A Better Way: Chocolate with Dignity, Part II

Yesterday, we reported on the dark side to chocolate that many consumers are often blissfully unaware of, or deliberately chose to ignore. Cacao is grown predominantly on small family farms in a narrow tropical band around the equator. While a handful of massive global corporations control and profit handsomely from the worldwide chocolate trade, millions of cacao farmers and their families toil in poverty year after year and deforestation is widespread. Worse still, child slavery tragically persists, despite reputable international reports that surfaced over a decade ago–in particular highlighting the world’s largest exporter of cocoa, the Ivory Coast.

Mindful of the unbearable social and environmental costs endemic to the current chocolate trade, and concluding that the industry doesn’t have the resolve to create material positive change, many courageous folks are responding with a different approach. Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Profit Sharing, Co-ops, and Bean to Bar are among many alternatives being pursued.

Gratefully, there are some inspiring souls who have been moved by the troubling social and environmental injustices endemic to today’s chocolate industry. On February 22, 2011 at Viracocha in San Francisco, Kitchen Table Talks hosted an intimate discussion about the issues facing, and solutions offered, by some conscious industry role-models.

To set the stage, the 85 folks in attendance watched a brief clip from 2001’s award-winning documentary, Slavery: a Global Investigation. In it, Kate Blewett and Brian Woods (inspired by the work of Free the SlavesKevin Bales), documented first hand accounts of modern day child slavery in the cacao fields of the Ivory Coast. Former child slaves chillingly spoke of “masters,” whippings, beatings, and daily abuse, and a local expert stated his belief that 90 percent of cacao plantations in the Ivory Coast (the world’s largest cacao exporter at roughly 40 percent of global supply) are tainted by slavery.

Following the film clip, we served a pastry graciously baked by Jim Dodge, the Director of Special Culinary Programs at Bon Appétit Management Company, using Fair Trade chocolate from Cordillera. Jim’s delicious creation resolutely dispelled a concern about the taste and consistent quality from Fair Trade chocolate suppliers.

The discussion among these industry pioneers was reflective, thought provoking, and inspiring. John Kehoe, VP of sourcing and development for Tcho, relayed his keen observations from more than 20 years in the specialty cocoa trade. John provided color on the remoteness of small family cacao farms in Ecuador, Peru, and the Dominican Republic, and the many difficulties faced by growers in getting their beans to market.

Brett Beach, co-founder of Madecasse (recently named by Fast Company as among the 50 most innovative companies in the world) shared similar insights about growers in Madagascar, and the myriad ways farmers are cheated by collectors once they manage to get to market. Carlos Mann, co-founder of Nicaraguan chocolate maker Momotombo, and founder of the exciting educational initiative OMETEOTE, re-affirmed the harsh conclusion that in this industry “farmers will never grow their way out of poverty.”

But rather than acquiesce and contribute to such a fate for the farming families whose lives have crossed their own, these enlightened leaders are choosing to obliterate the traditional business models based on more than 100 years of the colonial ethos and are empowering their partners, rather than exploiting them. For these visionaries, paying a higher price for beans—a fair price—is just the start.  They are also cognizant that by providing farmers knowledge, skills, tools and training in fermentation and artisanal chocolate making, they create lasting value that benefits all parties. Farmers learn to add-value to their beans, while at the same time the knowledge gained through making and tasting chocolate (sadly, a rare occurrence) creates a positive feedback loop that improves the quality of both farmed and finished product.

Treating their cacao farmers with dignity as partners, rather than solely as a dehumanized link in their supply chain, creates value in economic terms and beyond. A win-win to be sure.

Adrienne Fitch-Frankel, Fair Trade campaign director for Global Exchange, highlighted some of the many benefits that the Fair Trade system has meant for these remote communities since  Fair Trade certification began  in 2002: Price premiums for Fair Trade certified beans that are re-invested in the community, the availability of low-cost credit, and empowerment through democratically run cooperatives.

