Views: Chocolate makes a difference

May 23, 2012 | 8 a.m.

Enjoy the delicious treat while buying Fair Trade

Views | Celeste Harlow

Views: Chocolate makes a difference

Fair Trade chocolate is tasty and morally acceptable. | Courtesy of Victory Christian Fellowship

I love chocolate-- every piece of it.  The rich smell, the deep brown color, the way it melts on my tongue, the endorphins.  This appreciation for chocolate started at a young age for me as I am sure it did for many of you, too.  Personally, my childhood view of chocolate was largely defined by the fanciful film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”  I loved the idea of my favorite treat being made by a whimsical man in a magical factory.

Apart from liking darker chocolate and Mochas instead of kisses and cocoa, my appreciation for chocolate didn’t change as I got older.  Even though I knew chocolate was not made by Oompa Loompa’s in a chocolate river, I still enjoyed entertaining the thought as I lost myself in a morsel.

All of that changed my senior year of high school.  It was then that I learned that chocolate wasn’t made by little orange men in a magical room.  I learned that often times, cocoa is harvested by enslaved children in West African plantations.

UNICEF estimates that about 200 thousand children work in the cocoa fields of West Africa- many against their will.  This number is modest compared to other estimates.  Some are trafficked there for a variety of reasons from other African nations.

Some are the children of cocoa farmers.  Some are the children of bond slaves.  However they got there, hundreds of thousands of children toil right now to collect cocoa beans.  These children have never even heard the word “chocolate” let alone tasted a chocolate bar.

When I first learned this, I had no idea what to do with the information.  The very thing that brought me happiness and comfort brought a child so much pain and strife.  At this thought, I could no longer eat chocolate without the taste guilt overpowering the flavor the candy.  This guilt, frustration, and confusion took me to a point last year when I decided to give up chocolate completely.  For 3 months, I did not even touch chocolate.  

In those 3 months, I made it a point to really try to understand why this particular form of slavery was so hidden and yet so prevalent.  I wanted to understand why companies like Hershey’s, Nestle, and Mars would allow this to happen.  I learned that it has everything to do with the supply chain.  To explain this, let me take you through the life of a cocoa bean.

It starts in a pod on a Cacao Tree in a cocoa plantation.  For every pound of chocolate, 10 pods must be cut down from the tree, cut open, and have the beans scooped out.  For a pound of chocolate, this would be about 400 beans.  The beans are then spread out and covered to allow for fermentation.  After this, they are uncovered and sun dried.  Then, they are bagged and loaded onto trucks which take the beans out of the Ivory Coast and eventually to cocoa processors in Europe and the US.   The processors, like Cargill in Minneapolis, turn the raw cocoa into chocolate and supply it to candy makers like Hershey’s, Mars, Ferrero, and Nestle.  They turn it into your favorite treat, send it to the store, and eventually, right into each of our hands and mouths.

With such a long supply chain, it is easy for each party involved to pass the blame of slavery to someone else.  Farmers blame the price of chocolate.  The truck drivers claim to not see slavery.  Governments in West Africa blame the foreign cocoa processors.  Cocoa suppliers say they cannot control the farms which are often small and secluded.  Candy companies entrust the cocoa processors to ensure the cocoa they use isn’t tainted with slavery.  Consumers are often just as unaware of where their chocolate comes from as the children who harvest the cocoa are about where it goes.  

The reality is each of these claims is largely true.  Every party in the supply chain is partly to blame which means each link of the chain needs to take some responsibility, as well.

Due to pressure from the public and NGOs, some candy companies have begun to take   responsibility for what has happened.  In January, Hershey’s pledged $10 million over the next five years to educate West African cocoa farmers on improving their trade and combating child labor.  Ferrero pledged in April to eradicate slavery from farms where it sources its cocoa by 2020.  

Well neither of these steps is enough on their own and each move has received a great deal of criticism for being sub-par, the very notion that these companies are acknowledging the problem is a step in the right direction.

While we still need the other members of the supply chain-- the farmers, middlemen, governments, and cocoa producers-- to take action against the slavery, we as consumers can be a part of solution now.

For a long time, I thought this meant boycotting chocolate altogether.  As I mentioned, I gave it up completely for 3 months last year.  This model was successful in the 1800s when English abolitionists refused to buy or eat any sugar- so it must be applicable today, too, right?

Well, recently I have been realizing that this really isn’t the case.  As I mentioned earlier, most chocolate farmers use slaves because the price of chocolate is so low.  In fact, some of the farmers don’t even think they are enslaving the children on their plantations- they intend to pay them at the end of the year with the profit they make but by the time the farmers receive payment, they hardly have enough to support their families, let alone the boys they bought to work for them.

Boycotting chocolate altogether would make this worse.  It would drive down the demand and the price of chocolate which would force farmers to pay and feed workers even less.

We can still impact the market, though, in a very easy way.  Buy fair-trade.  To be Fair Trade Certified, a company must do what the name suggests- treat and pay farmers fairly which will help farmers in developing countries build sustainable businesses that positively influence their communities.

By increasing the demand for Fair Trade goods, we show bigger candy companies and their cocoa producers that having a fair and humane supply chain is important to the consumers which will in return change the entire industry.

Buying Fair Trade is simple.  Just look for this symbol.   Some popular and easily accessible brands that are currently fair trade or are well on their way include Green & Black’s chocolate, Trader Joe’s, and, my personal favorite and new addiction, Ben & Jerry’s.

Start small-- pledge to make your next chocolate purchase Fair Trade.  In that one simple action, you can make an impact on the supply chain of chocolate.  By buying that one Fair Trade item, you can make an impact on the life of a child whose childhood has so far been stripped from them.  It will take time for the chocolate industry to change completely but by making that one conscious decision as a consumer, you can be a part of the change.

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