The dark side of chocolate production: Child labor, environmental concerns

Photo of Valentine's Day chocolate
Charlene Wang/Staff

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With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, chocolate boxes are flying off the shelves at grocery stores as people scramble to show their partner love through the sweet treat. Chocolate is a staple ingredient in confectioneries, bakeries, and beverages. For many, the household chocolatier names Mars, Godiva, Hershey’s and Nestlé evoke childhood nostalgia of times spent eating Halloween candy, baking brownies or sipping a warm mug of hot chocolate curled up in front of the fire.

It comes as no surprise that chocolate is a big business. In 2019, the cacao and chocolate market size was valued at $44.35 billion and is expected to balloon to $61.34 billion by 2027. The top five biggest players in the industry, dubbed “Big Chocolate,” include Mars Wrigley Confectionery, Ferrero Group, Mondelez International, Meiji Co. Ltd. and Hershey Co.

These household brands purchase cocoa beans through the global cocoa market, which is mainly concentrated in the Ivory Coast of West Africa. In 2005, many of the leading chocolatier companies announced that they would no longer purchase cocoa from farms that engaged in child labor and enslavement practices.

Yet, in October 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor released a harrowing report detailing more than 2 million children employed in “dangerous labor in cocoa growing regions.” In 2019, reports revealed that household chocolate brands such as Hershey, Mars and Nestlé, still could not guarantee their cocoa wasn’t sourced using child labor. And more recently in 2021, by an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court served “Big Chocolate” the win by dismissing them from any responsibility to restrict child labor given that cocoa production did not occur on American soil.

The issue of eradicating child labor in cocoa production continues to be tossed around by key political and commercial players of the cocoa industry, but the actual practice still persists due to the financial pressure children face to support themselves and their families, coupled with the greed of big businesses to maximize profits.

In addition to unethical practices, reports show that the largely unregulated cocoa farming industry also has major negative environmental consequences. In order to keep up with the demand of an ever-growing cocoa industry, producers have started massive deforestation campaigns in protected land and wildlife areas. Due to bribery and government corruption, many of these areas were allowed to be excessively farmed. In the Ivory Coast, elephant and chimpanzee populations face significant danger of extinction, with biologists finding only about 20% of the original chimpanzee population in previous research areas.

Chocolate companies need to take true accountability and make significant changes in their production process in order to stop supporting a cycle of poverty, child labor, bribery and environmental destruction. It starts by closing the legal loopholes apparent in the 2021 U.S. Supreme Court decision and tackling government corruption. Though big chocolate brands have made some attempts to promise more ethical methods of sourcing their chocolate, critics complain such attempts are mostly “greenwashing,” or simply not enough. By being more conscious of who we buy our chocolate from, consumers can exert pressure on brands to stop supporting harmful practices. 

The non-profit organizations Fair Trade America and Slave Free Chocolate list certified fair trade chocolatier brands that consumers can consult before they choose which chocolate to buy. The fair trade logo signifies the manufacturer’s commitment to a more sustainable and ethical source of production, including “decent working conditions and a fairer deal for farmers and workers in developing countries.” A product is approved as fair trade as determined by worldwide labor and importer organizations such as the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), Fair Trade USA and the European Fair Trade Association (EFTA)

Though the mission of fair trade appears noble, recent reports criticize fair trade for not doing enough to lift farmers out of poverty. Additionally, the label does not account for sustainable environmental practices. Hopefully, a rise in consumer consciousness surrounding ethics and sustainability may allow for greater improvements in the future.

Though not a perfect solution, next time you find yourself in the chocolate aisle at the grocery store, try to pick up a brand with the fair trade label. By being more conscious of the origins behind the products we buy, we can pressure industries to adopt more humane and sustainable standards overall. 

Contact Emily Lui at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated The Hershey Company did not certify that its products were ethically and sustainably sourced. In fact, the cocoa used in Hershey’s products is certified.