GM's Corner: Consumers Hold the Key to Taking Child Labor Out of the Chocolate Industry

Jon Roesser, Weavers Way General Manager

Dave Barry once wrote, “Your hand and your mouth agreed many years ago that, as far as chocolate is concerned, there is no need to involve your brain.” Given his popularity, I’m guessing this isn’t an example of his best work. In any case, Barry’s a humorist, so this is intended to be funny.

Sadly, chocolate’s no laughing matter, and here at Weavers Way we are committing to taking whatever steps we can to raise awareness about the dark side of the chocolate industry. (I know; more preaching from the Co-op! Trust me — I don’t like it any more than you do.) 

In June, the Washington Post published a report that has shed stark new light on the use of child labor — often under conditions of indentured servitude and out-and-out slavery — on West African cocoa farms, the source of two-thirds of the world’s cocoa supply. 

As reported by the Post, the use of child labor in the cocoa harvest is “epidemic” and therefore the odds are “substantial” that a chocolate bar purchased in the United States is the product of child labor. Most of the kids are assigned the most difficult and dangerous work: clearing fields with machetes, spraying pesticides, and hauling sacks of harvested cocoa beans, often weighing 100 pounds each. 

The chocolate industry, like most industries these days, is dominated by a handful of global conglomerates, including Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestle. Most of these companies have been pledging for decades to eliminate “the worst forms of child labor” from their cocoa supply. 

Progress has been, um, slow. And to be sure, a major reason is corporate indifference. According to the Post, an industry with annual revenue in excess of $103 billion has spent less than $150 million over the past 18 years on efforts to eradicate child exploitation. Given the magnitude of the problem, that’s shameful. 

When issues related to child labor in the cocoa industry were first given widespread coverage two decades ago, Big Chocolate lobbied heavily to avoid government regulation of the industry. They succeeded in convincing everyone that through their own voluntary efforts, they could eradicate the problem. It was a snow job. Multiple deadlines have been missed, and the consequences to the industry have been nil. 

But it would be inaccurate to lay 100% of the blame on the industry galoots. The governments of West African nations such as Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso have essentially zero incentive to commit resources to the problem. The region’s pervasive abject poverty means options are limited. And the cocoa supply chain — in the Ivory Coast alone, there are literally hundreds of thousands of cocoa farms, most under 10 acres — is extremely difficult to monitor. 

Ultimately, blame must be laid at the feet of consumers. Despite increasing awareness of the industry’s problems, consumers still want cheap chocolate. And cheap chocolate starts with paying cocoa farmers the lowest market price for their harvest. The solution to the child labor issue is to pay farmers more, and that will only happen when consumers are willing to pay more for the final product.  

So long as the overwhelming majority of consumers continue to refuse to allow ethics to enter into their consciousness when making their food choices, children will continue to suffer. 

Here at the Co-op, we only sell chocolate that’s been certified Fair Trade by a third party, an imperfect solution but one that ensures participating farmers are paid a premium for the cocoa that is above the standard market rate. Of course that means our stuff costs a little more, which is the price of fairness. (Oh, it also tastes better!)

But while we only sell Fair Trade certified chocolate bars, plenty of products on our shelves — from breakfast cereal to ice cream — contain chocolate as an ingredient, and the sourcing of that chocolate is (often) not disclosed by the producer. 

We recognize this as a problem, and so this month we will be sending a letter to our vendors on behalf of you, our 9,500 member-owner households, expressing to them our collective concern about this issue and urging them to take the necessary steps to ensure the chocolate they use is Fair Trade certified. We will print a copy of this letter in the October issue of the Shuttle. 

We will also use our various methods of communication to bring this issue to the attention of as many people as possible. In the next issue of the Shuttle, we’ll report on what steps are being considered by members of Congress and federal regulators since the Post story was published. 

In the end, real change will only come when the number of consumers willing to pay more for what is essentially a luxury item reaches critical mass. As consumers, we must allow ethics to be a factor when making our food choices. Failure to do so is a blemish on our society. 

When it comes to chocolate, it’s time to start using our brains. 

See you around the Co-op.