Canadian chocolate companies pressed to ethically source cocoa

As Canadians indulge themselves on this annual day of chocolate consumption (or Valentine's Day as it's known in some circles), World Vision is urging consumers to buy ethically certified, child labour-free treats.

Purdy's, Rocky Mountain among chocolate companies to pledge to ethically source cocoa by 2020

World Vision is urging consumers to buy ethically-sourced and child labour-free chocolates this Valentine's Day. The aid agency is also pushing companies to commit to source only ethical cocoa by 2020.

As Canadians indulge themselves on this annual day of chocolate consumption (or Valentine's Day as it's known in some circles), World Vision is urging consumers to buy ethically certified, child labour-free treats.

The non-profit organization is reintroducing its Good Chocolate Guide, a list of fair trade chocolate companies to help Canadians make more informed purchases.

The cocoa industry has long been plagued with revelations of human trafficking and child labour abuses. Global criticism has pushed a number of major companies to commit to sourcing only ethical, child labour-free chocolate by 2020, including the Hershey Company and Italian confectioner Ferrero. 

Children, because they're still developing, are more vulnerable,- Benjamin Smith, senior officer at International Labour Organization

World Vision joined the campaign and is corralling Canadian companies to make the same pledge. 

The organization reached out to the 10 biggest chocolate companies in the country, including Ganong Bros., Lindt and Rocky Mountain, to probe their efforts to address child labour in cocoa harvesting. It asked questions such as, "Do you commit to source only ethical cocoa by 2020 for all of your products?" and "Will the cocoa be certified ethical by a third party or independent organization?" 

World Vision compiled the answers into a "chocolate scorecard" and of the 10 companies questioned, only four—Lindt, Purdy's, Rocky Mountain and Rogers' Chocolates—said yes to the 2020 pledge. 

Ganong Bros., Nutriart (the company behind Laura Secord) and World's Finest Chocolate (supplier for school chocolate fundraisers) did not respond, despite more than a year's worth of attempts by the aid agency.

"We want to be aware of their situation," said advocacy campaign manager Cheryl Hotchkiss. 

“World Vision believes that any effort to look at this problem is worth it.”

The darker side of chocolate

To delve into the problem of child labour is to delve into the darker side of chocolate, requiring Canadians to travel (if only hypothetically) to the global south—specifically, the West African countries of Ghana and Ivory Coast where about 60 per cent of cocoa crops can be found. Ivory Coast alone supplies 40 per cent of the global cocoa market. 

According to World Vision, in Ivory Coast, about 10,000 child labourers were identified as having been trafficked from neighbouring countries and sold into slave labour for little or no wages. 

I’m not suggesting that [product certifications] don’t have significant limitations- Kernaghan Webb, corporate social responsibility expert

However, the vast majority of child labourers aren't trafficked or working as slaves. Most of the time, they work with their families on remote, rural farms starting from a young age.

According to the International Labour Organization, the hazards involved with cocoa farming can lead to anything as benign as thorn pricks from planting seeds to more serious health effects like corroded hands and poisoning from spreading fertilizers and pesticides. Children can also get skeletal injuries from carrying heavy loads of seedlings on their heads.

"Children, because they're still developing, are more vulnerable," said Benjamin Smith, a senior officer at ILO.

The problem of child labour extends beyond the cocoa farms to the lack of adequate social infrastructure and educational opportunities, which Smith said are the root causes. 

The federal government lists Ghana as a country of focus for development assistance, one of 20 countries receiving 80 per cent of Canadian bilateral aid. Canada doesn't have much of a development presence in Ivory Coast.

Industry takes on voluntary pledge

In 2001, the U.S. Congress was close to legislating a requirement for all cocoa products to have "slave-free" labels, to be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The cocoa industry pushed back and offered to voluntarily implement better labour standards in exchange for the bill to be withdrawn.

The International Labour Organization says chocolate that is "child labour-free" is a "dubious claim," considering the difficulty of proper labour inspections in Ghana and Ivory Coast. ((Martin Mejia/Associated Press))

Thus, the non-binding Harkin-Engel Protocol was drawn up, negotiated by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman Eliot Engel, outlining how the international cocoa industry would end the worst forms of child labour in the production of cocoa in Ghana and Ivory Coast by 2005. 

Industry action involves market-based certification programs such as Fair Trade, according to Kernaghan Webb, the director of Ryerson University's Institute of Corporate Social Responsibility.

"Essentially, upstream 'brands' can insist that suppliers meet certain environmental or social conditions, and they have the market power (and the infrastructure and the sophistication) to push change through their supply chain," Webb wrote in an email to CBC News.

But he notes, "I’m not suggesting that such programs are 'the answer' and I’m not suggesting that they don’t have significant limitations."

Without any punitive consequences, the cocoa industry failed to meet the Harkin-Engel 2005 deadline. And so it was pushed to 2008. And then to 2010. 

And finally, 2020.

Child labour-free a 'dubious' claim, says expert

Chocolate companies are making gradual strides.

For example, last month Hershey's announced that 18 per cent of all cocoa the company sourced globally was certified ethical, and that it was "on track to meet its goal of sourcing 100 per cent certified cocoa by 2020."

But the ILO is skeptical of the notion of child labour-free chocolate. 

"It's a very dubious claim, really," said Smith. 

Smith said the cocoa industry in West Africa depends on child labour, and with a million farms dotting the remote rural landscape, "it's very difficult to guarantee that no child labour was used in the chocolate effort."

His ILO colleague, Alex Soho, agreed. Soho said labour inspectors are few in number and the remote locations of cocoa plantations make it very difficult for the inspectors to do their jobs properly. 

When it comes to certification programs such as Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance, Smith said those generally only guarantee price premiums, which "can help alleviate some of the drivers of child labour." 

"Beyond guarantee of price, there is no guarantee frankly.”

He said certification has been a distraction and that there's currently a shift from certification of chocolate to boosting livelihoods and reducing poverty in the farming communities. Smith and Soho credit the industry for playing a large part, including working in coalition groups like the International Cocoa Initiative.

"They recognized that child labour is not sustainable to their supply."

Hotchkiss is of the same opinion. She said her work with the World Vision campaign shows her that companies are responding and bowing to public pressure because "Canadians are, in fact, interested in buying ethical products."

She points to the Good Chocolate Guide. There are more companies on the list today compared to last year. 


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