An estimated 35 million children will participate in trick-or-treating festivities this Halloween. Babies not even a year old will be squeezed into peas in a pod, little boys will transform into Ben 10, and tweens will prove that Hannah Montana is forever. Most parents will consider the security of the neighborhood and the safety of the candy received, but few of us will give any thought to how the 90 million pounds of chocolate candy given out this Halloween was made, who made it, and under what conditions. Indeed, few products are more evocative of the joy and innocence of American childhood than the iconic Hershey bar. On our recent visit to a neighborhood café, the proprietor expressed her homespun values by saying she didn’t use fancy foreign chocolate in her cookies – just good old American Hershey’s. But while the brand may be all-American, the humble Hershey bar begins its life as cocoa beans, the seeds of a tropical tree known as Theobroma Cacao.
Some 70% of all cocoa in the world is produced in the West African nations of Ghana and Ivory Coast, where children are more likely to face hunger and malnutrition than to ever enjoy the taste of a chocolate bar. In 2001, journalists uncovered extensive child labor and trafficking in the Ivory Coast’s cocoa plantations, leading to a public outcry that prompted Hershey, Mars, and other major companies to sign the Harkin-Engel protocol. Championed by Senator Tom Harkin (IA), and Representative Elliot Engel (NY), the voluntary agreement stated that 100% of West African cocoa would be certified as child labor free by 2010.
This September, independent researchers from Tulane University report that after years of delays, the industry is far from eradicating the worst forms of child labor on cocoa plantations. At least 2 million children are currently involved in the production of cocoa. These children are unable to go to school. Instead, they engage in harsh labor handling dangerous agrochemicals, wielding machetes to harvest and hack open cocoa pods, and carrying heavy loads. Even worse, the US Department of Labor finds sufficient reason to believe that children from Mali and Togo are trafficked into forced labor to work on the cocoa farms of the Ivory Coast.
This wouldn’t be the first time that candy has consumed children instead of the other way around. Jane Addams established Hull House in Chicago in the late 19th century and helped little girls who were exploited and fatigued from working 6 weeks straight for 14-hour days in a candy factory. When finally given a chance to taste the hard-won products of their labors, the girls couldn't bear the sight of the candy they were offered. Times have changed in the U.S., yet children across the globe still work under unconscionable conditions to satisfy our sweet tooth. So what is a consumer to do? Stop eating chocolate altogether? Lobby your congressmen to ban imports of Ivorian cocoa? The answers are not that simple. Child labor exists because of deep underlying economic conditions and complicated development challenges. Boycotting or banning chocolate would do little to help child laborers, but the marketplace offers several ways for consumers to make a difference.
Since most West African cocoa is grown on some 1.5 million family farms, individual farmers have virtually no bargaining power to earn higher prices from cocoa middlemen, who in turn sell cocoa to international exporters like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Barry Callebaut, and Saf-Cacao. The result is that nearly all of the profits from the global cocoa trade accrue to exporters and candymakers, and not to the farmers. This need not be so. Thus far, Big Chocolate has been able to drag its feet on commitments to end child labor only because consumers have not made it in their business interests to comply. The many links in the cocoa supply chain make it easy for firms to avoid responsibility for conditions on cocoa plantations, but if their profits depend on it, you can bet they’ll find a way to meet even the most stringent standards.
Our dollars are our voice in the global marketplace, and we can use it to voice our demand for ethical standards. A first step is to buy Fair Trade Certified chocolate bars, including Equal Exchange, Theo Chocolate, Divine Chocolate, and the Conacado Bar from Hershey’s Dagoba brand. Fair Trade guarantees farmers a minimum price for their output, enforces fair labor conditions (prohibiting forced child labor), and encourages environmental sustainability. While critics of Fair Trade point to costly investments in labeling and product certification, shortfalls in investigating compliance with labor standards, and imperfect financial transfers to farmers, these efforts are better than nothing at all.
You can also purchase chocolate from companies owned by cocoa farmers themselves, so they reap more of the benefits of their labors. The Ghanain farmers of the Kuapa Kokoo Cooperative own 45% of Divine Chocolate company. In addition, many smaller producers such as Theo Chocolate and Askinosie source their beans directly from farmers, compared with larger companies that source from middlemen with fuzzy supply lines. Askinosie, based in Springfield, Missouri, prominently displays photos of its cocoa farmers on its chocolate bars and allows consumers to enter a number on its website that tracks the supply chain of each bar. While some smaller producers like Askinosie are uncertified, consumers can take some comfort in the personal accountability of proprietors whose reputations are at greater stake than the established brands of Big Chocolate.
A virtue of consumer-driven movements is that they are voluntary expressions of consumer demand, allowing the efficiency and ingenuity of business to meet that demand instead of using their resources to circumvent mandatory regulation. But only continued public vigilance can make a real and lasting impact on the lives of cocoa farmers. Labeling and corporate social responsibility are only effective to the extent that consumers hold firms responsible for the standards they advertise.
So in the end, the best thing you can do as a consumer is to educate yourself. Understand how the products you buy are made, act to ensure your purchases match your values, and continue to monitor companies to make sure their practices fulfill their promises. Write a letter to your favorite chocolatemaker expressing your demand for responsible cocoa, and write Senator Harkin and Congressman Engel voicing your support for their initiative. Ultimately, you may find that you get more pleasure out of eating that sweet dark bar, knowing that it comes from a wonderous tropical tree grown by farmers who were fairly compensated for their labors. You may find delight in joining a worldwide movement to end the worst forms of child labor. Learning and understanding the lifecycle of products is an educational experience that allows us to get more out of what we buy than just a sugar high. We can also become just a little bit more connected in a globalized world.
- 70% of cocoa produced in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire
- 2 million children involved in the production of cocoa worldwide
- Price of a 1.5oz Hershey Bar: $1. Hershey’s corporate profits for the past year: $1.18 billion.
- Market price for 1 oz of cocoa beans: 8.3 cents. Fair trade premium for 1 oz of cocoa beans: 0.425 cents.
- Per-capita income in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire: $700 and $1,060 (World Bank)
- For a detailed history of slavery and labor issues in the chocolate industry, including an investigation of present-day child labor and the Harkin-Engel protocol, check out Carol Off’s book Bittersweet Chocolate
- For a critical report of Hershey’s lack of transparency and accountability on child labor written by several NGOs, check out “Time to Raise the Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility Report for the Hershey Company.”
- For Tulane University’s study on child labor commissioned by Congress as a part of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, check out “Oversight of Public and Private Initiatives to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labor in the Cocoa Sector in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.”
- For information on the industry initiatives, check out the industry trade group the World Cocoa Foundation
 The United States Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb10ff19.html
 The 2010 update to the US Department of Labor’s Executive Order 13126 list on the “Prohibition of Acquisition of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor”