Cocoa Doesn’t Have to be Scary

Posted Oct 29, 2019, by Kristen Locy

Source: Kristen Locy

Source: Kristen Locy

It’s that spooky time of year. The Halloween decorations are out. The trees are bare. Ghouls are on the loose. Yet, the scariest fact is that your favorite Halloween candies are created by some of the biggest privately owned corporations in the world who exploit cocoa farmers and their communities (did you like my transition there?). Plus, much of the cocoa could very well have been harvested by child labor in West Africa. But don’t fear! If you have already bought your Halloween candy don’t feel guilty (seriously, I will still eat M&Ms too), but here’s some food for thought for the next time you buy chocolate.

Some major issues with chocolate production include labor, growing practices, and packaging pollution. According to The Center for Strategic and International Studies, an estimated 5 million small family farms in the tropical regions of West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America rely on cocoa farming for 60 to 90% of their income. These farmers generally live on less than $2 per day. Meanwhile, Nestlé made a 10 billion dollar net profit in 2018. The cocoa farmers’ low income leads to the many issues associated with poverty such as poor living conditions, nutrition, health care, and education, along with stressed families and communities. Furthermore, the cocoa workers often face dangerous working conditions, which include handling pesticides without proper protection, using dangerous equipment, and unfair working hours. About ⅔ of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa, where more than 2 million children are engaged in cocoa production using child labor. Some of these children may be victims of human trafficking and others are trying to work to supplement their household’s minuscule income. The world’s largest chocolate companies including Nestlé, Mondelēz International, and Hershey promised to stop supporting child labor 20 years ago yet have continuously missed deadlines to remove child labor from their cocoa supply chains. When representative from these brands were asked about this, they said they could not guarantee that any of their chocolates were produced without child labor. According to the Washington Post, “The odds are substantial that a chocolate bar bought in the United States is the product of child labor.” 

Source: Slave Free Chocolate

Source: Slave Free Chocolate

Major Chocolate Companies’ Efforts to Eradicate Child Labor:

  • Mars

    • Popular products: M&M’s, Snickers, Twix, Skittles, Dove

    • Child labor program: Mars’s Cocoa for Generations plan aims to ensure 100% of the company’s cocoa is responsibly sourced and traceable to the farm level by 2025

    • Percent of cocoa “certified”: Around 50% of its cocoa is certified by Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance

    • Percent of traceable cocoa: As of December 2018, 24% is traceable to the farmer level and 40 percent is traceable to the farmer group

  • Hershey’s

    • Popular products: Hershey’s, Reese’s, Mr. Goodbar

    • Child labor program: Hershey’s Cocoa for Good program invests a half-billion dollars by 2030 to eliminate child labor, economically empower women, and tackle poverty and climate change

    • Percent of cocoa “certified”: 80% certified at the end of 2018

    • Percent of traceable cocoa: Less than half

  • Nestlé

    • Popular products: Toll House and Kit Kat (outside of the United States)

    • Child labor program: Helped develop the Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation System, which is being adopted by other companies

    • Percent of cocoa “certified”: In Ivory Coast, more than 80%; globally 46%

    • Percent of traceable cocoa: In Ivory Coast, more than 80%; globally 49%

  • Mondelēz International

    • Popular products: Cadbury, Toblerone

    • Child labor program: About 45% of the cocoa in Mondelez chocolate is souced through its Cocoa Life program, which the company says tackles child labor. The adherence to its ethical standards is monitored by a third party inspection company

    • Percent of cocoa “certified”: Unreported, the company says this is not applicable

    • Percent of traceable cocoa: About 45%

  • Godiva

    • Popular products: Godiva chocolate

    • Child labor program: Godiva supports its supplier’s Forever Chocolate initiative, which aims to “make sustainable chocolate the norm by 2025”

    • Percent of cocoa “certified”: Company would not disclose

    • Percent of traceable cocoa: Company would not disclose

Source: Washington Post


Cocoa is typically grown in valuable tropical ecosystems that are especially vulnerable to environmental exploitation and to the effects of climate change. Yet, if it is grown sustainably cocoa production has the potential to cause very little environmental damage. As forests are cleared for the cocoa plantations, deforestation and soil erosion are two major issues. Some sustainable practices include shade grown cocoa trees, terracing the land and mulching the soil. With proper training and support, these practices can be implemented. According to KPMG, certification bodies such as Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified and Fairtrade led to better conservation of local ecosystems. Yet in 2013, only about 11% of cocoa could be labeled as “fair-trade”. These eco-labels are a step in the right direction, but cocoa companies need to be held accountable for their effects on their laborers and the environment.

