15 Oct 2013

Bitter or sweet? The ethics of your chocolate snack

It’s “chocolate week”, that annual celebration of all things indulgent and sweet. But has chocolate finally overcome its darker history – from child trafficking to crop-ravaged land?

chocolate bars by Valrhona (getty)

From Fairtrade to working directly with communities where cacao is grown, ethical chocolate companies are trying to overcome the industry’s history of exploitation. It is taking time, but some of the world’s biggest companies are finally following suit.

Most people barely give it a thought when they pick up an afternoon snack, but slave labour and child trafficking still exists in many west African nations, which produce the vast majority of the world’s cacao.

According to Anti-Slavery International, some 284,000 children work in hazardous conditions – while they estimate some 15,000 childrens are victims of trafficking, snatched from their homes as young as seven to work in plantations, most of them never paid.

In Ivory Coast, where 6 million people depend on the cocoa industry for their livelihoods, the UN has accused military warlords of making millions of dollars by smuggling cocoa exports out through Ghana, worth around $400m – 1.6 per cent of the country’s entire GDP.

Consumers expect chocolate to be a cheap luxury. Carla D Martin, Harvard University

In 2001 major firms, including Nestle, Mars and Barry Callebaut signed a cocoa protocol, promising to eradicate child labour by 2008, But still, most cocoa is picked, dried and roasted in small villages struggling with desperate poverty, where pay and conditions are poor, and local land is left desecrated.

At the higher-end of chocolate production, however, there is a definite trend to plough money and resources back into those communities, giving cacao farmers a share in the wealth they help to create, improving agricultural land, building local facilities and generating much needed income.

Philipp Kauffmann worked on international conservation and biodiversity issues for 10 years before he founded chocolate company Original Beans. In his firm, he says, “poor farmers earn two to three times more than the norm, cacao forests are being replanted, and consumers get a healthy, tasty and ethical product”.

Working in biodiversity hotspots like the Bolivian Amazon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he says planting new cacao trees is one of the best ways of protecting endangered rainforest, and mitigating some of the effects of climate change.

Another firm promoting sustainable farming is the high-end French company Valrhona, which has set up several projects aimed at promoting best practice and help local farming communities.

A scheme in the Andes works with scientists at the Botanical Gardens, creating a pilot plantation of sustainably grown cacao, while another project in Venezuala is preserving some endangered species. In Ghana, the company is funding initiatives in health and education, along with efforts to eradicate child labour.

Ethical production

Another small French company, Menakao, has based its entire production in Madagascar, from bean to packaged bar. The firm works with a local co-operative, paying workers considerably more than the Fairtrade rate, as well as providing pensions and social security benefits for their families.

Valerie Montbarbon, head of European operations, says employing local people brings much more income directly to their communities, inlcuding taxes which can be reinvested in farms and other projects.

“It’s amazing to be able to change peoples’ lives while simply doing my job,” she says, explaining Menakao’s other social commitments, including the complete renovation of a local school, and a communal garden where people can learn agricultural techniques which they can use on their own land.

“It’s not about giving people money, but helping them to generate their own revenue,” she says.

Carla D Martin, a Harvard academic who now teaches a course there entitled “Chocolate, culture and the politics of food”, points out that the chocolate industry has a lot to learn from the ethical practises in the coffee trade.

Both commodites are now widely available as Fairtrade products, but the ethical market in coffee has been more widely developed, which has a far more transparent form of production: consumers often buy beans direct from the source.

It’s not about giving people money, but helping them to generate their own income. Valerie Montbarbon, Menakao

“In some ways, consumers expect chocolate to be a cheap luxury,” she says. “It’s not like wine, or even coffee, where in general consumers will take it on themselves to pay more for quality.”

But that, she says, is all changing. “There’s a burgeoning culture that’s interested in learning how to make chocolate ethically, and make it really well.”

Valerie Montbarbon agrees: all companies involved with developing countries should have a social sense of responsibility. “There is so much to do, and very little can make a huge difference,” she says.

From planting endangered trees and repopulating the rain forest, to paying workers fairly and ploughing profits back into the communites where cacao is grown – ethical chocolate is about more than a nod towards fair trade. It could even be a force for good.