Not long after Halloween I was walking through the aisles of Kroger when I saw it. A whole aisle of chocolate on clearance. This wasn't just Halloween candy that got left behind because no one likes it (I'm looking at you Whoppers) but this was the good stuff. I'm talking Snickers, Reese Cups, Take 5, and it was all 70% off!

Now, I'm not much of a chocolate consumer, in fact, outside of the chocolate I may consume in ice cream or the occasional chocolate chip cookie, I would say my consumption of chocolate would be near 0. But I know I'm an anomaly. The average American consumes 11 pounds of chocolate a year, so someone is picking up my slack. But 70% off was too good to pass up because at home I have a wife and 2 year old daughter who very much like chocolate and do their part to pick up my slack on that 11 pound consumption average.

I felt good about my thriftiness and good fortune. Until I saw this later that day (feel free to read it, but I'll recap it down below): Lawsuit: Your Candy Bar Was Made By Child Slaves

Immediately I reacted in the same way as Marlin in Finding Nemo when he came face to face with an angler fish -- good feelings gone. (I have a Finding Nemo fan at home, so I've seen this movie A LOT.)

The Not So Sweet Details

Here is what you will read not only in the article listed above but in multiple other sources. West African countries (mainly Ghana and Ivory Coast) produce nearly 70% of the world's cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate. The chocolate industry is expected to clear nearly $100 billion in sales this year.

A documentary (Slavery: A Global Investigation) released in 2000 exposed horrific conditions of children forced to harvest cocoa. This is definitely worth the time to watch.

The documentary showed boys forced to cover 100 pound bags of cocoa, working from sun up to sun down in hazardous conditions, paid nothing, forced to experience a "breaking in" period which included beatings morning and night to beat them into submission, to beat them into accepting their fate. If they tried to escape, they'd be forced to help find the on that ran and participate in the punishing beatings. If the one being beaten couldn't withstand the abuse, they were removed from the plantation and never seen again.

One of the boys when interviewed in this documentary has a message for all of us. The filmmakers ask one of the rescued boys (who has never tasted the fruit of his labor, chocolate): "in the rest of the world, millions and millions of people eat chocolate, what would you tell those people?"

If I had something to say to those people, it would not be nice words
They enjoy something I suffered to make; I worked hard for them but saw no benefit
They are eating my flesh

The release of this documentary not only caused national outrage but caught many off guard. The chocolate companies that benefited off the beaten backs of these kids expressed shock and vowed that they were unaware that this existed within their supply chains.

The shock was also felt in Congress where a Representative, Eliot Engel added a legislative amendment to an agricultural bill that would involve a requirement for "slave free" labeling for chocolate. This amendment passed quickly in the House and appeared to have approval in the Senate. The reaction of the chocolate industry, who at first expressed shock and then unawareness (or even outright denial) to the news of child slave labor in their supply chain, was to strongly oppose this legislation and lobby against it.

The chocolate industry quickly realized that they were about to face consumer boycotts and more that would affect their bottom line if they didn't make a deal. Before the bill introduced by Engel could reach the Senate for vote, the chocolate industry agreed to a deal to address the problem of child slave labor without legislation. In September 2001 the Harkin-Engel protocol was signed with the objective to end the "worst forms of child labor" by 2005.

Eight major companies signed this agreement (including Nestle, Mars, and Hershey) and pledged to bring an end to child slave labor in their supply chains. With the initial July 2005 deadline looming the chocolate industry, which still had not made any major changes, sought and received an extension to 2008. That deadline would be passed as well with no major changes enacted.

Chocolate companies were attempting to address the problem with as little cost as possible, as hands off as possible, and were still maintaining a business model that was proven to be profiting off of the beaten backs of children.

By 2010, with little progress made to actually eradicate child slave labor as once promised, a new joint declaration was made to "reaffirm the commitment" to achieve the objectives of the Harkin-Engel protocol. Within this declaration the chocolate industry committed $10 million along with $10 million of tax payer dollars from the government as part of this reaffirmation. For those counting at home, $10 million out of $100 billion is about .01% of sales. The chocolate industry is obviously focused and passionate about addressing this horrific problem.

