The Bitter Truth About Chocolate

[This is a guest post by Tex Dworkin of the Global Exchange Fair Trade Online Store -Ed.] This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Hershey's kiss, and yet a celebration is hardly in order. Why? Because with each bite, we are reminded that most chocolate sold in the U.S. comes from cocoa farms where farmers work in unsafe conditions, receive below poverty wages, many of them children under 14 years old who are forced to work and denied education.

With another Valentine's Day approaching, happy couples will wine and dine, showering each other with flowers, jewelry, and chocolate. Unfortunately, knowing where most chocolate comes from makes it hard to swallow!

It's 2007, and people are finally starting to question where the products they buy are made and whether the workers who made them were treated fairly. Sweatshop-free apparel is becoming hip, and Fair Trade coffee is at least a blip on the map. Yet chocolate is still being made with cocoa beans harvested by children in Africa working in unsafe conditions, while the average consumer has no idea this is going on.The truth behind chocolate is not-so-sweet. The Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer, providing 43% of the world's cocoa. And yet, in 2001 the U.S. State Department reported child slavery on many cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. A 2002 report from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture about cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and other African countries estimated there were 284,000 children working on cocoa farms in hazardous conditions. U.S. chocolate manufacturers have claimed they are not responsible for the conditions on cocoa plantations since they don't own them.

Chocolate comes from cocoa, and the cocoa supply is controlled by a small number of companies worldwide that are allowed to function with limited accountability. Hershey's and M&M;/Mars alone control two-thirds of the $13 billion U.S. chocolate candy market. The result? An industry marred with child slavery, unsafe working conditions and a cycle of poverty with no end in sight for cocoa farmers. Chocolate companies are not held accountable for sourcing practices, and despite their knowledge about the travesties that occur on cocoa farms, they lack the will to change.

The U.S. chocolate industry has faced multiple deadlines requiring new protocol, and yet little has changed. Under pressure from Congress, in the Harken-Engel Protocol, the U.S. chocolate industry agreed to voluntarily take steps to end child slavery on cocoa farms by July of 2005. This deadline has since passed, and the chocolate industry has failed to comply with the terms of this agreement.

So in July 2005, International Labor Rights Fund filed suit against Nestlé in Federal District Court on behalf of a class of children who were trafficked from Mali into the Ivory Coast and forced to work twelve to fourteen hours a day with no pay, little food and sleep, and frequent beatings. What was Nestlé's response to court questioning? "We are only buyers of a product."

There are a plethora of examples of company leaders who were publicly criticized for selling clothing lines manufactured by sweatshop workers, Kathy Lee Gifford and designer Jessica McClintock to name a few. Chocolate companies should be held accountable for the conditions of cocoa producers they buy from.

Consumers can hold chocolate companies accountable by choosing only Fair Trade Certified chocolate. It's easy to do. Simply look for TransFair USA's Fair Trade logo on the package. TransFair is the only third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the U.S. Fair Trade Certified chocolate ensures that no forced or abusive child labor was used. If consumer demand for Fair Trade chocolate increases, perhaps chocolate companies will alter their practices. Thus, buying Fair Trade chocolate can put an end to the disastrous cycle of poverty and child endangerment.

It is estimated that Fair Trade chocolate represents less than 1% of the world's roughly $60 billion chocolate market. According to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association and National Confectioners Association, in 2005 more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate were sold for Valentine's Day. How many hours of exploited child labor went into those boxes of chocolate?

So what's a chocolate lover to do? Choose Fair Trade chocolate this Valentine's Day, a sweet deal for loved ones and cocoa farmers.

See also: ::Book Review: Bitter Chocolate

[This is a guest post by Tex Dworkin of the Global Exchange Fair Trade Online Store -Ed.]

Tags: Africa | Chocolate | Fair Trade

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