Chocolate – what does it make you think of? The velvety finish to a romantic meal? Grabbing a quick snack at a petrol station? That naughty wrapper calling to you when you just know you shouldn’t? A night in in front of the telly? Over-indulgence during Christmas/Easter breaks… But how often do you think of kidnapped children, beaten and working for a few bananas and the beans they can steal? Festering cutlass wounds and the lifelong scars they leave behind? Lives trapped in poverty through denial of access to education? OK, OK I’m being emotive, and the chances are if you are reading this then these are issues that already concern you, but actually, at the moment I think its fairly true to say that the man on the street is totally and utterly oblivious to what many people have had to go through to supply him with this bar that he’s just grabbed, or this chocolate that he’s just eaten one too many of.

My interest in the chocolate industry was sparked by Stop The Traffik’s Chocolate Campaign, who highlight in particular the plight of the 12,000 children trafficked into the Cote D’Ivoire, where nearly half the world’s cocoa is grown. The fact that it is illegal does not stop it. The fact that we in the West continue to blindly buy chocolate sourced from these farms for our convenience and small luxury ensures that it thrives.

There are of course, simple ‘solutions‘. Be diligent in only buying chocolate which you know to be fairly traded – all supermarkets for example now offer this option. Spread the word, either casually in conversation, or shockingly as a slavering jaw takes its first bite into an eagerly anticipated bar of dubious origins. For those with more time, communicate your concerns to MPs and the companies concerned.

But actually on closer inspection, the issues seem to be frustratingly complex. Most companies who produce chocolate goods do not seem to realise that we the consumer are interested in what goes on in their supply chains. They just do not make any public reference to these issues at all. So what are we to think? Are they covering up, or do they think it goes without saying that they have sourced carefully? Or do their ingredients just arrive in a box at the factory and they have not given any thought as to how they got there? This is something I would like to follow up with individual companies at a later date, but in the chocolate industry alone this is a massive and daunting task.

Most of the larger chocolate manufacturers do have something to say about their stance on social responsibility (namely Cadbury’s, Unilever & Nestle, but notably not Mars to any extent). But here is another problem to my mind. What can I believe? Is that far too cynical? None of them have third party verification of any of the claims that they make (with the exception of one Cadbury’s Green & Black’s bar, but please correct me if I am wrong), and much of the writing does seem very rhetorical. Take Nestle. Their reputation over the years has been appalling, and yet they have a 68 page ‘CSR Concept’ policy published currently (although many of those pages are full page photographs). However, the majority of the section on Agriculture and Sourcing is about quality and sustainabilty, and not at all about tackling the child labour issues for example. Unilever (Galaxy & Walls number amongst their many brands) don’t seem to have got round to tackling their cocoa supplies directly yet, although have this week announced a major initiative in their tea sourcing. Cadbury have a history steeped in social responsibility, but have only recently stepped into the CSR arena and their offering at the moment seems very glossy. They have the paradox of carrying one fairtrade bar, drawing attention to the fact that the rest of their product lines carry no such guarantee, and in discussions with NGOs refuse to be transparent down to farm level for their sourcing or make any pledges regarding child/traffiked labour or prices paid, for example.

Child labour – there is another contenscious issue. How many conversations have I had about different cultural practices around the world? I think this is an issue to be discussed more publically. I for one would never dream of imposing a Western culture or ideals on another culture, and around the world it is true that the concept of children and childhood can vary enormously, and so can the necessities of survival. These give very different expectations on the younger members of society from one family to the next in different parts of the world. But some things are universal: it is never right or socially acceptable to kidnap a child and force it to work in any conditions, let alone the appalling conditions currently being experienced in West Africa. It is never right for a child, or any person to work in dangerous conditions, often life threatening, and at the least leaving it scared for life. There have been some brief news articles about these issues more recently, and I would love to see them opened up for debate in the public arena.

And what about Fairtrade? This is another subject for very heated discussion which merits a post of its own, but for now, this excerpt from the Pod blog highlights some difficulties:

‘Unfortunately ‘Fair Trade’ does not help the farmers of fine beans very much, as it guarantees a price above the international trading price that is not related to quality, and is often several times lower than these farmers local market price. (A market price that does not, however, make these farmers rich in the context of their local economy.) Several parties have also expressed concerns about the cost of Fair Trade certification and possible abuse of that system (e.g. alleged trading of certificates or fulfilling allowed quoters from non Fair Trade sources).’

Fairtrade definately has its place, and at the moment seems to be the only form of guarantee the consumer has, but it cannot be the be-all-and-end-all of ethically sourced products, and it would seem the Fine Chocolate end of this industry is a case in point. Some of the finer chocolates may well be very well sourced, but cannot carry fairtrade certification, so how do we the consumer know?

So here I think it is fair to say, is an industry riddled with malpractice, cover-up and confusion. It is easy to feel sorry for the consumer in this situation, with so little information available on which to make their purchasing decisions. However, the fact of the matter is that the products in question are not basic necessities. They are luxury and convenience foods that are being produced at the expense of in many cases people’s basic freedom. This a dichotomy too strong for toleration, and we in the West do have the choice, and the power, to sacrifice a little luxury and convenience until this industry smartens up its act and pledges to be accountable, transparent and responsible towards those on whose labours it depends.