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Not So Sweet: Everything you need to know about ethical chocolate

It might be a sugary treat, but the chocolate we buy for a moment of delicious indulgence is the product of an industry that’s far from sweet.

With Easter approaching, chocolate goodies are filling the supermarket shelves and, if you’re anything like us, are already tempting you in! However, as sustainability advocates, we believe that it’s our responsibility at Eco Ness to share a bit of information and advice with you about how to make conscious chocolate choices.

Here is your guide to ethical chocolate that’s actually tasty - why you should try it and where you can buy it!

What does ‘ethical’ mean when it comes to food production?

As with a lot of terms in the world of conscious living, ‘ethical’ can be hard to define in a sentence. However, we’ll give it a good go!

Within food production, ‘ethical’ usually focuses on the wellbeing of the people who work in the supply chain, the welfare of animals involved in production, and the environmental impact of the business’ practices. Unfortunately, the industry behind many of our fave sweet treats of choice is notoriously withdrawn from attempting to improve in all of these areas. Or any of them for that matter!

One of the most significant and harmful issues in cocoa production is the presence of slavery - particularly of children.

Slavery was abolished hundreds of years ago, so why do brands label themselves as ‘slavery-free’?

In 2018, Fairtrade reported that there were more slaves than at any other time in history - including when the transatlantic slave trade was at its peak. This is possible because the majority of the food industry’s crimes are hidden in each company’s complicated supply chain. From physical and mental abuse, to financial exploitation, the people who work in the cocoa fields of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire (2.3 million of whom are children) are trapped in an inhumane industry. Of the cocoa farmers working in Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s biggest producer of cocoa, 60% live below the poverty line. And that’s only the farmers who are of legal age to work.

Many communities do not have ample education facilities, childcare, electricity or clean water, so securing income from cocoa farming becomes almost completely unavoidable. And with the companies who profit from their hard work and physical labour refusing to pay a living wage, the necessity for children to support their families is a harsh reality.

How is slavery within the chocolate industry allowed to happen?

Unsurprisingly, the unethical nature of the chocolate trade all ties back to systems of oppression and control.

The chocolate industry is worth $73 billion globally. But a mere fraction of that is distributed to those who make it possible. The headquarters of these global brands are situated in the Global North (including the USA, Canada, Europe, and other wealthy territories), which holds 25% of the earth’s population and controls 75% of income earned worldwide. Meanwhile, the Global South (which includes Africa, Latin America and regions in Asia) is home to 75% of the population and has access to just 25% of the world’s income.

This power imbalance enables predominantly white-owned brands in the Global North to outsource their product supply chains to the Global South. Here, they take advantage of the lack of access to financial wellbeing by paying (frequently illegal) low wages to, predominantly, people of colour, before shipping the products to the Global North to sell very cheaply. The result? Not only are they harming their workers, but are fuelling overconsumption while making a substantial profit. 

Are things changing for the better?

Yes. But slowly.

In a 2020 report commissioned by the US Department of Labor, it became evident that child labour continued to be rife throughout the production process. Two decades prior, many big name chocolate brands had admitted accountability and vowed to improve practices. The brands who pledged to do better but showed little to no improvement twenty years later, are Nestlé, Hershey, Cadbury, and Callebaut (we’ll talk more about Callebaut in a moment). The forms of hazardous work that children as young as five are forced into include using dangerous tools, working at night (during which trafficking is a particular threat) and exposure to harmful agrochemical substances.

Even smaller, seemingly more ethical names within the industry are now being questioned. You may have heard of Tony’s Chocoloney, whose entire USP revolved around them being slavery-free. However, the brand is currently being scrutinised by sustainability advocates after recently switching to a less ethical supplier - the aforementioned Callebaut - which is known for allegations of abuse throughout its supply chain.

Just weeks ago, eight children who live in Côte d’Ivoire brought legal action against some of the aforementioned chocolate brands, alleging that they were forced to work without pay on cocoa farms used in the brands’ supply chains. The claims include ‘forced labour, unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress’. 

This is the first class action suit filed against the cocoa industry in the U.S. It could prompt a new wave of formerly enslaved children pursuing legal action and, hopefully, justice. 

Where can I purchase chocolate with a conscience? 

We know that, like us, you care about people, animals and the planet. That’s why it’s our responsibility to take a stand when we possibly can, by “voting” for companies we believe in with our money.

Slave Free Chocolate is a fantastic resource to consider when shopping for ethical chocolate. This organisation frequently updates their ‘Ethical Chocolate Companies’ page, so that you can ensure you are up to date with an objective analysis and recommendations of brands whose values align with yours. Just as they should.

From the ethical brands that we stock, HiP and PLAYin Choc, to Divine ChocolateForever Cacao and Chocolate Tree, the good news is that you don’t have to compromise on your morals to enjoy a delicious bar of the brown stuff this Easter. 

And, finally, a personal recommendation from us. Go and check out Mallownuts for the most amazingly delicious plant-based mallow and chocolate delights!  Made in the Highlands by Joni, an equally fabulously lovely human.


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