Sustainability is often considered an environmental issue but, with forced child labour endemic in the cocoa industry, Netherlands-based chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely believes that it must include social and economic principles. Hidden from consumers, the illegal use of child labour to farm and harvest cocoa beans is keeping communities in West Africa impoverished.
The Netherlands processes more cocoa than any other country in the world and plays an important role in advocating for sustainable chocolate practices. Tony’s Chocolonely launched in 2005 with the sole ambition of making all chocolate worldwide free of slavery and child labour after journalist and founder Teun van de Keuken discovered two million children were working illegally on cocoa farms in West Africa. With all major chocolate companies declining interviews, van de Keuken decided to launch an investigation with his television programme, 'Keuringsdienst van Waarde’, before ultimately founding Tony’s Chocolonely.
Speaking at the Future Summit by Bread & Jam in May, Ben Greensmith, UK and Ireland country manager at the company, said: “You've got to think that the cocoa industry is kind of like an hourglass on its side. On the right-hand side you've got billions of consumers eating cocoa, loving chocolate, and not thinking about where that chocolate is coming from.”
“On the other side, you’ve got West Africa where most of the world’s cocoa comes from, and in the middle, this is the pinch point; this is where the problems start,” he added.
Hidden labour makes chocolate an affordable, everyday treat
Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire grow roughly 60% of the world’s cocoa across two and a half million small holder plantations. Family-run operations spanning two to three hectares handed down from generation to generation are often the starting point in the supply chain for numerous multinational chocolate companies.
The majority of smallholder cocoa farmers in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire earn roughly one dollar per person per day, while living income benchmarks are over two dollars, double this amount. Farmers cannot meet their basic needs or afford a decent standard of living for all their household members.
Widespread poverty and small profits for farmers has resulted in 1.6 million children working illegally on cocoa farms in West Africa, said Greensmith. Children from poor families are at risk due to limited opportunities and are often denied an education by working on family farms.
“Big chocolate producers you probably wouldn’t have heard of and the massive chocolate brands you would have; […] these companies keep the price of cocoa as low as possible, these eight to ten companies, so they can make as much money as possible need massive inequality in West Africa.”
Children on cocoa farms engage in the most hazardous forms of work, are exposed to pesticides, denied access to the correct equipment, and carry heavy loads. Walk Free, an international human rights group, recently published a global slavery index 2023, reporting that30,000 victims of modern-day slavery currently working on farms.
“If you think about that, this is cocoa, this is chocolate, something we should all enjoy eating. There's this really bitter aftertaste deep in the value chain and that’s why Tony exists to change,” said Greensmith.
Pay more: Pull cocoa farmers out of poverty
In September 2001 the Harkin Engel Protocol, a US led federal agreement was developed to eliminate the worst forms of abusive child labour in cocoa farming. This agreement was the first initiative by US, UK, and European companies and governments – and yet illegal child labour persists.
“We pay a far bigger price [at Tony’s Chocolonely], which is set by the government. Typically, it's about $1,000 a tonne. We then pay Fairtrade premium on top and then we work backwards from what the farmers need to enable them to earn a living income.”
“And we top it up with what we call the Tony’s voluntary premium and all that does is enable those farmers that we work with to basically earn an income, get out of poverty, and stop using children on their farms.”
Working only with co-operatives in long-term agreements is another approach Tony’s Chocolonely adopts to ensure farmers earn a fair price. Farmers that are fairly paid can plan and invest in their communities as well as “focus on the quality and productivity” of their cocoa farming.
With a 20% market share in the Netherlands, Tony’s Chocolonely is one of the biggest chocolate brands in the Netherlands today and it wants to transform the cocoa value chain by supporting other brands.
“We say to anyone who sources cocoa, big or small, this is how we do it. Copy us and we will help you with facilitating [this]. We have an open chain sourcing policy and most recently Ben & Jerry’s agreed it's the right way to source their cocoa for their ice cream pints and also all of their inclusions.”