white craft chocolate bars are low in sugar and high in flavour, Tony’s is quite the opposite. The average amount of sugar (per 100g) in a Tony’s milk chocolate bar works out at 48.4g, whereas in Pump Street Chocolate’s milk bars it’s 29.2g – that’s a huge difference.
The high volumes of sugar in most mass produced chocolate (including Tony’s) induce the bliss point – something which triggers us to keep eating beyond the point of satiation. And it’s this sugar, salt and fat combination that makes ultra processed chocolate so addictive.
Bottom line is: you, or your mates and kids, are far more likely to scoff a Tony’s bar than you are a craft chocolate bar. What’s more: they’ve put these ingredients in their chocolate knowing that there is an obesity epidemic sweeping Europe and the U.S.
Craft v. Mass Produced Chocolate
Craft chocolate makers are all about coaxing the unique flavour out of their cocoa bean. To that end, they are incredibly focused on not just the quality of the beans but also how the beans are fermented, dried, roasted, ground and conched. And they are happy to pay a premium of 3-10 times commodity cacao (ie US $5-15k a tonne versus $1.5-2k per tonne to the farmers). And where there is sugar in craft chocolate, it’s used as a flavour enhancer.
By contrast, mass produced chocolate is about consistency, cheapness and scoffing. And to this end a completely different manufacturing process is used. Instead of roasting a whole bean, the bean is “skinned” with steam, removing the shell. This increases the efficiency of roasting by 2-5%.
This efficiency comes at a price. Nib roasting further limits the flavour potential of mass produced cocoa that is already hampered by the way that they are grown, fermented and dried en masse and as cheaply as possible. So, mass produced bars, including Tony’s rely on additives, inclusions and sugar for their flavour and taste. Their making processes are aimed at reducing price – and they use additives, inclusions and sugar to cover up the lack of flavour from the chocolate.
This partly explains the prevalence of inclusions in Tony’s range of chocolate bars. They add wafers, honey, nougat, caramel, in order to create variety – whereas craft chocolate makers can generate variety in their bars just by sourcing and handling their beans differently. If you don’t believe us, come to one of our taste and flavour virtual tastings to learn more about how craft chocolate acquires its unique flavour profiles. .
The other reason why Tony’s lean so heavily on inclusions is to avoid what is technically called “sensory specific satiety”. To elaborate: if you are given five scoops of the same ice cream, you are (quite) likely to get bored and not scoff them all. If, however, you are offered five different flavours, you are far more likely to scoff them all. Again, for more on this, come to a taste and flavour virtual tastings.
To summarise: Tony’s bars use the same manufacturing approaches and facilities as any other ultra processed chocolate. Tony’s goal is consistent flavour, texture and taste for the lowest price. This is achieved through additives, sugar and other inclusions – not by carefully sourcing and crafting cocoa.
Next time you’re in the supermarket, look at the ingredients on the back of a Tony’s bar and see if you can tell them apart from any other confectionery, mass produced bar. And then also try to figure out where the beans come from and the bar is actually made – because you really can judge a bar by its label (and we can show you how).
All their eggs in one basket…
Whilst slave labor is abhorrent and is definitely an issue which requires urgent attention within the chocolate industry, by focusing their brand solely on this issue Tony’s are missing a whole host of other issues within the cocoa industry like the environmental impact of their company. There is no discussion of deforestation – a very urgent issue – on their website.
There are also suggestions that Tony’s plan to open their own theme park – an equivalent to Cadbury World. And critics are suggesting that whilst the intention to educate people about the rampant exploitation in the cocoa industry is admirable, but asking whether a theme park is the most sustainable way to go about delivering that message?
This chart from the BBC demonstrates just how damaging chocolate can be to the environment! It’s an issue that often slips under the radar when people discuss ethics in the cocoa industry (probably because there’s such a huge pile of problems for it to get lost under).
But, as you can see here, chocolate also has the potential to have a very low impact on the environment – and these will be in the cases of craft chocolate. Makers like Original Beans and Moka actively strive to preserve the rainforests; each maker plants a tree for every bar they sell.
Beyond slave labour
Child slave labour is appalling. And it’s a tragedy that after 20+ years the Haarken Engel protocol still hasn’t been enacted.
But again, it’s worth digging a little deeper and looking at some of the other horrors and structural issues.
Studies suggest that in West Africa 90% of cocoa farmers are paid less than a living wage – and for women working on farms it’s even worse. In fact, the systematic injustices faced by many women in West Africa is a huge contributing factor to child labour. For women who are divorced, or widowed, there is little choice but to take their offspring to the farm with them. They can’t afford to send them to school, nor can they risk leaving them alone in the village. For more on the underlying causes of child labour in the cocoa industry see here.
From a branding perspective, there are obvious advantages for Tony’s to limit their ‘mission’ to one issue; it enables a cohesive brand identity with a message that’s easy to follow. However, a written-off vehicle can’t be repaired by simply replacing a tire; the whole thing demands attention. And the chocolate industry, as it stands, is quite the car wreck.
So, are Tony’s “Good Guys” or “Bad Guys”?
The answer isn’t that they are simply good or bad. It’s much more complex than that.
The fact that they source their beans from Callebaut – one of the companies still being challenged in numerous court cases on child slave labour – has aroused scepticism and outright hostility. Whilst they’ve argued they do this to prove that traceability is possible on a large scale, Callebaut’s transparency reports remain pretty opaque (despite their best efforts to appear otherwise) and are open to huge criticism. Ditto their actions on deforestation, and even child slave and child labour.
So, whilst their messaging and commitment to raising awareness is great, it’s worth reading the label and unwrapping the bar. Their chocolate does not necessarily live up to the ethical sourcing they preach, nor is it anywhere near as sustainable (or tasty) as real craft chocolate bars.
On the positive side, they are affordable and at least addressing the issue of child slave labour far more obviously than many other mass produced makers.
But they are still designed to be made as cheaply as possible. They are still designed to be scoffed. They really are “just” confectionery. They aren’t changing chocolate to taste better, be better for you, be better for the planet or even be that much better for the farmers.
And, as ever, the best advice is to read the label!