Source: Break Free From Plastic Brand Audit 2019

Source: Break Free From Plastic Brand Audit 2019

Source: Break Free From Plastic

Source: Break Free From Plastic

Lastly, another issue that you may not always think about with candy is its plastic wrapper that ends up in our landfills and oceans. In the Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) 2019 Brand Audit Report (give it a look because it’s really interesting), Nestlé was named as the second largest plastic polluting corporation in the world (Mondelēz International and Mars were ranked at #4 and #5). This plastic is making us sick, polluting our natural resources, choking our oceans, and is directly related to the fossil fuel industry (who is happily leading our planet to environmental collapse). According to BFFP, “In fact, plastic production, use and disposal is responsible for such a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions that if left unchecked, it threatens our ability to keep global warming to under 1.5 degrees celsius. If we continue using plastic in the same way, by 2050 emissions from plastic use and production could reach over 56 gigatones a year, which represents 10-13% of the remaining carbon budget.” I know what you are thinking, well is it my fault that my Twix wrapper is destroying the future of our planet? No. But the thoughtless constant use of disposable plastic in our lives is important to be aware of. Buying bulk or paper-wrapped chocolate is an option. There is even a chocolate wrapper made by Alter Eco that can be composted in your own backyard! Thinking you have no choice is exactly what these major corporations want you to believe.

Now that you are adequately depressed and probably are wishing you could reach for some chocolate to cope – let’s talk about corporate responsibility. These major corporations making chocolate are huge, billions of dollars huge, so they have a huge effect on the world for better or for worse. Taking responsibility for their negative effects costs them money so they aren’t likely to do it on their own. But, increasing backlash from both consumers and organizations is pressuring these corporations to change their ways. Corporate accountability is described as “responsibilities including the negative duty to refrain from harm caused to the environment, individuals or communities, and sometimes also positive duties to protect society and the environment, for example protecting human rights of workers and communities affected by business activities.”

Source: Green America

Source: Green America

One easy measure of corporate accountability is an eco-label, such as Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance. If you are like me, you probably see them on your coffee or chocolate and think oh cool! an extra bonus! but have no idea what they actually mean. Eco-labels aren’t perfect and there are plenty of issues with them, but the bottom line is that they are better than nothing, and provide better protections for workers and the environment. Here’s a cheat sheet for eco-labels related to cocoa:

    • Fairtrade USA/International

      • Mission: to enable sustainable development and community empowerment by cultivating a more equitable global trade model that benefits farmers, workers, consumers, industry and the earth.

      • Child labor/forced labor ban

      • Farmers and workers paid a fair price

      • Commit to environmental standards that protect the local ecosystem

        • Farmers must ensure minimized and safe use of agrochemicals, watershed protection through waste and water management, and no use of GMO seeds. They support local biodiversity through buffer zones between fields and ecologically sensitive areas, and are prohibited from cutting down primary forest for cultivation. 

    • Fair for Life

      • Mission: to ensure fair and positive relations between producers and their cooperatives or contracting companies, between workers and their employer, between sellers and buyers on the world market while at the same time ensuring performance standards.

      • Respect for human rights and fair working conditions

      • Respect for the ecosystem and promotion of biodiversity and sustainable agricultural practices

      • Respect and betterment of local impact

    • Rainforest Alliance

      • Merged with UTZ in 2018

    • Cocoa Life

      • Cocoa Life is Mondelēz International’s global cocoa sustainability program

      • Mission: Cocoa Life is on a long-term journey to create a vibrant, strong cocoa supply chain while growing opportunities that transform the lives and livelihoods of farmers and their communities. We believe that empowered, thriving cocoa communities are the essential foundation for sustainable cocoa.

