I am extremely concerned about the high levels of abuse in the cocoa growing industry. I am not willing to pay for people to be abused just so I can have a treat!

My bottom line is this. If the workers who grew the cocoa for a particular chocolate brand didn’t earn enough to feed themselves and send their children to school, or if they were subjected to serious abuse, then I won’t buy that product. As far as we are able, we are committed to living lives that allow our global neighbours to flourish.

How do I identify which chocolate is good to buy? Below I state my minimum labour standards, discuss briefly how I assess common claims made by chocolate brands and why I love certification, and then expand on these at greater length.

Minimum labour standards

When I look to buy any chocolate/cocoa products I first examine whether the workers who grew the cocoa earned enough to live on and whether they were subject to:

  • Slave labour;
  • Child labour*;
  • Unsafe use of agrochemicals.

* child labour doesn’t include all work children do. It refers to children doing work that takes them out of school or is harmful to their natural development (carrying overly heavy loads etc.). If the children concerned aren’t slaves, child labour can generally be prevented by paying the adults sufficient that they don’t need the kids’ labour to survive.

How can I do this? By:

  • Looking at what brands claims about themselves. If a brand claims to be ‘ethical’, I want to know what that means to them. I’ve found it’s as much more likely to mean ‘environmentally friendly’ than worker friendly;
  • Not taking words like ‘fairly traded’ at face value. They can mean the workers were treated well but are sometimes used by manufacturers who know nothing at all about the workers’ labour conditions;
  • Not taking words like ‘direct trade’ at face value. In the case of some very small manufacturers, ‘direct trade’ really can mean the manufacturer knows the farmer personally and is likely to be concerned for their welfare, but the company doesn’t need to be very large at all before it means something else. And just knowing the farmer isn’t enough for the manufacturer to know everything’s OK on her farm, anyway.

Investigating all this is a great deal of work: I only bother with it if I come across an unusual product that I’m super-keen to try. For my everyday chocolate consumption, I rely on certifiers instead. I’ve found three certifiers who I trust to make sure my minimum standards are met: UTZ, Fairtrade (FLO) or World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO). Generally, all I do is check for one of their labels on the product I’m looking at. Cocoa/chocolate products certified under one of these schemes available in New Zealand are listed here.

UTZ, Fairtrade and WFTO logos

If you’d like more detail so you, too, can buy chocolate without supporting the abuse of cocoa growers, read on!

1. What do they actually claim?

If a particular brand is said to be ‘ethical’, your first step should be to head to their website to find out what they mean by that. If their claims don’t even include worker-rights claims then don’t buy their product, regardless of what else they say.

One company I recently took a look at is Original Beans, a company I’d heard described as one of the most ethically sound chocolate companies in the world. On their website, I learned that they’re working hard to protect the habitat of the mountain gorilla and that they only use compostable packaging. That’s great but, in an industry where actual child slavery is rife, these are hardly my main concerns. All the other claims on their website were to do with the quality of the product: there wasn’t a single worker rights claim. We will not be buying from Original Beans.

At least Original Beans made specific claims. I can’t think of an example off hand, but I have come across companies that claim to be ‘ethical’ and provide no explanation at all of what they mean. If one of these was making a product I found particularly interesting I might contact them and ask them to clarify, but thus far I have never bothered. It feels unlikely to me that a company would make a serious effort to protect worker rights but not bother to tell their customers about it.

Always check what claims the manufacturer makes, and don’t purchase anything where they don’t at least claim to protect worker rights. There is a lot of slavery and child abuse in the cocoa industry, so it’s important to be confident you aren’t supporting that.

2. Is it sufficient for them to claim to be ‘fairly traded’?

It is not uncommon for chocolate companies to claim to be ‘fair trade’, ‘fairly traded’ etc. Don’t take these claims at face value unless they are backed by a certification you trust.

A large US retailer brings up products from The Tea Room Chocolates when you search ‘fair trade’. They didn’t cite any certification, so I asked them for more information. They told me they make their chocolate from ready made fair trade certified chocolate, but they didn’t provide me with any evidence of this or even tell me through whom it is certified.

I decided that, for a one-off curiosity purchase, an assertion that certified chocolate was involved was good enough. If it turns out I like the bar I’ve purchased (milk chocolate infused with jasmine tea!) I’ll contact them again and ask who certifies their supplier as fair trade. If it’s one of the certifiers I trust, then I expect I’ll continue purchasing. I’d like some evidence certification is involved but, as they’ve already told me they won’t name their supplier as that’s commercially sensitive, I think that’s the best I can hope for.

Another company, Prestat, states on every bar that they are ‘committed to trading fairly’. They have a lengthy statement on their website explaining why they don’t want to be fair trade certified. Instead, they make charitable donations to Esoko: an app that shows cocoa farmers the prices buyers are paying for cocoa beans at various local markets so they can get the highest available price for their crop. I’m sure that’s very useful to the farmers, but making donations to allow the development of such an app is hardly the same as ensuring there’s adequate wages and no slavery, child labour or unsafe agrochemical use in their supply chain. We will not be buying from Prestat.

