Hard to conceive? Impossible to achieve?
Half heartened attempts won’t eradicate, let alone reduce slavery, which is a direct result of poverty. Corporate avarice and a fantastic ability to ignore what we cannot witness first-hand have allowed the rot to settle in.
Why are we still talking about slavery in 2021?
In an age of heightened rhetoric around environmental and social consciousness with a need for a balanced lifestyle, chocolate buyers are evermore demanding with regard to the quality and sustainability in its supply chain. Yet concurrently, they are being fed images of genteel folks, engaged in ostentatious displays of refinedness and well-being, thereby bestowing chocolate a benign air of fine living. Some of the iconic ads that come to mind are Lindt “Do you dream in chocolate?”, Ferrero Rocher – “The Ambassador”, Bounty – “The Taste Of Paradise or Cadbury’s – “Flake in a bathtub”.
But the dark reality on the ground cannot be further from what is portrayed above. It is disheartening to acknowledge the continued chasm between money invested, time spent and results achieved. Newsreels are still being dominated by large chocolate firms being dragged to courts for failing to eliminate undeclared practices, notably child labour, from their supply chains. Yet in the larger court of public opinion, they seem to escape admonishment and immediate sanction as the sector continues to pay lip service to the problems on the ground.
In an age of heightened rhetoric around environmental and social consciousness with a need for a balanced lifestyle, chocolate buyers are evermore demanding with regard to the quality and sustainability in its supply chain.
So after decades of initiatives, we have failed to deliver on our promise of ethics and justice. Is it due to a lack of resources? Is it political or does the status-quo suit year-end results?
It’s about the bottom-line…
In 2019, the world’s largest cocoa producer, Ivory Coast, generated more than 3 billion USD in exports, followed by Ghana (almost 2 billion USD). The largest importer was the Netherlands with more than 2.2 billion USD, while Germany is the biggest exporter of chocolate products (more than 4 billion USD). These jaw-dropping numbers are evermore stark in their disparity, knowing that farmers receive less than 6 percent of the overall revenue. The retailers at 44% and manufacturers at 35% make up for the largest chunks. Even marketing, at over 4%, costs almost as much as what farmers make!
Unless we are able to dramatically unravel the disequilibrium that gangrenes the sector above mentioned, not much can be achieved. Half heartened attempts won’t eradicate, let alone reduce slavery, which is a direct result of poverty. Corporate avarice and a fantastic ability to ignore what we cannot witness first-hand have allowed the rot to settle in.
What can we do about it?
“Certified is NOT sustainable”
Large firms continue to invest substantial resources into sustainability programs. Mars will invest upwards of 1 billion USD, while Mondelez has a 400 million USD program. These companies procure their “certified” cocoa from cooperatives that in turn rely on large-scale adhesion of farmers. Rampant financial mismanagement and opaque functioning render these structures unreliable and the veracity of their certification doubtful.
“Certification labels DON’T suffice”
Initially, players like FAIRTRADE, UTZ and RAINFOREST had a monopoly over the certification process. Customers took refuge in the idea that these labels vouched for justice and fairness within the supply chain. However, this trend is on a downward spiral with the advent of in-house labels. True monitoring and accountability can only be achieved when processes are handled from within.
“Bean-To-Bar is NOT the answer”
It might be incendiary – but the aforementioned moniker isn’t always a surefire gauge of quality. Through astute marketing, terms like “handmade, artisan and single-origin” are combined with Bean-To-Bar, although they couldn’t be further apart in terms of traceability. The myth of a master chocolate maker, who roams the remotest corners of the world, often working on-site with indigenous tribes, is just that – a myth. In reality, most professionals resort to the acquisition of their couverture from “lumpers” (1) who profess traceability. This cannot suffice.
So, if we can’t trust labels, certification programs and sustainability trends, how can we access a slavery-free product?
As recently as January 2021, the EU Ambassador to Côte d'Ivoire stated that“the European consumer wants to eat chocolate without having to think about child labor, deforestation or the poverty of those who grow cocoa”. But with over 1.4 million cocoa farmers living under the extreme poverty line, slavery-free chocolate, under current circumstances, remains an ephemeral dream.
The answer lies in an often-underused term, traceability.
Beyond Sustainable – Be Traceable.
What’s better than being able to pinpoint the very origin of the cocoa - its germination in the nursery? Can we ensure that all phytosanitary products and fertilizers used are homologated? Can we accurately measure the forest footprint (2) of the finished good? Is it possible to elevate the farmer’s income from the current pittance? Is better land management possible to prevent expropriation?
The answers point to an integrated model. A disruptive move away from the fragmented, farmer-based approach as seen today, towards that of haciendas, farms with measurable sustainability protocols, directives and controls in place. Data from these farms can then be collated using technologies like Blockchain to preserve data veracity (by design, a blockchain is resistant to modification of its data) and further curated for large public appraisal.
No more placing our trust in glossy marketing campaigns. Let’s reduce our tolerance to corporate discourse that consists of promises and lofty goals (e.g. the aim of eradicating farmer poverty within a decade…). Can we adhere to a grass-roots movement, a sustained momentum, with the ambition to strike corporate bottom-lines through a profound change of consuming habits?
A success in the above-mentioned approach would translate to large corporations investing and building stakes in local operations. It would consist of placing their employees on the ground, insourcing and being firmly accountable for all hits and misses. Go-betweens like cooperatives need to be ended, bringing chocolate firms closer to farmers and their realities.
As of today, this is contrary to their ethos. But investors, shareholders and the general public need to ask tough questions and demand precise answers – resultantly pushing some of the actors to adopt these measures.
How much longer do we have to wait for things to turn around? Only through such disruption can we start to eradicate slavery in the cocoa industry.
Lumper (noun): a person who attaches more importance to similarities than to differences in classification.
Forest footprint is a measure of the impact of popular consumer goods on the destruction of natural forests.
Interview & Article by
Indranil Ghosh interviewed by Riccardo Aimerito