Chocolate should be leaving you with a bad taste in your mouth

Chocolate. It's creamy, sweet and melts in your mouth. But for each delicious bite we take, it continues to drive a bitter and twisted tale of forced labour and environmental destruction.

4 min read

The worst part is that the major international chocolate companies are well aware of the disgraceful mistreatment of farmers and producers of cocoa beans - yet very little has been done to alleviate their suffering.

Close to 70 per cent of the globe’s cocoa beans come from Western Africa, and close to three million tonnes of cocoa beans are produced each year.

Just twelve companies buy 85 percent of the global cocoa crop and you have probably never even heard of most of them.

The industry is worth more than $100 billion annually and more than 70 per cent of this goes to enormous European chocolate suppliers. Now guess how much farmers and producers of the raw material get to take home? Less than two percent – of an industry that is entirely dependent on their work.

There are more than 40 million smallholder cocoa farmers in Africa, usually with an acre or less on which to eke out an income. Typically they live in mud huts, have little to no education and no way out. They earn as little as $5 a day after being paid just over $2 per kg. I can tell you how much my company pays for 1kg of cocoa butter, and it is a lot more. The bulk of the value chain is held at big processing houses and the profits are not shared back through to the producers.  

Hideously, many children are trafficked from countries, such as Mali, then sold to farmers as (slave) labour. They are rarely paid for this.

Hopefully this puts a different perspective on that next mouthful of chocolate that you’ve purchased without checking if the cocoa was ethically-sourced – was it grown as a result of a child’s suffering and extreme poverty?

The issues unfortunately continue.

One of the areas where the beans are sourced – the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) – has lost more than 80 per cent of its forests in just 50 years, due mostly to clearing for cocoa plantations. This represents one of the fastest losses of forest cover on the planet. Around 25 per cent of all cocoa produced in the Ivory Coast is from illegal plantations grown slap bang in the middle of ‘protected’ national parks. Surveys show that 13 of the 23 protected forests no longer have much wildlife left and are completely devoid of primates – animals they are famous for.

Reports have criticised the small-holding farmers for this deforestation and sure, there is no denying they are the ones directly cutting down the trees. But if it was a choice between a tree and the ability to feed your children, how long would it take you to pick up an axe?

Governments are keen to fix this, but they are being left to solve a problem they don’t have the resources to solve. And while the industry has the proper resources, a lot of the time they simply offer empty platitudes.

This is a complicated subject and a boycott is actually not in the best interests of the farmers.

Enter Fairtrade. This is the international certification that assures buyers that the product they are buying has been bought for a fair (above market) price, and that the producers have good working conditions and trade terms.

Fairtrade has its critics and is not a silver bullet.

They set a minimum price guarantee that those who are Fairtrade certified can command, but how this price is determined is vague and is not in any way proven to actually consider whether it’s a fair amount that people can live on. It’s currently $2400 for a tonne. That’s just $2.40 per kg. There is also an additional payment of $240 per tonne, which is paid to a communal fund for the farmers, used for investment into their communities. This is a good first step but it’s not going to pull the majority of farmers out of extreme poverty.

I much prefer ‘direct trade’. This is when businesses work directly with their producers. Direct trade involves a bit more effort from the brand but if they genuinely care, they can support their producers with a price that provides at least a living wage, determine what is needed and provide a genuinely meaningful value-add. This is how my company works with our Samoan coconut producers and our Rwandan Moringa oil producers and it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of.

What can you do as a consumer? Start looking at which chocolate you are buying. Look for brands that have a third-party certification, like Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade as they are definitely better than nothing.

If the certification is ‘in-house’ with a catchy name, treat it with skepticism. If the brand does not have a certification, ask them why. They might have a great reason, like they choose to work directly with producers and can prove it. The more we ask, the more likely brands are to realise that we care about where our products come from and, eventually, bring their company values in line with ours as consumers.

It’s hard to buy and do the right thing all the time because you would need to spend your entire life doing research and digging deep into problems. And that’s why these certifications are so important. Even if they’re not perfect they make consumer decisions easier. It’s horrifying to think that our individual decisions at the supermarket can have such a drastic impact on people across the world and the survival of our environment.


This one is obvious – it’s written on the label! They do an excellent job and have a deep commitment to working with farmers and providing environmental protection.

Wellington Chocolate Factory: Fairtrade certified, deeply passionate and they work with producers directly. Delish chocolate too.

Like all good things, most of their products are made in Christchurch! They work directly with a Fairtrade cooperative in Peru.

Honest Chocolat: NZ made, they have a direct link with their cocoa bean producers and the chocolate is top notch (they keep winning awards.)

Miann Chocolate Factory:
A bean to bar chocolaterie, who buy their beans directly from farmers.

We sorely need a Fairtrade or direct trading company to branch out into Easter Eggs, unfortunately I couldn’t find any. So in the meantime, snap up some bars or blocks for your loved ones instead.

If you’re desperate: (Ratings from

Committed to slave free chocolate by 2020. They do have a dedicated farming system of training and support where they work directly with farmers to improve their quality of life. Hard to find any true data on its effectiveness however as there is no independent third party certification. Contains palm oil. 8/20 (Pick a palm oil free variety.)

Whittakers: Two of their blocks, the dark Ghana and the creamy milk are fair trade certified. Why not all? They cannot say with any confidence if their chocolate involves child labour unfortunately. Not rated by, but I think they can do a bit better with their cocoa butter supply chain.


Owned by Mondelez. One of the terrible twelve. Also, palm oil. Do have a robust sounding supply chain policy, and a in-house certification called ‘Cocoa Life.’ Mondelez in general doesn’t score well. 2/20

Ferrero Rocher:
Use a lot of palm oil but do have a good policy, though they have been linked to deforestation. Poor supply chain policy and linked heavily to low wages and poor treatment of farmers. 6.5/20

Kinder: With a name like ‘kind’er you would think they would be. But no. Heavily linked to low wages and mistreatment of farmers and producers. Palm oil used. 6.5/20

Green & Blacks:
This might surprise you a little… G&B is owned by Mondelez so they by default are linked to their practices. A great certified Fairtrade brand that is now releasing chocolate that is not Fairtrade. What a shame. 4/20

These final three all signed pledges to remove all child labour from their supply chains. All three have missed the last three deadlines in 2005, 2008 and 2010. The next one is this year, and it’s unlikely they will meet it.

Hersheys: They have made a lot of noise about improving their supply chain and investing in their farmers, but apparently there isn’t a great deal of movement. 5/20

(Make Snickers, Bounty, Dove, Galaxy, M&Ms, Milkyway, Twix and more.) Very heavily linked to deforestation, not just through chocolate but also agriculture sourcing. Linked to trafficking and forced labour in both cocoa and palm oil. However, some of their products are certified by Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance so do lookout for those. 3.5/10

(Make: KitKat, Aero, Milkybar and more.) We don’t have enough time to list all the issues, but they are one of the worst for palm oil offences, child labour and they are the world’s largest producer of bottled water, which is another article altogether. 1/20