This 2010 joint declaration also included a new objective. No longer was the objective to to end the "worst forms of child labor", no, now the new objective was to merely reduce the worst forms of child labor 70% by 2020.

Where are we now?

This all begs a question, where are we now? This reaffirmation to reduce child slave labor by 70% was agreed upon in 2010. That was 6 years ago and the deadline of 2020 is but 4 years away. Given what you've read this far, I'm sure what I'm about to say won't come as much of a surprise.

A study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and completed by researchers at the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University was released on July 30, 2015. This study found that some progress was made such as more kids in the affected areas in West Africa attending school. But, the study also found that the objective of reducing child slave labor was no where close to being achieved.

In fact, it is now worse.

In Ivory Coast and Ghana, it was discovered that from 2008-09 to 2013-14:

  • There was a 13 percent increase in the number of children working in the cocoa industry in hazardous conditions from 2008-09 to 2013-14. Hazardous conditions represent what is defined as the "worst forms of child labor".
  • 2.032 million children working in the cocoa industry in hazardous conditions. To put this into perspective, we would have to enslave the ENTIRE population of the Cincinnati Metro area to reach that number.

It has been over 15 years and yet the use of the "worst forms of child labor" has not been eliminated nor has it been decreased, it has been increased.

What is the solution?

The problem with child slave labor in these West African countries is not a simple problem and thus will not be solved simply. I will not be posting anything here saying "if only we did this one thing we would solve the problem of child slave labor!" It would be false hope and would not do justice to the problem described above.

We must not point our finger solely at the chocolate industry to assign blame. We are the ones who demand inexpensive goods. We are the ones who consume the chocolate produced using cocoa harvested by child laborers. Every Snicker bar purchased funds the continuation of this practice. If we do nothing in response to being informed then we too are culpable.

Every Snicker bar purchased funds the continuation of this practice. If we do nothing in response to being informed then we too are culpable.

We need to start asking questions about the cheapness of the goods we consume. How can the goods we consume cost so little? If they cost us little, then who is paying? Everything costs, if we aren't paying then the cost is being passed on to somebody else. And this line of questioning should be applied to all the goods we consume in our life. How is our _ so cheap? Fill in the blank with food, electronics, clothing, or whatever else.

At the very minimum, when we become informed of something like this we must stop supporting it. My immediate reaction when learning all of this was this: We can never buy chocolate from Nestle, Hershey, Mars or any other culpable company until this is resolved. We cannot be outraged by child slave labor while also continuing to funnel money to the companies that profit from it. Well, I suppose we could, it is called being a hypocrite.

But is that enough? If we gain enough support for a complete boycott of Nestle, Hershey, Mars, and any other company found to include child slave labor in the supply chain, would that solve the problem?

Surely, that would make the chocolate industry make changes, but would they be the right changes? We've already seen them react to potential boycotts and legislation before with nothing more than empty promises while child labor increased along with their profits.

Most corporations care only about themselves and their bottom line. They care about delivering strong sales and meeting their quarterly profit targets. They care about meeting consumer demands for products and appeasing their stockholders.

So, when exploitation is exposed in the supply chain they can easily pass blame by saying "we don't own that part of the process!" However, it wouldn't exist if these same companies didn't provide money to the farmers who are exploiting the children. They can pass blame to corrupt governments and there is surely blame to be shared by those governments. They can blame the farmers, who are also partly to blame for their own depravity, while not admitting that the low amount of money paid to farmers for cocoa may have pushed them into using child slave labor in the first place.

But we can't let them off the hook. We cannot allow this to persist. If we give them enough time, the blame will continue to get shifted by the chocolate industry on to others and they will get what they really want, for you and I to forget all about this and stuff our faces with more chocolate so that they can continue to stuff their pockets with our money while doing nothing to benefit the ones who suffer for our enjoyment and their monetary profit.

If we give them enough time, the blame will continue to get shifted by the chocolate industry on to others and they will get what they really want, for you and I to forget all about this and stuff our faces with more chocolate so that they can continue to stuff their pockets with our money while doing nothing to benefit the ones who suffer for our enjoyment and their monetary profit.

What can we really do then?

We can't solve all the problems in the world on our own, this much is true. There is much we have no control over. We can't force people to stop enslaving other people. We cannot force consumers to consider the cost of a good beyond the purchase price. We cannot fix the corruption of governments nor the corruption in the hearts of people.

