How to avoid the dark (chocolate) side on Valentine’s Day

Flickr, Bob Fornal

“Everybody loves chocolate.”

That’s the first line of a documentary film called “The Dark Side of Chocolate” in which the film-makers investigate the use of child laborers, slave laborers, on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast where 42 percent of the world’s chocolate production is managed by four leading international corporations.

Using a (sometimes hidden) camera, these journalists interview child traffickers in Africa, representatives of leading chocolate makers and government officials to document the ongoing abuses.

“It moves you to tears,” said Joe Whinney, founder and owner of Seattle’s Theo Chocolate, which bills itself as the only organic, fair trade “bean-to-bar” chocolate manufacturer in the U.S.

“Whenever you buy a Hershey bar or some other conventionally produced chocolate bar, you are buying into an oppressive system that in effect promotes slavery,” said Whinney.

Joe Whinney and Theo Chocolate factory

Yes, it may sound a bit self-serving for those at Theo to say their chocolate is more ethical than their much-larger competitors. But Whinney is not one to mince words and, as I’ve written before, it’s not been an easy path for people like him who are trying to bring about a consumer-directed revolution aimed at reforming an industry long built on unfair business practices and exploitation.

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It’s a call for reform that has lately gained more attention due, in part, to the current political crisis in the Ivory Coast. Here are some news reports that have explored the links between chocolate, human rights, political instability and social equity:

Reuters: Valentine’s Day Chocolate has Activists Blood Boiling

SwissInfo: Bitter Struggle Over Ivory Coast Cocoa

HuffPo: For Valentine’s Day Chocolate, Please Hold the Child Labor

Associated Press: Critics: Chocolate Financing Ivory Coast’s Gbagbo

NPR: Power Struggle Halts Cocoa Exports in Ivory Coast

Foreign Policy: Blood Chocolate: The Dark Side of Valentine’s Day

Whinney says consumers have the power to reform the dark side of the chocolate and cocoa industry.

He doesn’t advocate those who are calling on a cocoa export ban as a means to achieve a political goal in Ivory Coast, noting that the last time they tried this (during the civil war in Ivory Coast a decade ago), all this did was increase smuggling of cocoa beans and allow speculators to drive up the prices to benefit commodities traders.

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If you want to help poor farmers and stop the abuses, Whinney said consumers need to first “peel back the onion” and take a hard look at what they’re buying and where it came from. If you don’t want to take the time to investigate, he says just stick with buying fair trade and organic chocolate.

“It’s not just about Valentine’s Day,” Whinney said. “It’s about doing the right thing every day.”

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.