We’ve all heard the story about the magical man who runs a large, mysterious factory full of delicious treats and colorful candies. When I was little, before grasping the hard truth that it was a fictional place, I wanted nothing more than to go to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Aside from stealing a golden egg and meeting an Oompa Loompa, I wanted to see where chocolate was born.
In reality, chocolate begins from cocoa beans, more than 70 percent of which are grown in West African countries. Asia and Latin America are also responsible for some of our cocoa supply. Children in countries like Ghana and Cameroon are being forced into slavery to pick the cocoa beans. It’s no mystery why farmers, wanting to offer competitive prices in order to remain relevant within the industry, continue to abuse their worker’s rights. The Ivory Coast gets 60 percent of its revenue from cocoa exports, using child labor to keep costs low.
These kids end up on cocoa farms for a number of reasons. Maybe they are living in poverty and are desperate for work, or a relative sold them to the farm or they were abducted by traffickers. Working from before sunrise until sundown and using dangerous tools such as machetes and chainsaws hardly seems suitable for a child. I can’t help but see a painful irony. While Ghanaian children struggle to carry 100-pound sacks of cocoa pods through the forest, American children would be thrilled to carry a 100-pound sack on Halloween night.
In order for the chocolate industry to eliminate forced labor and slavery, companies would need to pay cocoa farmers a more reasonable wage. I believe the American sweet tooth can stand to get a little more expensive, especially when you consider what that extra dollar or two is standing for.
In addition to social justice concerns, there are health concerns to consider when choosing your chocolate. Many companies, such as Nestle, Hershey and Mars, source their cocoa beans from farms using GMOs and pesticides. In fact, in 2012, Hershey and Mars spent over one million dollars opposing Proposition 37, a law that would have required GMO labeling in California.
By choosing an organic chocolate from brands such as Equal Exchange, you are guaranteeing yourself a product free of harmful chemicals and putting your dollar toward healthier cocoa-growing practices. Equal Exchange also supports small family farms by sourcing their cocoa from three businesses that they believe embody the true goals of the Fair Trade mission. Unfortunately, while labels of Fair Trade are always encouraging, they don’t have much significance in the chocolate industry. In 2011, Fair Trade USA split from Fair Trade System due to a difference in values.
Cocoa producers have become so secretive about their practices that it is difficult for anyone to know which farmers are using forced labor. Most farms in Latin America have yet to be found using these unethical practices. However, at this point in time we are unable to pick up a chocolate bar, flip it over and read with confidence that it was ethically produced. My best recommendation to avoid supporting unethical companies is to refer to lists recommending companies that source chocolate for their products with fair practices.
As always, I encourage you to read up on your favorite chocolate bar or Halloween treat. Whether it’s to express love, gratitude or apologies, eventually each of us will choose the chocolate to nurse us through our break up or celebrate our achievements. Therefore, we must consider what brand best aligns with our values as well as our taste buds. Just because Wonka wanted to keep his chocolate operation a secret doesn’t mean we should. Remember, you’ve got the golden ticket and only you can decide how to spend it.
You can reach Martha Greenburg at email@example.com or on Twitter @marthazane94.