My friend and co-worker fills up her candy jar each week with miniature Hershey bars, Whoppers, Reese’s and M & M’s. I hear the sound of the glass lid clink against the jar most afternoons when co-workers trickle in and out of her office for a chocolate treat.
I used to be one of them but now those chocolate treats make me sick to my stomach. Ever since I read an article about how Hershey, Mars and Nestle chocolate companies are using child slaves to harvest cocoa beans in Africa, I find their chocolate hard to digest.
Bitter Truth About the Chocolate Industry
The article was about a class action lawsuit brought against these companies by California residents who are angry they’ve been unwilling participants in an exchange that involves child slave trade. While the average consumer (including me) has been unaware about the use of child slaves as a source of labor in the cocoa industry, the U.S. government and chocolate companies and others have known since at least 2000.
The chocolate companies initially pleaded ignorance. And when the government talked about introducing “slave free” labels in the chocolate industry to create consumer awareness, the chocolate companies committed to ensuring that child slavery would be eradicated by 2005. But ten years later, the issue of child slavery is even more prevalent with more than a million children working in abusive conditions and as slaves or unpaid laborers. And the chocolate companies? While they’ve done some work to address human rights issues and child slave labor, they’ve also pushed back their commitment to end child slave labor by the year 2005. The new date is 2020.
The chocolate industry says it is a complicated problem. But undoubtedly, Hershey, Mars, Nestle and the other chocolate companies that make up this $60-billion industry, have the resources to pay cocoa farmers a living wage and end child or slave labor. They have the power, the money, the resources, to support programs that rescue and aid children sold to cocoa farmers.
When I read about atrocities like this I feel a combination of righteous anger and deep sadness. My immediate reaction after verifying the story was to boycott the candy and share the news on social media. I want parents to know that the scariest thing in their kids’ trick or treat bags this Halloween is Hershey bars, Kit Kats, M & M’s, Nestle crunches—candies that come from the blood, sweat and tears of children a continent away.
Unraveling Trade Truths
When I marched into my co-worker’s office with the article about the chocolate companies and suggested she might want to rethink her selection of brands, I didn’t stop to think that I was pulling on a thread that would unravel a lot of nasty issues I hadn’t looked at–or even thought much about. But that’s what I’ve done.
Because now I am thinking about the coffee I buy. And I’m wondering if the dark chocolate bars I purchase at Trader Joe’s are guilt free. (They are.) And I’m thinking about the tennis shoes I own, and where they were manufactured and wondering who was doing the work and how they were being treated.
Now I am seeing that our need for cheap chocolate, cheap coffee, $5 t-shirts and other low cost goods can play a role in the kind of abuse we’re seeing with the chocolate companies. Granted, I’m no corporate profiteer making money off of the blistered backs of children, but sometimes, sometimes, I benefit from it. Like most of us.
For instance, I get to save a few bucks when I buy cheap clothing. But it’s likely that some of that clothing is made in factories in Bangladesh where poor labor conditions are often the norm and sometimes results in tragic consequences. The same goes for China.
So I can see this: it’s complicated for the average consumer. And a bit overwhelming.
And when we’re overwhelmed, it’s easy not to act. But I believe it’s best to bite off one piece of the overwhelm and chew on that. Pick what you find hardest to swallow after you’ve chewed on it and that’s what you can work to improve.
If you are a vegetarian fight to make things better for the animal world. Or, if you eat protein and can’t stand the way chickens are caged, buy cage-free eggs. If it disgusts you to think of feeding your children Hershey’s candy knowing someone else’s child was being beaten or abused picking the cocoa beans, don’t buy it. I know I won’t –and I’ll miss eating M & M’s.
I think we have a responsibility to this planet and to one another because we are all connected; what is in the one is in the all. So how those beans are picked, how those children are treated or mistreated matters. At least it does to me.
Because as I grow and evolve I want to be congruent. Even when it means I have to start cleaning up some of my habits or making more sacrifices to do so. I know economics is a complicated subject. But I also know that fair trade, cooperation and respect for humanity are worth paying for.
And apparently, so does my co-worker. She has informed me that she will no longer be filling her candy jar with Hershey, Mars or Nestle products. How sweet is that?
If you would like to help, consider writing to your senator, or to the chocolate companies and demand they do something about the issue of child slave labor. Sign a petition. Consider not buying candy from offenders such as Hershey, Nestle and Mars, but instead choose candy from companies that practice Fair Trade policies to ensure child slave labor is not part of the recipe. Here are a few: The Endangered Species Chocolate Company, Newman’s Own Organics, Clif Bar, Cloud Nine, Divine Chocolate, Equal Exchange, Gardners Candies, Green and Black’s, Kailua Candy Company, NewLeaf Chocolates, Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company, Rapunzel Pure Organics, Shaman Chocolates and Sweet Earth Chocolates.
I will explore the issue of Fair Trade in my next blog.