However, there are some things we do have control over. We have control over what we purchase. We can vow to not buy a single thing from a company that willingly involves themselves in profiting from slavery. We can instead support companies that are actively seeking to create better economic conditions for cocoa farmers in West Africa by buying Fair Trade or Direct Trade chocolate.

We have control over our own response. And if we respond in a way that truly seeks as an objective to end the "worst forms of child labor" it will cost us. Minimum advocacy for victims of the cocoa child slave trade involves a cost for you in 3 areas: 1) you will lose some of your favorite chocolate treats until something changes (no more Take 5 for me!) 2) comfort 3) spending more money for chocolate.

As Meghann and I have sought to not support companies involved in slave chocolate we have found that we had to change habits. No more York Peppermint Patty after dinner at Skyline, no more Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and no more chocolate from restaurants that don't use chocolate that we can confirm as slave free. It has cost us some of our favorite treats, but through buying Fair Trade or Direct Trade chocolates we have found some new favorites.

Having this discussion with other people is not the most comfortable thing in the world to do. Especially if doing so over Reese Cups! But we must spread the word so that other consumers become informed and hopefully allow the outrage they feel guide them into a unified response with other consumers who will demand that child slave labor be eradicated. A unified response is essential for impact. We have to hit the chocolate industry in the only place it truly cares about, profits. If consumers are unified in their demand for slave free chocolate, we will get what we demand if and only if their bottom lines are affected by the demand.

Lastly, we must be willing to spend more for chocolate. Fair Trade and Direct Trade chocolate costs more because farmers are paid more. It costs to provide oversight to make sure that exploitation of children is removed from cocoa plantations. This cost will at least in part be passed on to consumers.

If it isn't us who step in to pay the cost of producing chocolate then someone else will continue to pay. We know they will. And what does it cost them? EVERYTHING.

So problem solved, right?

I wish it were that easy. The problem, slavery, extends far beyond the borders of the chocolate industry. We consume many other goods that involve slaves or underpaid/mistreated workers somewhere along the production cycle. We need to educate ourselves and it is hard. Misinformation abounds and that is purposeful.

Our consumer focused culture seeks to keep our eyes only on the shiny new things and there are many of those. Don't ask questions about how these goods are so cheap, just consume consume consume!

Corporations seek to protect their bottom lines and the actions they take to get them. People with corruption in their hearts seek to protect the profits they gain off the backs of others. Corrupt government officials seek to protect their power.

As I wrote in my previous post, The Real War on Christmas, these are the things that are an affront to Jesus, His Kingdom, and the gospel. For those of us who follow Jesus, let us meditate once again on the words of Jesus:

The Spirit of the Lord the Eternal One is on Me. Why?
Because the Eternal designated Me to be His representative to the poor, to preach good news to them.
He sent Me to tell those who are held captive that they can now be set free, and to tell the blind that they can now see.
He sent Me to liberate those held down by oppression.
In short, the Spirit is upon Me to proclaim that now is the time; this is the jubilee season of the Eternal One’s grace.

The problem of slavery extends beyond a consumer advocacy solution. Jesus, knowing the corruption of our hearts, knew there was only one true solution. We needed new hearts.

That is why Jesus died, to overcome the corruption of our hearts and this world. In His death Jesus paid the penalty of our corruption. In His resurrection Jesus inaugurated a new Kingdom where all things, including our hearts, could be made new again. A Kingdom where slavery and death would not be permitted to exist.

That Kingdom has already begun, but it is not fully enacted yet. I look forward to the day that it is. Until then, those that follow Jesus represent His presence on earth. Jesus continues His work of restoration and justice through His people.

We must be His representative to the poor, preaching good news to them. Good news of being seen, that those trapped in slavery are not forgotten. Our Father, who sees everything, sees them and their affliction. And He doesn't turn a blind eye but is moved to action. We, the people with hearts being made new, must respond to His call to action.

Reference Material

See below for links to do more information on the subject or get a list of some ethical chocolate companies:
Fair Trade Cocoa
Chocolate Is a Bittersweet Way of Life in Ghana
Chocolate and Child Slavery: An Abolitionists Guide