Everyone associates chocolate with happiness, pleasure and fun says Ben Greensmith, country manager in the UK for Tony’s Chocolonely, but beneath the sweetness is the bitter truth of the chocolate industry.

With 60% of the world’s cocoa coming from countries in Africa, mostly Ghana and the Ivory Coast, the cocoa industry has been found to be riddled with child labour and in some cases child slave labour, with 2.1 million children working illegally on farms in West Africa to supply western consumers’ needs. Some of the biggest chocolate companies in the world like Nestlé and Hershey’s get the majority of their chocolate from child labour cocoa.

Tony’s Chocolonely refers to the cocoa supply chain like an hour glass; at one end are the millions of farmers who produce the cocoa, in the middle there are a few multinationals, and at the other end are billions of consumers that eat the chocolate.

Why does slavery persist in the cocoa industry?

The Cote d’Ivoire government-run Conseil du Café-Cacao (Coffee and Cocoa Board) had been looking after farmers since 1955 by putting a minimum price at which they could export their cocoa. However, 1999 saw the industry become privatised and cocoa prices began to decline. With prices continuing to decline into 2000, the country saw increasing poverty and led to the government to reducing the amount of spending for healthcare. This economic down turn and subsequent decline in living standards caused, according to Slave Free Chocolate, a ‘widespread use of cheap child labour’.

The economic problems for cocoa farmers are compounded by a disconnect from broader communication; most farmers are isolated on small farms and are unable to communicate with each other about market prices. Furthermore, such isolation leaves them far from the world market and the potential benefits, or at least knowledge, of free trade and commodity brokers.

“Once they’re aware that this is a massive issue in the cocoa industry, they then have a choice.”

In this manner, cocoa producers are always at the bottom of the distribution chain when it comes to being paid for their work, as there haven’t been steps taken to give cocoa farmers stable and sufficient prices for their cocoa. Stuck receiving only half the world price for their cocoa due to exploitation by middlemen, cocoa producers turn away from paying legitimate workers and instead resort to child slave labour. As economic depression continues, so too does the spread of slavery.

Awareness in the chocolate industry: consumers start the change

Once something is seen it can’t be unseen, and the work of organisations like Tony’s Chocolonely and Slave Free Chocolate is therefore to create mass consumer awareness.

“Once they’re aware that this is a massive issue in the cocoa industry, they then have a choice” says Greensmith. His company has been working for 14 years to raise awareness about the cocoa industry, all starting from a television program revealing some of the dark secrets behind the production of our food and goods.

Slave Free Chocolate is a grassroots organization, founded in 2007, bringing awareness through campaigns and education to help and eradicate the use of child labour and child slavery in the cocoa farms of West Africa. The organisation’s director, Ayn Riggs, saw that American consumers were in the dark about how far the production of chocolate goes.

Ayn believes that, to create consumer awareness, chocolate companies that produce their products in an ethical way should highlight this on their chocolate bars through packaging, emphasising that they are slave-free. Tony’s Chocolonely, for example shows consumers their chocolate is slave-free in a unique way to create awareness. The chocolate bar is unequally divided because it tells a story in itself; the product design reflects the unequal nature of both the cocoa industry and the value chain.

Both organisations refer to the Harkin-Engel protocol that had a big influence on the cocoa industry: eight companies signed an agreement in 2001 to eliminate the worst forms of child labour in the growing and processing of cocoa beans and their derivative products wherever cocoa is grown. From this came the World Cocoa Foundation: an organisation with the potential to make a significant impact on the industry that seems to have unfortunately turned out to be more smoke and mirrors than force for change.

How can governments/regulators fight for change?

As well as consumers needing more awareness, countries need to be more active in generating it; while pressure from consumers is likely to ultimately start the changes, in countries like the US, Europe, Japan and Australia, where chocolate is one of people’s favourite snack commodities, regulators need to be just as involved.

“There’s a different way to run your business and people don’t have to suffer at the beginning of that supply chain.”

Mass consumer awareness can only be gained through legislation and from government bodies understanding the inequality that happens in the cocoa industry. Making chocolate 100% slave-free is a big ambition and the problem lies in the lack of current legislation to make brands show consumers that the chocolate they’re buying has come from children being worked on illegal farms in African countries.

“It’s going to take something massive to change what’s happening and the main branded wholesalers’ [involvement] for the problem to go away”, says Riggs. Wholesalers need to ask the questions about where there chocolate is coming from and legislation needs to be put in place so they know if forced child labour has been used in the making of the chocolate.

Will chocolate ever be slave-free?

We live in a world that showcases all the change that needs to happen through all different platforms. But how many times has child labour been shown on the news? How often have newspapers printed a story about one of the 90,000 children and adults that are in danger of being in this situation? If these problems were shown more and spoken about to consumers, would the production of chocolate be 100% slave-free?

Tony’s Chocolonely’s aim is to make all chocolate 100% slave-free through three steps: creating awareness, leading by example, and inspiring people to act. “There is no such thing as free chocolate but there is no reason why it shouldn’t happen in ten years’ time” says Greensmith.

Riggs continues to say One of the things that makes this situation so complicated is it’s been going on for a long time and the people that are the victims here are the children.”

However, small organisations can only do so much; it eventually comes down to the people that profit the most from the cocoa industry, such as major food processors and the seven big cocoa producers, and the people that use the cocoa industry the most: the consumers.

If the industry is going to change, the power lies with these cocoa producers to ultimately to change the lives of vulnerable people.

Greensmith states, “We definitely want to take on the world and grow but we need the other companies to change the way that they’re sourcing as well and be part of the conversation.

“There’s a different way to run your business and people don’t have to suffer at the beginning of that supply chain.”