3. What about a ‘direct trade’ claim?

A growing number of boutique manufacturers claim to practise ‘direct trade’: buying their beans directly from farmers (or farmer co-ops) rather than from middle men. This helps both the farmers and manufacturers get good prices. Many people also believe that abusive labour practises are less likely in ‘direct trade’ relationships, as they believe manufacturers would struggle to treat growers badly when they have to look them in the eye.

Don’t take this as necessarily meaning worker rights are protected. The relationship between farmer and manufacturer may not be as close as you’d think. Even if it is, that doesn’t mean the manufacturer knows what’s going on on the farm.

Taza is a ‘direct trade’ company that has taken the admirable step of having its direct trade claims third-party certified. However, it turns out they don’t actually buy their beans from farmers but from companies, each of which in turn buys beans from between 500 and 1500 farmers. They interview a sample of farmers about the treatment they receive from the buying companies, but they certainly don’t have to look them in the eye before they buy.

That said, the people at Taza seem like great people. They are committed to transparency, they are going to considerable lengths to give farmers better option and they are wrestling with what it means to pay a fair price to farmers. I’d far rather buy from Taza than your average chocolate company. However, they don’t say on their website that they investigate whether there is child or slave labour in their supply chain (despite buying from countries where such things are well known to occur). I wouldn’t be willing to buy from them without at least asking them whether they have reason to be confident such abuses aren’t happening on the farms from which they buy.

Spencer Cocoa, on the other hand, is run by a man who used to live in Vanuatu and now buys beans directly from 2-3 farmer families he has known personally for many years. He visits them twice a year at harvest-time and his website features photos of him hanging out with them and their families. Is that enough for me to be confident that farmers are earning an adequate living and that good working conditions exist on their farms?

Not necessarily. I believe most people are reasonably keen to ‘do the right thing’. I also believe we are all sinful: we all suffer from selfishness and greed and none of us truly love our neighbours as ourselves. That’s why there’s abuse of cocoa growers in the first place, after all. So I think it’s important to consider that:

  1. Plenty of good people turn a blind eye to terrible things happening right in front of them when it is convenient to do so;
  2. Very busy people (such as people hand-making fine chocolate and trying to make a living in a very fickle industry) don’t always have the mental ‘bandwidth’ to notice things outside their immediate concerns;
  3. A well-meaning person without a deep knowledge of what’s gone wrong in the cocoa industry might not think to ask whether the farmers’ kids are going to school, whether all the adults working on the farm are present voluntarily or whether the person who sold them their agrochemicals also sold them protective equipment.

So, despite Luke Spencer’s clear good-will towards the people he deals with in Vanuatu, I wouldn’t be willing to buy from him without finding out what he actually knows about the labour conditions on the farms he deals with. There’s just too much abuse in the cocoa industry for me to be willing to assume things are OK. I’m not sufficiently interested in Spencer Cocoa’s offerings to make that effort so I won’t be buying from them.

4. So what about certification?

If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that determining whether the farmers who grew your cocoa got a fair deal is hard work! That’s why I’m a HUGE fan of certification. Someone else does all that hard work for you :-)

There are a lot of certifiers out there, but the three I believe you can be confident of are: UTZ, Fairtrade (FLO) and World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO). Cocoa/chocolate products certified under one of these schemes available in New Zealand are listed here.

Note that the list was revised in March, 2018, to include uncertified cocoa sourced from Samoa. I had previously avoided uncertified Samoan products due to skimming an ILO report raising concerns about child labour in Samoa. It has since been drawn to my attention that the ILO’s concerns exclusively related to child street vendors in urban areas. There are no known child labour concerns in the Samoan cocoa industry, nor have I found anyone raising concerns about forced labour or unsafe use of agrochemicals. I have also not come across any suggestion that cocoa from countries where these are a concern is being passed off as Samoan cocoa. I am thus happy to buy Samoan cocoa and cocoa-products without certification.

UTZ, Fairtrade and WFTO logos

I’ve picked these three for two reasons.

  1. Each of these certify that the workers involved received sufficient to live on and that basic labour standards were met: no forced labour, no child labour and no unsafe use of agrochemicals;
  2. I feel I can trust their claims because they are large organisations that have been around a long time. I feel that this means they are, in a way, themselves certified. People notice what they get up to and, if they do anything that seems a bit dodgy, people complain. A few months back the Financial Times carried a story explaining why they thought FLO certification no longer meant what it used to. That gave me the information I needed to decide whether I felt I could still trust them*. Were a small certifier to have done something similar, it’s most unlikely I would ever have heard about it.

*for the record, I don’t see what FLO is doing here as anything to worry about. They are helping Cadbury transition away from their certification to an in-house one. This seems a bit odd, but not unethical. There has been some concern that Cadbury’s will continue to use the FLO logo even after they are no longer certified by them but, at least in NZ, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’ve written a bit about UTZ and how it compares with the other, more traditional, fair trade certifiers here.

I don’t see certifications by smaller organisations as being as good as those from these big ones, but I still think they’re lot better than nothing: they tell you that at least one third-party affirms the manufacturer’s claims. I am, however, deeply suspicious of in-house certifications such as ’cocoa life’ (which Cadbury’s parent company recently established to certify all their brands), or products certified by small organisations I’ve never heard of when an established certifier could have been used instead.