Please Start Eating Slave-Free, Fair-Trade Chocolate

I want to remind everyone that the consumer choices we make everyday matter, and even though we cannot always see the consequences, they are there.
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Publish date:
May 22, 2016
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chocolate, consumer choice

Promised jobs, pay, and schooling. Kidnapped from their families. Smuggled into another country and forced to work up to 14 hours a day, 6 days a week. Beat and tortured if they fail to obey, or try to escape. It is easy to distance yourself from these terrible words, but this is a cold reality for many children in West Africa. I want to remind everyone that the consumer choices we make everyday matter, and even though we cannot always see the consequences, they are there.

The United Nations Children's Emergency Fund uncovered that farmers in the Ivory Coast were using children trafficked from the neighboring countries to provide forced labor on cocoa farms. From 2008 to 2014, the number of children in hazardous work in cocoa production increased by 46%, totaling at about 1.15 million children. A majority of this cocoa is imported by Nestle and Cargill to make chocolate and similar products. There is a free documentary online that shows exactly what is going on, called "The Dark Side of Chocolate."

If you are eating chocolate made by Nestle or Cargill, you are supporting atrocious human rights violations taking place in West Africa.

I have always believed that it isn't in the hands of the people buying products, the consumers, to change the entire system. We don't usually have that much power. But, in this case, I think we do. Especially since the history of trying to regulate corporations to do the right thing — well, that hasn't worked so well.

Big corporations have successfully stopped any legislation from passing that would require "slave free" labeling on chocolate. In the early 2000s, child slavery on cocoa farms was uncovered and reported by the media and brought to the attention of the world. Admirably, the United States led the charge in trying to eliminate child slavery from the other side of the production line. Our elected officials banded together to try and pass laws that would require the chocolate industry to label their chocolate if it was "slave free." The chocolate industry immediately hired lobbyists to kill that bill. And, with multiple billions at their fingertips, who do you think won that battle?

But all was not lost. The negative publicity from using child slavery in their production of chocolate forced the corporations to make some sort of compromise. So they agreed to research the issue, find ways to eliminate child slavery, and act to implement those ways. Essentially, the corporations said they would self-regulate by a certain date. But I think we should all be doubtful of this idea of so-called "self-regulation." And of course, the corporations kept pushing the deadline of their regulations further and further away. The agreement was signed in 2001 with a deadline to implement changes by 2005. That first deadline wasn't met. The second deadline in 2008 — not met. The third in 2010 — not met. While I agree that widespread change is slow, I think these corporations should've been able to handle creating a document with written regulations and a program to implement them. But a decade after promising to self-regulate, these corporations still use child labor in the farming of cocoa. There is no end date for this terrible practice in sight.

In the meantime, while non-profit human rights organizations and governments are trying to force systematic change, we can make our changes as consumers of chocolate. We can make immediate changes and we should.

Fair trade, slave free, ethical chocolate has become a business all its own. More expensive than a regular chocolate bar, you can pay to be a better person.

If we consider ourselves moral, good people who can afford to buy more ethical food- chocolate is a good place to start. Using our money to say we believe in human rights is moral.

It would be easy to criticize that view as privileged, and to accuse me of forgetting that not everyone has access to the kind of money to make the switch to products that are organic, fair trade, slave free, etc. Yet, cocoa products — which are overwhelmingly used in chocolate — are a luxury item. A luxury item is an economic term of art, but I am using it to simply mean a product that is not essential to our basic needs. But an essential human right is to be free from child slavery. If we simply balanced the two competing needs, it is easy to see which one should win. I agree that is a difficult way to live, by balancing needs. So I also propose that we should accept the increased cost as a tax collected for human rights.

Let's do the math: when I was at Target, I saw that it was $1.29 for a generic brand chocolate bar, $2.80 for the cheapest organic, fair-trade chocolate bar, $7.89 for the most expensive. Is an extra $1.51 worth spending in order to prevent children from being starved, beaten, and forced to work for 14 hours a day? I think we should all be willing to pay that price.

We are part of a global economy. There are awful, repulsive things being done to people around the world in order for us to get cheap products. I think we need to try and do our best to make ethical choices, to have compassion for the unseen atrocities happening. And if you can make one change, I urge you to stop buying slave-made chocolate.

(Find a list of ethical chocolate brands here.)