The Chocolate Industry’s Hidden Truth (& Ways We Can Still Enjoy It)
I first wrote this in 2013. Every year, I do a quick check to make sure these things written here are still true. It’s good to dust this off and remind ourselves of this, especially during the holidays.
If you spend four minutes with my kids in October, you’ll be reminded within minutes that Halloween is around the corner. This is because they’re kids, and who wouldn’t love a holiday that involves dressing up like beloved characters and collecting candy in a bag?
Dress up plus sweets? Sign me up, they say.
Despite how I feel about the sugar-laden day, I love that it’s a fun way to get out in the community, enjoy the fall, and create family memories. I go with it.
But I’m gonna pull back the curtain behind the wizard here, and it’s one of those inconvenient truths that I wish we could ignore. But we can’t. Because friends, it’s real, it’s rampant, and not enough well-meaning families know about the reality behind their shiny-foiled wrappers.
The far majority of chocolate is in our stores because of forced child labor. And unless we tell the guilty companies that this isn’t okay, this will keep happening.
So this means that the majority of the chocolate candy in your kids’ Halloween bag will be because of child labor, and often child slavery. But this also means there’s a simple but powerful thing you can do as a family to not contribute to the epidemic issue. More on that at the end.
Photo from Food Empowerment Project
In 2001, various news sources revealed that children were being used as slaves or cheap labor in West African cocoa farms, where the majority of the world’s cocoa is birthed. Lawmakers in the U.S. tried to enact laws to require change, but the farthest they got was a voluntary protocol (the Harken-Engel Protocol, to be exact), signed by heads of major chocolate companies, to ask for the stop of child labor “as a matter of urgency.”
Well, this pretty-please request was more or less ignored, and almost 20 years later, there are still over a million children working on cocoa farms with little more than the torn clothes on their backs. Their hands and faces are often sliced with machete scars, evidence of the main tool they use to cut down the cocoa from trees after shimmying up the trunk (and also used to split open the cocoa pod).
Photo from Mind This
Most of the children are also required to spray hazardous chemicals on the crops, where they ingest it into their lungs, and they are unable to attend school while they work, which is in violation of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Most of these children can’t read or write, they subsist on corn paste and bananas, and needless to say, they have never tasted the chocolate they help produce for our own families.
According to the website Grist, a 2011 Tulane University study found a “projected total of 819,921 children in Ivory Coast and 997,357 children in Ghana worked on cocoa-related activities” in 2007-2008.
The ILO calls the cocoa industry the worst form of child labor today. And these farms, mostly in Ghana and Ivory Coast, exist because of brands like Hershey, Nestle, Mars, and Cadbury—they all purchase cocoa from these farms, are all aware of their practices, and as of today, have chosen to do little about it.
As of June 2019, it’s still reported as one, if not the worst, global child labor crises today.
What can we do?
Here’s the deal—as well-intentioned families who hold the majority of the world’s money (and if you can read English and are reading this website, you’re probably in this demographic), we hold an incredible amount of power in our wallets. We simply need to put our dollars where our hearts beat and NOT BUY THIS CHOCOLATE.
I don’t use all-caps often. But I am here, because you guys, it doesn’t take much for us to make a massive dent in this worldwide catastrophe.
Chocolate is not an essential commodity for survival, so we can each absolutely afford brands that practice ethical standards from the crop to the store. It’s just a matter of knowing what those are.
What’s up with the Fair Trade label?
I wrote about this already in my post about the coffee industry, and the same thing applies to chocolate. The main thing to know is that the “Fair Trade” label means the farmer was paid a fair price for his or her product, and in buying this chocolate, you as a consumer aren’t willingly participating in exploitation. And to my understanding, a farmer will not get this label if he or she isn’t using fair practices on their employees (such as low wages, dangerous conditions, or using child slaves).
Unfortunately, a farmer has to pay for this certification, and at thousands of dollars, many can’t afford this.
Look for a short supply chain
A great option is to look for the shortest supply chain possible, which means there are few steps between the farmer and the grocery aisle. Look for verbiage like “Direct Trade” and “Bean to Bar.” These chocolatiers often travel directly to the farms, develop a relationship with the farmers, and therefore both get the top-tiered choice in beans and are given a reasonable price—which directly goes to farm operations.
