Original research completed in June 2016, and last updated in May 2023.
Cocoa is one of the highest-value categories of goods likely to have been produced by forced or child labour. That’s not a pleasant thought when munching on a chocolate biscuit, indulging in a hot chocolate, or enjoying a chocolate ice cream in summer.
The good news is there are an increasing number of cocoa products available with checks in their supply chains to prevent child labour and slave labour. Below we share how you can find these the next time you go shopping.
Warning: Some readers may find this section upsetting.
Around 60% of all cocoa produced globally comes from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The farmers who grow and harvest the cocoa beans tend to earn very little, and due to poverty are often forced to pull their kids out of school and have them work on the farm to help the family survive.
Children on cocoa farms often end up working in hazardous conditions from sun-up to sun-down; hacking weeds, cutting down cocoa pods and carrying 50kg sacks of pods home on their heads. Some kids develop hernias from heavy loads, scars from machete wounds, and are exposed to spray and pesticides without protection. In addition to the severe health and safety concerns, they miss out on having an education, further limiting their chances of breaking out of poverty.
There are also many adults enslaved in the cocoa industry – unpaid, threatened, and unable to leave. It’s hard to get accurate figures of how wide-spread this is, but the 2018 Global Slavery Index estimates around 29,700 people are enslaved on cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and approximately half of them are children.
Image credit Fortune.com
There are many efforts in cocoa-growing regions to try to both increase farmer incomes (to reduce the necessity of child labour) and to raise awareness of the harm child labour can cause. These include certification schemes that groups of farmers can opt into. In return for agreeing not to put their kids to work on the farm, they receive a little more per kilo for their cocoa beans, as well as various measures to increase their yields. This helps solve the heart of the problem, as higher incomes means parents can afford to send their kids to school instead of to the cocoa farms. The programmes also includes checks for cases of child labour and action to resolve them.
An increasing number of brands are using cocoa supported by such initiatives. By choosing these when shopping, we can help grow these local initiatives and support the communities involved.
Here are quick tips of what to look for, and a link to product recommendations. We’ve also outlined why we consider certain certifications are reliable and what they mean.
Look for cocoa and chocolate products with…
World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) certification
Rainforest Alliance certification
It includes everything a chocolate lover could want – chocolate blocks, bars, and sweets, biscuits, spreads and sauces, hot chocolate, chocolate milk (including plant-based milks), ice cream, protein and muesli bars, baking supplies, and even some toiletries and cosmetics that use cocoa butter.
Everything on the list either uses cocoa that’s been certified by a scheme we trust, or is made with Samoan grown cocoa.
- Fairtrade: Tonys Chocolonley, Bennetto Chocolate, Pico, also the organics range by Green & Blacks.
- World Fair Trade Organization: Trade Aid (which has a range of chocolate blocks, bars, and sweets) and Coffee Lala for their hot chocolate.
- Rainforest Alliance: Many products by well-known brands, including Whittaker’s, Kit Kat, Rolo, Aero, Countdown own brand, Nestlé Crunch, and NOMO.
- Samoan grown cocoa: Any chocolates by Ola Pacifica, the 70% Samoa Smooth Dark chocolate by Whittaker’s, and the Samoan range by Devonport Chocolate.
Now, you may be thinking… what do the certifications actually mean, and how can we know they’re trustworthy?
It’s worth noting that no company can fully guarantee their supply chain is child labour free. But the certifications do mean that periodic checks for child labour are made, as well as various measures to mitigate the risks.
Each certification has different ways of doing this. For example:
- On-the-ground monitoring – this is done by committees of local farmers who agree that child labour is an issue. Farmers keep an eye on what’s happening in their local area, try and resolve cases they find of kids working, and then escalate things if that doesn’t work. This video is from a different initiative (not one of the certifications we’ve listed above), but features interviews with cocoa farmers running a similar approach with a local committee.
- ‘Peer visits’ – this is where organisations taking part in the certification help educate newer farmer groups on their standards and how to follow them.
So, while child labour could still be happening, with these certifications we know it is being looked for and addressed where possible.
