Setting the bar for sustainability in the cocoa industry

Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash

Welcome back everyone! I hope you had a lovely holiday season with your loved ones and I wish you a very Happy New Year. I am very excited to continue writing these articles throughout 2022. Thank you for your support, feedback, and ideas throughout 2021.

The holiday season definitely did me a world of good, taking the time to relax and connect with friends and family. It was definitely a time to indulge in small pleasures such as the excessive consumption of chocolate.

One pleasure some have treated themselves to is an advent calendar. Who could resist daily doses of chocolate?

Globalisation and cocoa: bean there done that

The agriculture of cocoa beans dates back thousands of years with the plant being domesticated by the Aztecs and the Mayans. The Aztecs revered cocoa, believing it to be a gift of the gods. The consumption of cocoa beverages was ceremonious, with the Aztecs even using beans as a form of currency.

Through colonialism that decimated South American populations, cocoa beans were brought back to Europe by the Spanish Conquistadors. Found to be too bitter to the European pallet, the Spanish added sugar to sweeten chocolate.

While the production method and discovery of cocoa was kept secret by Spain for over 100 years, it soon spread to the rest of western Europe. Technological advances and the mechanisation of production throughout the Industrial Revolution significantly expanded the reach of chocolate.

Nowadays, we produce 4.7 million tons of cocoa annually with nearly 75% of that production coming from Africa. What started as the cultivation of cocoa beans in the equatorial regions of America is now an industry worth billions of dollars, albeit with significant environmental and social drawbacks.

Bitter about the social and environmental impact of the cocoa industry

It is not something you want to read but the reality is that for most of the chocolate we consume, there is slavery and child labour in its supply chain. According to the US Labor Department, more than 2 million children in West Africa were working in the cocoa industry in 2015.

These issues of child labour and slavery are exacerbated by highly volatile commodity prices which can expose farmers to extreme poverty. When cocoa farmers are paid $1.45 for a kilogram of produce, you can imagine how international price variabilities approaching 20% can easily plunge communities into poverty.

As cocoa farmers can earn less than a dollar per day, some farmers use child labour on their farms in order to remain competitive. Child trafficking leads to children as young as 5 years old being sold into slavery. Separated from their families, the children are deprived of education and forced to engage in dangerous working conditions requiring the use of machetes and toxic chemicals.

Beyond the social atrocities arising in chocolate supply chains comes a host of environmental issues. Increasing global demand for cocoa products and scarce land has led to rising deforestation. In the Ivory Coast, for example, it is estimated that 70% of the country’s illegal deforestation is tied to cocoa farming.

More worryingly, the physical impacts of climate change will impact cocoa farmers through increasing temperatures and shifts in weather patterns which will impact labour productivity and agricultural yield.

You are probably thinking: “Wow, thank you Pierre. On top of feeling guilty about the amount of chocolate I eat, I now also have the environmental and social impact of the industry on my conscience. I really needed this doom and gloom story!” This is not the objective of this article as there is always a solution to highlight.

Tony’s solution

Coming back to our advent calendar, one company used the occasion to send a powerful message. Tony’s Chocolonely intentionally left out window eight to highlight the inequality arising in the chocolate industry.

The company was founded by Teun van de Keun, a Dutch journalist who investigated how pervasive child labour and modern slavery were in West African Cocoa farms. After being dismissed by the largest chocolate makers, he took the matter into his own hands and created Tony’s Chocolonely.

A B-Corporation since 2013, Tony’s Chocolonely have disrupted the chocolate industry by providing 100% slave-free chocolate to consumers. They have focused their work in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where 1.56 million children work illegally and 30,000 individuals are victims of modern slavery.

The company has ensured bean-to-bar traceability and transparency by working directly with cocoa farmers and cooperatives, circumventing cocoa traders who benefit from keeping the purchasing price low.

Tony’s Chocolonely also pays its farmers premiums to ensure their suppliers are paid a living income. These are long-term commitments to their partners, with higher sale prices agreed for five years, providing income security. Nearly $4 million has been paid in premiums by the company, with over 9% of the retail price of their bars going to cocoa farmers.

These long-term partnerships have also reaped positive environmental impact as by working closely with farmers, they can encourage them to implement climate-friendly production methods such as minimising the use of pesticides. More widely, Tony’s Chocolonely has measured and offset their operational and supply chain emissions, leading them to achieve carbon neutrality.

In the end, it’s not just a doom and gloom story. I take great joy in writing these articles and seeing that companies are proactively working to address social and environmental issues. I’d encourage you to work for them, or even create your own company. I’d make sure to write an article about it!



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Pierre-Louis Godin

Pierre-Louis Godin


Always looking to learn more about environmental sustainability and climate change. I'll mostly be writing about these topics!