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Ethics in the Chocolate Industry

Both environmentally and socially, mass produced chocolate has detrimental effects on our world. The ethics of big chocolate are often shady – shrouded behind jargon which is anything but transparent. We rarely know where makers like Cadbury and Nestle really source their beans from, or how the farmers who grow those beans are treated. Cheap chocolate bars come at a price: the exploitation of cocoa growers and the destruction of the environment.

A recently published infographic from the BBC showed that chocolate sourced from the rainforest can actually have a larger carbon footprint than low-impact beef. By placing chocolate alongside a number of other every-day foods, this shows us just how damaging chocolate can really be to the environment.

Fortunately, none of this means you have to give up chocolate. There is an ethical alternative to your favourite supermarket treat: craft chocolate. In this section we will explore the ethical dilemmas posed by the mass produced chocolate industry and, eventually, how the craft chocolate movement can resolve them.

The Dark History of Chocolate

The current problems within the chocolate industry are rooted in a colonialist history. It can be traced back to the Spanish conquistadors who used the ‘encomienda’ system in the American colonies to manage the labour intensive process of picking and processing cacao.

Although the system was intended to be mutually beneficial, the Spaniards ruthlessly exploited native peoples by forcing them into hard labour. Things only got worse by the 17th century when cocoa became a mainstream commodity amongst the European upper classes. This explosion in demand was met by a systematic turn towards slavery.

Even with the gradual abolition of slavery from the 1800s, the exploitation of workers continued – only in different forms. As we say in our full article on the matter; it was slavery in different packaging.

And the problem hasn’t gone away…

Cocoa’s colonial history has had long-term impacts which have yet to be fully resolved. Still, human rights abuses, low pay, and child labour run rampant throughout the chocolate industry. Growers and farmers are rarely treated with the respect they deserve.

Only instead of imperial traders, today we have the ‘Big Five’ of chocolate: Cadbury, Nestlé, Hershey, Mars, Ferrero – all of which have been involved in exposés regarding their use of child labour.

The problem with mass produced chocolate

Mass produced chocolates poses a host of ethical problems, contributing to climate change as well as the exploitation of the people who grow their beans.

By attempting to mass produce cocoa beans, big chocolate companies have exacerbated pre-existing problems of deforestation and water-shortages in rainforests everywhere.

Furthermore, big chocolate companies have so far been unsuccessful in ending their harmful practices. Callebaut didn’t partner with Cocoa Horizons Foundation until 2015 and since then has admitted to being unsuccessful in ending their use of child labour.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to assess whether or not big chocolate companies are using ethical practices. They’re tuning in to consumer demands for more ethical production and subsequently adapting their brand message to appeal to our societal conscience. Because many terms like “bean to bar” and “organic” aren’t patented, they can get away with selling bars as more ethical than they actually are.

However, we’ve tried to uncover at least some of what big chocolate doesn’t want you to see.

Child Labour

Whilst the chocolate industry earns around $100 billion in annual profits, the farmers see hardly a tiny fraction of this staggering figure. Farmers are left with so little money that they have no choice but to get help from their families – including their children.

Some children simply help on their family’s farm, but others face more dire circumstances as they are sold into slavery by their families or trafficked.

Since signing the 2001 Harkin Engel Protocol, big chocolate companies have made nothing but empty promises, failing to meet targets on reducing their exploitation of child labour.

The conversation about child labour in craft chocolate…

Some anthropologists have argued that the current conversations about child labour in the chocolate industry aren’t as helpful or altruistic as we think they are.

Of course, it definitely is in everyone’s best interest to actively campaign against the enslavement and trafficking of children within the cocoa industry. However, the broader conversations around child labour on family cocoa farms may require more nuance.

For example, the childcare available to most parents in West Africa is expensive and not readily available. Many parents are faced with the choice of leaving children unattended at the village are taking them with them to the farm.

As Amanda Berlan argued, ‘In the context of cocoa, child labor is not a violation of labor rights occurring in a social vacuum; it is symptomatic of a much wider set of issues relating to child welfare which, problematically, are not receiving the attention they deserve.’ (October 2021). For the full article see here.

Unpacking “Fairtrade”

We are frequently asked whether or not our chocolate is Fairtrade. This is a complicated question in the context of the cocoa industry.

Truthfully, Fairtrade have done incredible work in raising global awareness around ethical, sustainable relationships across the world’s supply chain. But it was designed for large-scale crops like sugar or bananas which grow on large farms and plantations.

Cocoa, on the other hand, is not grown under the same conditions and is therefore less suited to the Fairtrade label. Because so long as it’s treated as a mass produced commodity, the longer malpractices in the cocoa industry will be able to continue.

Beyond Fairtrade…

So we believe that, whilst Fairtrade certainly has its merits, the long-term solution for making the chocolate industry more ethical is to look beyond Fairtrade.

With this in mind, we wrote a series of some of our makers and how their practices go above and beyond the Fairtrade standards.

You can read about:

What makes craft chocolate an “ethical alternative”

By supporting craft chocolate makers like the ones listed above, you are supporting the farmers who grow their cacao in sustainable and ethical ways. Craft chocolate makers often handpick the farmers themselves, so they can rely upon the quality of these beans as well as their low carbon footprint.

Craft chocolate makers also generally pay cocoa growers more for their beans; Marc, Belvie‘s co-founder, says they pay four to five times the global market price for their cocoa beans. This means the growers can afford to live comfortably whilst continuing to grow high quality beans which will be turned into the craft chocolate you get to eventually enjoy!

What can we do to make the chocolate industry more ethical?

To upturn such a deeply ingrained system, it will take a broader shift in mindset to make the chocolate industry more ethical.

First, think about what sort of chocolate we are buying, and where the chocolate bar sources its cacao from. Read the label on the back; does it say something about the beans’ origin and where the bar was made? Is the bar only made up of ingredients that your grandmother would know?

Savour our chocolate; it’s not a commodity! Avoid the supermarket offers and pay that little bit extra for better chocolate (because you know that extra is being spent on ensuring growers are paid fairly and to reduce the bars carbon footprint).

Trust in the craft chocolate makers to provide higher quality chocolate than what the big companies could offer (this should be the easiest part).

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