By Emily McClements, Contributing Writer
I settled in on the couch with my laptop and a few pieces of candy leftover from our Christmas stockings to watch two documentaries exposing the rampant use of forced child labor on cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast of Africa.
The candy I was savoring? You guessed it – mass-produced mini chocolate bars. My stomach churned as I realized the irony.
Chocolate. Rich and sweet and delicious. A luxury. And yet not really.
The average American consumes about 11 pounds of chocolate per year, and globally chocolate is an $83 billion-a-year business. (source)
But how to do we get to be so lucky; indulging our chocolate cravings abundantly and inexpensively?
Child Labor and the Chocolate Industry
In fact, our cheap, excessive chocolate habit does come at a price. A price paid for with the lives of exploited children.
The U.S. State Department estimates that 109,000 children work in “the worst forms of child labor” and 10,000 children are victims of trafficking or enslavement on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, a country that produces 40 percent of the worlds chocolate supply. (source)
In one of the documentaries I watched as research for this post, Chocolate: The Bitter Truth, the investigative reporter sets out to purposefully buy cocoa beans from a farm using child labor. He then attempts to sell those beans to one of the major multi-national chocolate brands like Mars, Nestle, Hershey or Cadbury.
He also makes his own chocolate bar using the beans and creates a fake brand name with a label clearly stating that child labor was used to produce the chocolate. He takes his “Child Labor Chocolate Bar” and tries to sell it on the streets.
Image by John Loo/Flickr
People’s responses were unsurprising. They adamantly denied they would ever buy chocolate made by child labor, with horrified looks on their faces.
Wouldn’t our response be the same? Doesn’t the thought of young children harvesting cocoa beans so that you can enjoy your chocolate bar make your stomach turn and your heart ache?
Yet, if we’ve ever purchased chocolate from the major chocolate producing companies, we’ve most certainly purchased chocolate made from cocoa beans produced by child labor.
I understand it is tempting to stick our heads in the sand and pretend like we don’t know these atrocities are happening today, right now, somewhere in our world.
In the documentary, one of the ladies they talked to on the street was asked if she had ever purchased a chocolate bar before. “Of course,” was her reply, “but we don’t know about it (child labor).”
As if not knowing somehow absolves us from responsibility for the impact our choices have on the people–the children–who produce our chocolate.
No, not knowing about it is not an acceptable answer. Now we do know, and so we must respond.
An Ethical Response
I also understand feeling totally overwhelmed and completely inadequate to make any kind of difference in an issue as huge and global and complicated as this. I mean, really, most of us on our own (even if we really wanted to) do not have the power to change the standards of major chocolate companies.
We cannot make them commit to only buying child-labor-free cocoa beans. And most of us do not have the power to change government economic policies in our own countries, let alone countries on the other side of the world.
Image by globalexchange.org
We still have a choice, though.
We can choose to turn a blind eye to injustice toward God’s vulnerable children on the other side of the world.
Or, we can choose to change the way we purchase chocolate in a way that protects those precious children. That is something that is within our power.
Chocolate and coffee are not God-given rights (although most of us probably wish they were).
They are the luxuries of living in first-world, wealthy nations.
And our luxuries should not come at the expense and exploitation of vulnerable adults and children whose names we don’t know but whose faces we cannot erase once we have seen their suffering.
Because while the choice of what kind of chocolate (or coffee) we buy may seem like a small thing, it does have great significance.
Because it reflects the attitude of our hearts. We can either have an attitude of entitlement and selfishness, “Well, I like chocolate and I can’t afford fair-trade organic chocolate, so what do you expect me to do?”
Or our response can be compelled by a love for Christ and His people, wherever they may be in the world. “Yes, I do love chocolate and I wish I could have it every day. But I love and care about God’s people more. If it means I have to go without chocolate for a while so I can save to buy fair-trade chocolate, I will do that.”
Because our choices, however small they may seem, can have a great impact.
“Not all of us can do great things, But we can do small things with great love” – Mother Teresa
Put yourself in the shoes of the women whose children have been stolen and trafficked to become slaves in the cocoa industry. Put your children in the shoes of the children who are forced to work in dangerous conditions for little-to-no pay on the cocoa farms.
And ask yourself what you would want someone like you – a wealthy, first-world consumer to do.
We Can Make a Difference
We may not be able to change the entire chocolate industry, but if we can make an impact in the life of just one child on a cocoa farm, isn’t that worth it? And maybe our dreams of changing the chocolate industry aren’t so far-fetched after all.
If all of us together seek out fair-trade alternatives for our chocolate we are telling the chocolate industry that we will not tolerate the exploitation of children to produce cheap, abundant chocolate. We are voting with our dollars.
And no, the fair-trade certification program is not perfect. But fair-trade chocolate is a giant leap in the right direction. And at this point it is a far superior alternative to buying mainstream chocolate just because fair-trade is not perfect.
And of course we respond to this issue, and so many others like it, with grace and love toward each other as we figure out what this means for us and our families, and what it looks like in our day-to-day lives.
Because truthfully, we cannot all do this perfectly all the time (as evidenced by my story at the beginning of this post!). But we can do the best we can, making changes as the choices come before us to live out our faith and love our neighbors on the other side of the world in a seemingly small yet extremely meaningful way.
How have you responded to learning about the issues related to child labor and slavery in the chocolate industry? Have your buying habits changed? Do you believe that your choices can make an impact?
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