      • Their 5 major principles:

        • Increase transparency, by connecting consumers to cocoa growers

        • Promote self-sufficiency by building knowledge and skills within cocoa communities

        • Make greater impact through transformative partnerships

        • Respect human rights, focusing on child rights and promoting women’s empowerment

        • Increase business advantage by ensuring a sustainable supply of cocoa for Mondelēz International’s much loved brands

    • UTZ Certified

      • The world’s largest program for sustainable farming of coffee and cocoa in the world

      • Mission: The Rainforest Alliance and UTZ merged in 2018 in response to the critical challenges facing humanity: deforestation, climate change, systemic poverty, and social inequity. We combined our respective strengths to build a future in which nature is protected and biodiversity flourishes; where farmers, workers, and communities prosper; and where sustainable land use and responsible business practices are the norm.

Source: Divine Chocolate

Source: Divine Chocolate

Besides eco-labels, some chocolate companies go above and beyond to provide socially and environmentally conscious chocolate (most of them utilize eco-labels too). 

  • Divine Chocolate shares 45% of the company’s profits with their Ghanaian farmers, people involved in the production have the greatest say in  decision making, and women are empowered to have a greater say in the cocoa co-op and their communities. Divine explains, “It is Divine’s founding purpose to help farmers gain a share of the wealth they are helping to create, putting them higher up the value chain. In doing so, this creates a supply chain that shares value more equitably and serves as an example of a viable model for how to secure the sustainable future of cocoa and cocoa farming.” With flavors such as Milk Chocolate with Toffee & Sea Salt and 70% Dark Chocolate with Ginger & Orange, it’s a win-win. Plus you can buy a bar at many grocery stores like Giant Eagle for about $4.

  • Alter Eco is a brand I mentioned previously for their awesome biodegradable wrappers. They also source their cocoa from fair trade small-scale farmer-owned co-ops, but go above and beyond environmentally with their eco-packaging, organic cocoa, and offsetting their carbon footprint. Some of their flavors include Superdark Crisp Mint and Dark Salted Brown Butter. You can buy them at Whole Foods and Market District for about $4 a bar. 

  • Equal Exchange Organic Milk Chocolate Minis are a great option for Halloween. They are fair-trade and USDA Organic. On their website you can get the chocolate for $28, which comes out to about to about $0.19 per chocolate.

  • See’s Candies Milk Chocolate Foil Balls are another good option for giveaways. See’s Candies uses Guittard chocolate, which supports the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund and is committed to ethical chocolate. It is $8 for 30 pieces of chocolate.

  • Sarris Candies is a local chocolate maker, and supporting local businesses is always important (they are my personal favorite). They do a lot of great work and give back to the local community, but where they source their cocoa from is confidential. Bill Sarris, the president of the company, said: “We use a specific type of bean that is grown under the guidelines of the World Cocoa Trade Organization which protects against child labor and invests in schools for the children and training for the farmers to continue to produce.”




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To sum it all up, I know this is slightly depressing and overwhelming. Even spooky. It isn’t your fault that these corporations harm communities and the environment. But you do have power in your choices as a consumer – so use it! Ethical chocolate can be expensive and hard to access, so don’t feel bad if you eat some Kit-Kats. I’ll probably eat one this afternoon because they are sitting in the office. But remember, cocoa doesn’t have to be scary.

Further Reading:


  • Kristen Locy

    In 2018, Kristen graduated from Allegheny College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a passion to go back to the community where she grew up to make a positive impact. She joined the team in the summer of 2019 as an intern and was promoted to Outreach Coordinator in the summer of 2020. Kristen's family has lived in Washington and Greene Counties for generations. Her great-grandparents were coal miners and steel workers in Washington County. She has a passion for writing, storytelling, and helping to build community in the region she calls home. In her free time, you'll find Kristen canoeing local rivers, gardening, and spending time with her miniature schnauzer puppy named Karl.

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