Leading chocolate brands have been criticised for having “inadequate” ethical standards in their cocoa supply chain in a report from Ethical Consumer. Only 17 out of 82 brands investigated by the consumer organisation were judged to use chocolate from suppliers that ensured cocoa farmers were paid enough to live on.
As a result, there is a risk that Advent calendars, chocolate Santas and other Christmas treats will have been produced with child labour. About 60% of the world’s cocoa comes from west Africa, and about six in 10 cocoa-growing households in Ghana are estimated to use child labour, with four in 10 in Ivory Coast.
Ethical Consumer recommended Tony’s Chocolonely, Divine and Chocolat Madagascar among the brands which paid Fairtrade International or Rainforest Alliance rates or higher, and use chocolate made in the country of origin rather than from imported beans. That helps the economies of cocoa-producing countries rather than European manufacturers.
It rated Mars, Nestlé and Mondelēz, which owns Cadbury, as poor and “brands to avoid”, while Ferrero was rated poor.
Each has a sustainability scheme, but the researchers said that these schemes “tend to cover just a proportion of the company’s cocoa suppliers”, which means that some farmers do not benefit.
Last year, Channel 4’s Dispatches found that 10-year-old children were using machetes to harvest cocoa destined for Mondelēz’s supply chain.
The 82 brands were also measured on tax conduct, use of palm oil, deforestation and plastic and packaging.
Jasmine Owens, a researcher at Ethical Consumer, said: “The chocolate industry is incredibly unequal, with many cocoa farmers living in poverty while international chocolate companies are raking in billions of pounds.
“Most of the world’s chocolate is grown in west Africa, and the conditions for farmers are in general really appalling. But it’s European and UK consumers who eat most of it. So we really do have a huge amount of power and responsibility over conditions for farmers in west Africa because we’re the reason why they’re harvesting the cocoa.”
Owens said that buying chocolate from brands such as Fairafric, ’57 Chocolate and Chocolat Madagascar was expensive and could be hard to get hold of but they were good “as a treat or a present”, while Tony’s Chocolonely was widely available in supermarkets and “really trying to change the chocolate industry”.
Joke Aerts, of Tony’s Open Chain, said it was trying “to put human rights at the core of purchasing practices” by using traceable cocoa beans, paying the living income reference price (the amount a typical farmer needs to make to be able to live), helping farming co-ops to become more professional, working with them for at least five-year periods, and helping farmers improve crop yields so they had less incentive to clear land to plant more cacao trees.
A report by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago in 2020 found that 43% of children living in cocoa-growing areas in Ghana and Ivory Coast were engaged in hazardous child labour, amounting to about 1.56 million children.
Often these children are taken out of school to work on the farm by their parents, according to Katie Bird of the International Cocoa Initiative, a nonprofit working to end child labour and forced labour in cocoa. “Farmer poverty is a significant contributing factor,” she said. “There is a role for the cocoa industry, quite clearly, but also for governments in cocoa-producing countries, civil society organisations, producers themselves and a role for cocoa-consuming countries as well.” That means also ensuring access to good quality schooling, healthcare and helping farmers diversify.
Both Ghana and Ivory Coast have laws against child labour, and police patrol some plantations. Yet the size of the cocoa-growing areas makes them hard to police, according to Mike Rogerson, a lecturer in operations management at Sussex University and an expert on modern slavery in supply chains.
“Cocoa prices are set globally, annually, and they always disappoint everyone that follows these negotiations except the four largest companies using cocoa. Companies not paying a proper price effectively means that parents can’t afford to make a living and look after the family on their own,” said Rogerson
He said it was hard for companies to track where their cocoa had come from because farmers sometimes sell beans to each other, since cocoa is typically traded in 50kg bags, and beans are often mixed in different processing centres. It would cost the industry about £4m a year to trace cocoa beans using their DNA, he said, but so far there has been little interest in the technology from any chocolate company.
Mondelēz did not respond directly but referred to its sustainability report which said it aims to source all of its chocolate through its Cocoa Life programme by 2025 and increase the number of farmers in the programme to 300,000 by 2030.
A Nestlé spokesperson said: “We believe that Ethical Consumer’s assessment of our approach does not reflect the comprehensive detail we provided about our work, and therefore does not represent the extent of our efforts to sustainability source cocoa for our products.
“At Nestlé, we have pioneered industry-leading projects and initiatives to further improve the sustainable sourcing of cocoa for our products and to help improve farmers’ livelihoods.”
Nestlé runs an “income accelerator programme” with 10,000 farm families in Ivory Coast, allowing them to earn up to €500 extra a year for two years, and aims to reach 160,000 families by 2030.
A Ferrero spokesperson said: “Our cocoa is 100% sourced through independently managed standards such as Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade Foundation and Cocoa Horizons.”
Ferrero said it works with farmer groups on improving livelihoods by increasing cocoa productivity and diversifying, and supporting the wellbeing of women and children and the environment.
“We committed to paying the Living Income Differential, which we support, and we also pay all farmers a cash premium on top of the commercial price.
“Ferrero remains committed to its cocoa sustainability programme to achieve a positive and lasting impact on the cocoa value chain.”
Mars did not respond to a request for comment.