Rosie’s Confections Takes a Stand Against “Cheap” Chocolate
Take a bite of an inexpensive chocolate bar – the kind of chocolate that American households purchase by the bagfuls around Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. The cool chocolate melts on the tongue and its creamy, rich sweetness delights the taste buds for a lingering, pleasurable moment. It’s no wonder that the world has so many chocoholics!
Now, consider the amount of hard labor that went into planting and growing the cocoa trees in dense, hot rainforests; the hand-harvesting of cocoa pods with machetes; the processing of the cocoa beans – the fermentation, drying, roasting, and grinding; and getting that product to market over muddy, often impassable roads. How could that chocolate bar be so cheap?
The reason is that the major chocolate makers in the United States – think Nestle, Hershey’s, Mars and the like – do not pay enough for the raw cocoa products they buy in huge bulk, and as a consequence, almost all of the workers along the cocoa supply chain spend their entire lives in desperate poverty.
It is estimated that there are about 1.5 million children who are presently working on West African cacao (cocoa) farms against their will.
Millions of farmers work small five to 10-acre family plots that don’t earn enough to even feed their own families, much less pay wages to farm laborers. Out of necessity, they use their own children and children trafficked from neighboring (even poorer) countries to work the agriforest.
It is estimated that there are about 1.5 million children who are presently working on West African cacao (cocoa) farms against their will. Very few are paid anything for working long hours each day with dangerous machetes and pesticides in sweltering heat. Their only compensation is meager meals. Very few have ever tasted a chocolate bar.
Some of the children who were smuggled from other countries speak a different language and may never see their families again. Besides the physical scars of workplace wounds, the children suffer lifelong psychological trauma. Many have never attended school and have little hope of escaping poverty or helping their future children escape the brutal life of cocoa farming.
Take another bite of that cheap chocolate bar. Does it still taste delicious?
“There is no such thing as ‘cheap chocolate,’” said Emma Rose, the founder and chocolatier behind Rosie’s Confections in Winooski. “We need to take a closer look at farmers’ lives and offer a fair price for their hard work. We must ensure smallholders make enough to live on and some leftover to pay their workers fair wages and to invest in their crops and their kids’ futures.”
Everyone in the supply chain needs to get paid for their work, Rose said. And that means everyone – the farmers, transportation workers, loaders and unloaders, security, mechanics, administration – they all are necessary links in the chain and deserve a modest cut.
“It is hard today to know whether a food is ethically-sourced with all the misleading labels, like ‘natural,’ ‘earth-friendly,’ ‘organic,’ ‘sustainable,’ and ‘fair trade,’ to name a few.”
If Rose sees a chocolate bar that costs less than $5 making any of these claims, she reads the label more carefully and then researches it further online.
West Africa, mostly Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, produces more than 80% of the world’s bulk cocoa. These are poor countries with few regulations and environmental protections and less reliable government oversight of cocoa farms, especially during periods of political and economic upheaval.
It has always been challenging to address poverty and human rights violations in West Africa because cacao trees grow best deep in the rainforest under the canopy of other trees, rather than on large, visible and accessible plantations.
What Will It Take to Make Chocolate Ethical?
Rose emphasized that change needs to begin at the top of the supply chain – that large chocolate manufacturers need to step up and pay a fair price for their cocoa product, allowing West African families to not only survive but be able to develop their crop quality, educate their children, and build needed infrastructure to pull these communities out of severe poverty.
“The best we can do as consumers is buy from and support companies who are making a difference – companies who are attacking the root of the issue, which is paying the farmers more for the cocoa beans.” — Emma Rose, Rosie’s Confections
“I think that in the end, it doesn’t do much to simply boycott Big Cocoa. I think it actually hurts the cocoa farmers and I certainly don’t think it does much harm to the large companies!” she said. “I prefer to take a more mindful and deliberate approach and believe that the best we can do as consumers is buy from and support companies who are making a difference – companies who are attacking the root of the issue, which is paying the farmers more for the cocoa beans.”
Besides creating guilt-free chocolate masterpieces, Rose is passionate about educating the public about the magical, complex cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, and what ethical chocolate really means.
On her Cocoa Podcast, she interviewed chocolate experts from around the world and delved into different aspects of the cocoa industry from growers and manufacturers to the unique tastes of chocolate bars made from varietal cocoa plants expertly grown and processed around the world.
