On February 22, 2016 our group had the pleasure of meeting Carla Martin, Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) and lecturer at Harvard University in the Department of African and African American Studies. We were lucky enough to have Carla come speak to us in person, since she is local to the area. At 9:30 in the morning, we happily snacked on fine dark chocolate while she began her discussion about the complex historical context within which chocolate has become one of the largest industries in the world.

Chocolate is massive. Carla pointed out that the chocolate industry amasses about $100 billion per year, with an industry value that is larger than the GDPs of 130 countries. She also referenced that in 2015, Americans ate 12 pounds of chocolate per person on average. As an avid (perhaps slightly addicted) chocolate consumer myself, I would not be surprised if my annual chocolate consumption were three times that amount.

Despite the joy it brings to many of its consumers, chocolate represents vast inequalities beginning with its historical origins. The history of cacao production is inextricably linked to the tradition of forced and exploitative labor systems in the Atlantic region. Brutal forced labor systems like the economienda system in the Americas and the chattel slavery system in Africa, as well as the Transatlantic slave trade were instrumental to the success of cacao as a commodity crop. Even after slavery was abolished, there still remained a tradition of exploitative labor within the cacao farming industry for many, many decades.

The inequality inherent in chocolate goes beyond the history of slavery and exploitative labor. Carla explained to us that Europe and North America currently consume around 75% of the world’s chocolate, whereas Africa consumes only 4% but produces 75% of the world’s cacao. Tens of millions of people around the world rely on cacao for their livelihoods, since the majority of cacao is produced on smallholder farms. Given the incredible profits the chocolate industry generates, you might expect cacao farmers to make a decent living. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. The image below (click to make larger), shared by Carla during her presentation, shows the typical distribution of profits from chocolate.


[Source: Carla Martin, presentation to Tufts]

The industrialization and consolidation of the chocolate value chain by the “Big Five,” (Cadbury, Mars, Nestle, Hershey’s, and Ferrero) has vastly widened the disconnect between cacao farmers and consumers, making it nearly impossible to track cacao origins in chocolate products or know the price that farmers receive for their cacao. Carla spoke about the anonymization of chocolate production and cacao sourcing, which has become the norm as a result of a few somewhat deliberate actions from large chocolate companies, namely standardization of recipes, which serves to obscure the origins of cacao. Because of its historical origins, the chocolate system is designed to work at scale, making it difficult for smaller chocolate companies to source directly from farmers. Even transparency reports from smaller, more “ethically sourced” chocolate companies often are unable to know the farm-gate price, since exporters obscure the price and there are many middlemen between farmer and buyer.


[Source: Philips and Tallontire 2007] http://www.egrg.rgs.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/egrg_wp0407-Phillips-and-Tallontire.pdf

One of the most interesting aspects of Carla’s presentation was her discussion of the present-day labor conditions for West African cacao farmers, and the subtle difference between forced and unfree labor. Smallholder cacao farmers in West Africa face many challenges, including a complicated system of land ownership and landlessness, as well as labor challenges, since harvesting cacao is very labor intensive and largely done by hand. Cacao farming is particularly dangerous for child laborers, many of whom are using sharp machetes, carrying heavy loads, and spraying chemicals that can be damaging to their health.

Chocolate consumers have been shocked in the past by high profile expositions of child slavery in the chocolate industry. Carla points out, however, that the vast majority of child cacao laborers in West Africa are not slaves or trafficked, but are “unfree” laborers in the sense that they are pressured to become part of the family labor pool as a result of social and family dynamics. This more complex labor problem is one that Carla fears most Americans don’t understand.

One of the most important takeaways from Carla’s discussion is that although it is clear that the chocolate industry as it currently operates perpetuates a system of unfree labor for cacao producers, there has to be a viable alternative to the current system in order for things to change. Industry responds to consumer demand for change. There has already been a boom in fine and craft chocolate retailers who source small quantities of high quality cacao as directly as possible from farmers. Carla and the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute aim to increase consumer education and awareness of fine chocolate and the complex labor issues surrounding it, so that consumers can make choices that push value down the supply chain and generate demand for a different system. Change to the chocolate industry will require a grassroots approach beginning with consumers and advocates, rather than a top-down approach from industry.

Concerned about my own chocolate consumption (and regretting the bar of chocolate I had just eaten during her presentation), I asked Carla how, going forward, I can make sure that I am being a responsible consumer of cacao products. Her advice to me and to other chocolate consumers centers on increased education and comprehension of the complex historical and present-day labor inequality in cacao farming regions. Improved education means an end to denial of the problem. As consumers, we can help galvanize change by putting our money where our values are. If we pay more for cacao, we push value down the supply chain. If we pay for fine chocolate that prioritizes labor issues, we show our demand for companies that pay attention to these issues.

One issue with this approach is the fact that there are so many labels on chocolate products touting “free trade” and “ethical sourcing,” but understanding the details of what each of these labels means is often very difficult for consumers. Students at Friedman know better than most that voluntary labels on food products can be misleading and confusing, so it is up to the committed consumer to do the research. I’m curious about the impact of consumer demand on such a consolidated industry, but as we’ve seen before it can bring about significant change. The key challenge for organizations like FCCI will be to unravel the complexity of the chocolate trade and to help consumers understand exactly what type of chocolate they should be purchasing, because right now the fine chocolate market is difficult to navigate.