Key Takeaway: Most of the world’s chocolate is still made with cocoa harvested by children, nearly 20 years after attention was focused on the matter. While progress has been made, companies have far to go.
Before you settle in for a cup of hot chocolate or pick up a festive box of truffles this holiday season, keep in mind that chocolate indulgences still largely come at a price: the majority of chocolate treats are made with cocoa harvested by children.
None of the world’s major manufacturers, which account for about 80% of the $103 billion in annual chocolate sales, have removed child labor from their supply chains, according to watchdog groups. Just under two-thirds of the world’s cocoa comes from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where an estimated two million children work in dangerous conditions for less than $1 a day.
To help consumers find and enjoy chocolate produced without child laborers, social justice and environmental non-profit Green America releases an annual scorecard grading chocolate makers on their labor practices. Premium chocolate maker Godiva scored an F in this year’s edition, while Ferrero and Mondelez were given Ds. Hershey and Lindt got Cs. Mars and Nestle received the highest grades among the large companies — and that was only a C+.
“The industry has been promising to solve the problem of child labor for about twenty years, and it really hasn’t worked,” Todd Larsen, Green America’s executive co-director, told Karma. “Our scorecard is designed to highlight the best companies, as well as the larger companies that are making the most progress.”
Topping the year’s rankings were a handful of chocolate makers that are dedicated to organic and fair trade practices: Divine, Alter Eco, Equal Exchange, Endangered Species, Shaman and Theo Chocolate. All were given A’s by Green America.
“The industry has been promising to solve the problem of child labor for about twenty years, and it really hasn’t worked.”
Chocolate is an area where purchasing decisions can have a clear impact, Larson said, chalking up recent industry changes to consumer pressure. “Shifting to greener, more ethical companies creates marketplace trends, so larger companies see that people are migrating away and don’t have brand loyalty, and that drives them to take action.”
Godiva and Mars responded to requests for comment, while other chocolate makers included in the survey did not.
“Our aim at Mars is to ensure 100% of our cocoa is responsibly sourced and traceable by 2025 and we will continue to work with farming communities, suppliers, governments and others to do so,” Mars told Karma in a statement.
Godiva, while condemning forced and child labor, said in a statement that it doesn’t own farms, and since it buys cocoa through third parties, scorecards don’t reflect their commitment to “people and planet.”
“We ensure ethical sourcing through agreements with our suppliers to comply with our Godiva Code of Conduct, which explicitly prohibits the use of forced and child labor.”
Chocolate made by the companies getting the best grades command a premium of several times the cost of lower-scoring, more commercially-available brands. For example, Alter Eco’s 2.65 oz Super Blackout dark chocolate bar sells for $3.50, or $1.32 an ounce, on Amazon. Hershey’s 1.55 oz. milk chocolate bar costs 88 cents, or 57 cents an ounce, on Walmart.com.
The scorecard assigns grades based on numerous factors, including whether companies are trying to address the drivers of the child labor problem, like widespread farmer poverty, cultural attitudes, and insufficient infrastructure and education.
New to this year’s scorecard metrics is deforestation, a destructive trend that opens land to the sun-drenched needs of cocoa farming.
“As cocoa becomes more profitable it results in more deforestation, and there is an intersection there with child labor,” Charlotte Tate, labor justice campaigns manager at Green America, told Karma. Ivory Coast has lost more than 80% of its forests in the last fifty years, and Ghana has experienced the most rapid increase in deforestation of any tropical country since 2017. “The priority needs to be paying farmers a living income, but we also need robust policies in place to prevent deforestation and encourage reforestation,” Tate said.
Major brands have made changes, albeit very slowly, over the last two decades, when child labor in cocoa production first made international headlines. Under pressure from Congress, in 2001 large chocolate manufacturers signed a non-binding agreement to remove “the worst forms of child labor,” including risky tasks like using farm equipment and pesticides, from their supply chains by 2005. They missed that deadline, as well as later extensions to 2009 and 2015. Watchdogs, including Green America, say the industry is also set to miss its latest deadline of 2020.
“There’s a lot of talk, but the big companies are not anxious to have regulation of any sort because it adds cost,” William Bertrand, an endowed chair at Tulane University’s school of public health, told Karma. In 2015, Bertrand co-authored a major report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor on child labor in West African cocoa farms. “Some companies have tried to do things like provide schooling, but the programs have been way too small to have much impact, and demand for chocolate is going up.”
While worldwide sales of chocolate top $103 billion annually, the major companies have spent only about $150 million on child labor initiatives in the last 18 years, the Washington Post reported in June.
Green America’s scores take such programs into account since they are not included in the certification process, a metric that is itself vulnerable to oversights: Utz, the largest certifier, has recently come under fire for significant lapses in standards. Bertrand said the certification process needs to be “considerably revamped,” but that not much will change until deeper issues are solved. “The root cause of the problem is not the purchase of cacao, it’s a lack of education and other options for children.”
Tate is likewise not surprised by the slow rate of change. “The bigger companies have huge supply chains and are having to take a reactive approach to a child labor issue that’s been there for decades.” Mars, for example, can trace just under a quarter of its cocoa back to farms, the Post story said, and other major manufacturers don’t fare much better.
“There’s a lot of talk, but the big companies are not anxious to have regulation of any sort because it adds cost.”
Many of the smaller independent companies that earned A marks, in contrast, “built their models around addressing child labor,” Tate said.
The scorecard doesn’t include every company that would net high marks, focusing instead on ones that Green America has worked with and can vouch for.
As the most recent ranking shows, the world’ biggest chocolate makers still have a way to go to become sustainable or stop reliance on practices like child labor. But as consumers we don’t have to wait years for them to catch up, as there a plenty of alternatives and independent producers available. While these options can cost several times more than a mass-produced chocolate bar, that’s a small price to pay for knowing your sweets are child labor-free.