The History of Chocolate Exploitation
Although the cacao tree originated in South America, West Africa produces most of the world’s cocoa today. Mass-production began with colonialism. After Christopher Columbus returned to Spain with cacao, it took Europeans a few centuries to develop the technology to create chocolate bars, which became an elite luxury food.
Like sugar, the demand for cocoa became a reason to colonize tropical regions, enslaving the native people and importing slave labor to increase production.
Over the next 140 years, slavery and chocolate production became a way of life in West Africa, where tropical rainforests and a location within 15 degrees of the equator made cocoa farming there profitable to mother countries. These natural resources sailed out of the country and away to foreign ports to be processed.
The eight largest chocolate companies signed the voluntary protocol – a nonbinding agreement that allowed Big Cocoa to police itself without any consequences for failing to reduce child slavery.
In the late 1990s, documentaries about forced child labor in the cocoa industry came into public view, and the resulting outrage sparked Congress to draw up the Harkin-Englel Protocol in 2001. It was designed to fund the development of a “child-slavery-free” label and make sure that West African cocoa farms complied with the International Labor Organization’s prohibition of the worst forms of child labor.
The eight largest chocolate companies signed the voluntary protocol, which, again, was voluntary – a nonbinding agreement that allowed Big Cocoa to police itself without any consequences for failing to reduce child slavery. The agreement laid out specific goals to be reached by 2005.
Instead of working together to phase out child slavery in West Africa, these corporations copied the game plan of Big Tobacco, spending millions on lobbyists and propaganda to convince the public that they were making progress in human rights. They lied to regulators and extended their own deadlines four times over 20 years. They now claim that by 2025 they will reduce their reliance on child labor by 70%. A recent Department of Labor study found that child labor has actually increased 14% in the past decade while the production of bulk cocoa has increased dramatically.
Fighting Cocoa Exploitation the Legal Way
After witnessing firsthand the depressing way Big Cocoa had sidestepped the Protocol and sabotaged any meaningful attempt to address the problem of forced child labor, Terry Collingsworth, a human rights lawyer and crusader, decided to take another approach.
“I have been on the forefront of every major effort to hold corporations accountable for failing to comply with international law or their own professed standards … in the treatment of workers or communities in their far-flung supply chains,” explained Collingsworth, who founded International Rights Advocates.
“I sadly concluded that most companies operating in the global economy will do just about anything they can get away with to save money and increase profits,” he said. “So rather than continue to assume multinationals operate in good faith and could be reasoned with, I shifted my focus entirely.”
At the beginning of 2021, Collingsworth filed suits under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act against Nestle, Cargill, Mars, Hershey, Mondelez (Cadbury, Oreo), Olam (cocoa beans and products), and Barry Callebault, the world’s leading manufacturer of “high-quality” chocolate.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. chocolate companies cannot be sued for child slavery on the African farms from which they buy most of their cocoa.
He filed one on behalf of eight former slaves who were smuggled from Mali as children and another against Nestle and Cargill involving six Malian former child slaves. The victims were all from cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. chocolate companies cannot be sued for child slavery on the African farms from which they buy most of their cocoa. The companies argued that cases need to be filed against the traffickers and farmers involved in Africa, not the corporations profiting off this slavery.
The companies argued that they were merely the cocoa purchasers, that they didn’t know enough to be liable, and that they have no control over cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire. Some even pretended to have never heard of the country or where it was located. They were representing the same corporations who signed the Harkin-Engle Protocol and had been pretending to be improving working conditions in these countries for the past 20 years.
“To me, this court decision is heartbreaking,” said Rose, “because once again, these companies have gotten away with using child slavery as a means to make more profit. The root of the problem is simple: Pay the farmers more for their beans. Doing this would directly cut into their profit margins, which is why they are instead spending MILLIONS of dollars … greenwashing their companies.”
“It doesn’t make any sense to go after the child traffickers and farmers. These people are so poor that this is not really a decision they are deliberately making. It is likely their only means of staying alive. To blame them for the broken system is like blaming the abused rather than the abuser,” she said. “I can’t believe the Supreme Court’s decision on this.”
What Can I Do?
How can we as American consumers help the situation?
- Buy quality chocolate from clearly defined free-trade certified companies.
- Write to your congressmen and women as well as the large cocoa companies.
- Donate to organizations that fight forced child labor and advocate for improved educational opportunities and healthy cocoa farming communities.
- Gently educate your friends and families by giving ethical chocolate gifts this holiday season with an explanation about why they are so special and guilt-free, like the ones available at Rosie’s Confections.
Indulge your values!