All the certifications mentioned above monitor for slave or child labour, including periodic third-party audits.
Farmers with Fairtrade have the certainty of a set minimum price, so they’ll receive at least that much even if the open-market price changes. (They also get a small additional premium to be spent on community assets.) Currently the set minimum price doesn’t have to be equivalent to a living income – however Fairtrade is encouraging cocoa buyers in that direction, and some brands such as Tony’s Chocolonely have started paying this.
The main price received by farmers with Rainforest Alliance is the open-market prices, although they also receive two small premiums. One is designed to cover the extra costs incurred with meeting the certification standards, the other to improve their incomes.
Farmers with WFTO receive a price sufficient to have a living income. The World Fair Trade Organisation ensures all member organisations are paying living wages or enabling living incomes for everyone who gets an income from that organisation - both in organisations that are suppliers (such as a co-op of multiple cocoa farms), and those that are buyers (such as Trade Aid New Zealand).
Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance provide education to farmers to help increase their yields (which leads to increased income); peer organisations in WFTO can also help with this, although the system there is less formalised.
While all three certifications check for child labour, Fairtrade and WFTO go furthest and provide significantly better conditions for cocoa farmers, including higher income. This is really important, as the major driver for child labour in the cocoa industry is the low prices that mean parents have no choice but to set their kids to work if the family is to survive. Higher income means more farmers can afford to send their kids to school and increases the opportunities for fairly paid work. WFTO in particular ensures a living income for the cocoa farmers.
Another point of difference is that Rainforest Alliance only certifies the cocoa, while all WFTO products and most Fairtrade* products also verify that any other high-risk ingredients (such as the sugar) were not produced using forced or child labour either.
*If the standard black Fairtrade logo is used, then all the high-risk ingredients are certified. If the white ‘Fairtrade Cocoa’ logo is used, then it’s only the cocoa that is certified (you’ll often see this on seasonal chocolate).
Perhaps uniquely amongst cocoa growing countries, Samoa is low risk for child and forced labour.
We haven’t found any reports of children being forced to work in agriculture, and the International Labour Organisation’s latest report on Samoa doesn’t express any concerns regarding forced labour in that regard either.
More info at our blog post: Koko Somoa.
What about other certifications, such as Cocoa Life or Cocoa Horizons?
Those certifications don’t have publicly available standards, so we can’t really be sure what they’re checking for – plus they are controlled by large chocolate companies, rather than independent organisations, which makes them less likely to be rigorous. All of that makes it a lot harder to be confident they’re reliably slave free.
If you come across other certifications and you’re not sure if they’re any good or not, one place to look is The International Guide to Fair Trade Labels. That contains information which you can compare against our criteria for a reliable label. If the logo you’re seeing isn’t there, Googling or web searching it’s name along with words like ‘criticism’ or ‘reliable’ can give you some idea of what other people have found out about it.
In 2001, eight of the world’s major chocolate companies signed the Harkin Engel Protocol, promising to eliminate or reduce many of the human rights abuses in the cocoa industry by 2005. That deadline has been repeatedly extended and promises still haven’t been met yet unfortunately largely due to underinvestment. Child labour is still widely used.
It does seem odd – but it’s because of how the supply chain for chocolate works.
Chocolate production only has one high-risk step for worker exploitation – that is, the cocoa farm. Once the cocoa beans leave the farm, every other step that goes into producing chocolate is significantly lower risk. (In contrast, the supply chain for clothing is high-risk at every step, from growing and processing the cotton right through to making the final garment.)
In addition, the cost of the raw cocoa is only a very small portion of the final price of a chocolate bar. This means that even doubling the amount farmers are paid (to ensure they can make a fair income) barely makes a difference to the price an end-consumer pays for chocolate. This is especially true with cheaper chocolate brands, as they often have quite low percentages of cocoa in their products!
So because what really matters is what happens on the cocoa farm, it’s definitely a myth that expensive chocolates are always more ethical. Unless they’ve engaged an independent third-party to check for child labour, they’re much less likely to be child labour free than an affordable brand with a reliable certification.
More info at our blog post: Can cheap chocolate be ethical?