Stick to the Americas and/or organic
An easy-ish thing to do is to stick to chocolate from Central and South America. Organic chocolate is almost exclusively grown in Central and South America, where slavery isn’t an issue. If the label is missing its location origin, ‘organic’ should hopefully mean ethically sourced and farmed. I can’t 100% guarantee that, of course, but it’s a start.
So, to sum up: the best chocolate to look for is a brand with the certified Fair Trade label, plus verbiage like “bean to bar,” plus organic, plus originating in Central or South America.
So, is that it?
Not quite. Also keep in mind that those major chocolate brands also pump their candies full of GMOs, fake emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, and other chemicals—at least in the U.S. I can’t speak for every country, of course, but in my travels, I can attest that chocolate tastes better outside of America. In fact, certain well-known chocolates in the U.S. must be labeled “chocolate candy” in other countries, because it’s not considered real chocolate elsewhere.
Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified label to better ensure your chocolate isn’t icky.
“I guess this means we should cancel trick-or-treating and eat organic apples while watching depressing documentaries, eh?”
I’m a realist, and I get that many of us still want to take our kids trick-or-treating (or really, our kids would be heartbroken to ban the holiday). Here’s what we can do.
1. Tell your kids the truth.
You don’t need to go into graphic detail, but I think it’s perfectly legit to tell your kids that as a family, you can’t, in good conscience, buy mainstream chocolate because those companies use kids just like them to work really hard for almost no money, that they often get hurt, and that they can’t go to school because of chocolate.
Let’s change the status quo by impassioning their generation to practice ethical buying now.
2. Don’t buy chocolate from mainstream brands.
Choose to no longer buy chocolate from companies like Nestle, Hershey, Mars, and Cadbury, so that they get the message that we are NOT okay with forced child labor.
3. Buy from awesome companies.
There are more and more chocolatiers that are selling ethically-made chocolate—let’s support them. Yes, it costs more. So we buy less. It’s a small price to pay for doing right.
Good Halloween treats
Chocolate doesn’t end on Halloween, of course—here’s a list of reputable chocolatiers for all your chocolate snacking, drinking, and baking needs.
Great chocolate companies
- AlterEco | on Amazon
- Divine | on Amazon
- Equal Exchange | on Amazon
- Green & Blacks | on Amazon
- Madécasse | on Amazon
- Newman’s Own Organics
- SunSpire (We love SunDrops, their alternative to M&Ms)
- Taza (Direct Trade!) | on Amazon
- Theo Chocolate | on Amazon (great flavors!)
- …and I’ve read that Costco’s Kirkland brand chocolate chips are responsibly-sourced, but it’s still uncertain.
(And of course, check out all our favorite brands and shops on our Ethical Shopping Guide.)
You may not feel rich, but compared to the rest of the world, you probably are. Really really. And you can make a major difference in the world simply by directing your money to the right sources. We’re at the beginning of the chocolate-heavy holiday season… we have plenty of time to purchase well.
For further reading, my friend Kristen Howerton has done a fabulous job going in to more detail of the chocolate slavery issue.
The documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate is currently available on YouTube for free, and while it’s not graphic, it might be emotionally disturbing for kids. Watch first before showing your children, but make a point to watch it yourself—it’s haunting.
Many of the comments below are chock-full of helpful information, and they also stir conversation about important nuances in this whole thing (But what if child labor is still supporting a family in need?; What about stores like Trader Joe’s and Costco?, etc.). I can’t personally vouch for what everyone’s suggesting, but please consider your valuable input part of this important discussion!
A few affiliate links are used here, which means at no extra cost to you, making a purchase by clicking these links helps support this site. Thanks!
You May Also Like:
Get the weekly email called 5 Quick Things,
where Tsh shares stuff she either created herself or loved from others. (It can be read in under a minute, pinky-swear.)
You’ll also get an excerpt from her latest book, At Home in the World, a memoir about the school year her family backpacked around the world.