Adrienne also spoke passionately about the building momentum in Global Exchange’s Raise the Bar Hershey’s campaign, which presents mounds of content for conscientious consumers to chew on about the hypocrisy within an iconic and troubling U.S. company which professes to be an advocate for children yet continues to source a majority of their cacao from regions notorious for child slavery and petulantly refuses to provide transparency and assurances that their products are free of such child abuse. (*For a complete list, see below.)

Christine Doerr, owner of the award winning artisanal truffle maker Neo Cocoa, provided insight into the difficult trade-offs she makes in her own sourcing decisions. While in the past she had purchased Fair Trade certified chocolate, she is not currently doing so because of a better quality to cost ratio currently found elsewhere. Armed with knowledge and ever mindful of the direct impact of her commercial decisions, even at her business size, Christine is enthusiastic and open-minded about ongoing sourcing decisions which would continue to elevate her heartfelt creations to even greater heights.

The Conscious Consumer

My son should not have to wait until the next century to witness the end of slavery. We all know the hideous abuses wrought by global capitalism—the exploitation of human and natural resources that has brought insufferable damage to so much of the world. We know, because like my boy, we see it if we truly look.

If you are tired of waiting for companies, governments, and legislators to act responsibly, in tune with the morals of billions of their fellow global citizens, then simply spend your dollars elsewhere. Visionary companies producing world-class chocolate, such as our panelists, are growing, but they need your help.

“Messages” in the form of greenwashing campaigns, or vacuous corporate “sustainability” reports, are the disingenuous domain of those profiting from a history of lip-service from consumers, and destruction in their wake. Don’t just spend your hard earned money with small, conscientious chocolatiers in order to send a message to the Hershey’s, M&M Mars, Nestlé, Cargill and ADM‘s of the world. Spend money with the Tcho’s, Madecasse, and Momitombo’s of the world because it truly tastes great, and, as my boy has learned so easily, feels even better.

Join the campaigns to end slavery in chocolate and bring dignity to the tens of millions of farming families whose livelihoods depend on the chocolate trade. Tell Hershey’s executives, loud and clear, that their behavior and sourcing practices are unacceptable: Simply stop buying their candy. 

Child slavery and chocolate: Indelibly intertwined? With your help, not for long.

*Hershey’s products: 5th Avenue, Almond Joy, Cadbury, Caramello, Good & Plenty, Heath, Jolly Rancher, Kit Kat, Milk Duds, Mounds, Mr. Goodbar, Payday, Rolo, Skor, Symphony, Take5, Thingamajig, Twizzlers, Whatchamacallit, Whoppers, York, Zagnut, Zero

Photo: Megan Felde Jones

3 thoughts on “A Better Way: Chocolate with Dignity, Part II

  1. great article (2 articles) – I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time with respect to my own chocolate consumption, or really, my own food consumption overall. I’m part of a project now that is only a small part of the solution – but we’re trying to map the supply chain – to present the transparency as a way of empowering more people with information. Is it too academic to ask if mapping these small family farms would make a difference? Would the buyers/producers cooperate in making their supply chain more available and the location of these farms more evident?

  2. I just recently visited Nicaragua and had a chance to meet with Momotombo founder and creator Carlos Mann. He is doing really good work. Also I wanted to point out that in the article Momotombo name is misspelled as Momitombo.

    Long live chocolate!

  3. Thank you for this article, Eric. I started buying only fair trade chocolate bars recently because I like the notion that the farmer is making a living wage. I had no idea that child slavery is at issue in the production of chocolate. No way will I ever knowingly support that and shame on corporations, or any producers, who turn a blind eye to child slavery. Hershey’s executives will definitely be hearing from me as will executives of M&M Mars, Nestle, Cargill, ADM et al. I’m also extending my switch to fair trade to things like cocoa powder, chocolate chips, and ice cream. If I can’t find fair trade versions of those types of items, then I’ll do without.