This time of the year, the candy aisle at grocery stores gets an eye-popping pink and red makeover. Heart-shaped candy boxes vie for space with cutesy teddy bears holding “I Love You” signs. An estimated $18.2 billion will be spent celebrating the holiday. According to the National Confectioner’s Association, 94 percent of Americans want to receive chocolate or candy for Valentine’s Day and if it comes in a heart-shaped box, then even better.
But there’s a long, disheartening story of the journey from the cocoa bean to the candy box, one of the signature gifts exchanged during Valentine’s Day. While stories about children in garment production and domestic labor surface more regularly, slavery in the chocolate industry oftentimes slips into obscurity. Most of the world’s cocoa comes from the some of the lowest income regions of West Africa. The Ivory Coast and Ghana together produce 60 percent of the world’s cocoa. And it’s here that most of the injustice continues unnoticed.
More than 2 million children are still involved in harvesting cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. These children—some of whom are trafficked from countries with lower incomes like Mali and Burkina Faso—work 10 hours a day on cocoa plantations, often times without pay. Kids as young as 8 years old, swing machetes high over their heads to hack off cocoa pods, spray lethal pesticide without any protective gear, spend hours splicing open the pods with knives, with little clue that the end result of their labor is candy that will go on clearance by February 15th. “The bitter truth is that children are doing dirty, dangerous and degrading work in the chocolate industry,” says Cheryl Hotchkiss, manager of World Vision’s End Child Slavery campaign in Canada.
While the big chocolate companies like Mars, Hershey’s and Nestle still source cocoa from West Africa, these companies are investing in regulating the supply chain. In 2001, global chocolate makers signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol to “eradicate the worst forms of child labor,” as defined by the International Labor Organization.
The deadline for their plan was 2008. But with the multi-layered supply chain, entrenched rural poverty and thousands of small cocoa farms, efforts have been “insufficient” according to the ILO. Most large chocolate companies have again reinstated their commitment to use ethically produced cocoa by 2020. They are pumping money into their sustainability programs with building schools in West Africa and rolling out child labor monitoring systems. But so far, only about 5 percent of chocolate sold worldwide is certified to be free of exploitative child slavery.
So does that mean going candy-free on Valentine’s Day, Easter and, heaven forbid, Halloween?
Maybe not. Buying Fair Trade chocolate is a fairly easy option with ethically conscious brands available at most stores. Look for the Fair Trade label that ensures that farmers receive a fair price and strictly prohibit child labor. See’s Candy, Green & Black’s and TCHO are all examples of brands where child slavery is not involved in sourcing. A simple search on Amazon for Fair Trade chocolate will give you a host of options, many of which also happen to be better for you. Many boutique chocolate stores also promise “bean to bar” products, purchasing directly from the farmer. While you may be able to find chocolate that’s cheaper, it comes at a heavy cost.
Go the extra step and join a Fair Trade campaign in your state to reach out to vendors and retailers and spread awareness within your community. Support organizations like Slave Free Chocolate, Save the Children, World Vision and One Drop who work on the ground in some of the chocolate-producing countries of West Africa. This is not just a cocoa farming issue. It runs deeper—and organizations that address poverty, sanitation and education in those regions can eventually create an impact in the chocolate industry.
When it comes to being discriminating about candy, it takes more than choosing a dark chocolate with a “healthy” cocoa percentage. It takes deliberate involvement to ensure that our indulgence is not contributing to slavery.