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This Valentine’s Day, going slave-free is the most romantic gift to me

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Typically packaged with pretty ribbons, luxurious tins and heart-shaped boxes, chocolates have become synonymous with Valentine’s Day and the romantic, indulgent spirit associated with the holiday. In fact, a significant 69% of Americans prefer receiving a nice box of chocolates to more traditional displays of affection like a bouquet of flowers. Under all that satin and lace, however, lies an extra-dark (99%) secret of sorts: Chocolate and child enslavement tend to go hand in hand.

Now, I’m sure none of this comes as a surprise given the current (sad) state of our world, and as unfortunate as it is, millions of Americans are still going to purchase their confections from the plethora of big name, big business brands that perpetuate the problem. Even so, with a little Valentine’s Day magic, maybe, just maybe, this article will convince you to break free from Hershey’s (overly) sweet kisses and shell out those few extra dollars for ethically sourced, slave-free cocoa that you, too, can feel good about eating.

Let’s start with the basics: what is chocolate, and where does it come from anyway?

Most people are familiar with the fact that America’s favorite candy confection is a derivative of the cocoa crop. It is grown in a belt of countries within an approximate vertical range of 20 degrees about the equator, and much like its fellow tropical crop coffee, raw cacao has a harsh, bitter taste to it — hence our natural tendency to do what human beings (and especially Americans) do best: process the sh*t out of it!

What we now know and love as “chocolate” is actually a mixture of cocoa solids (the “healthy,” non-fat superfood stuff) and some sugar, milk and soy lecithin “glue” to hold it all together (and, funnily enough, make it more palatable). That percentage you see on chocolate bars? It corresponds to the proportion of cocoa solids used in the final product. Additionally, for extra indulgence, some chocolatiers will even mix in some cocoa butter — the same fragrant compound we prize in our lotions and lip balms. 

While Americans spend (and consume) nearly $1 billion worth of chocolate every year on Valentine’s Day, we owe its widespread availability and abundance to West Africa. Today, West African countries produce an astounding 70% of the world’s cocoa, with Côte d’Ivoire alone responsible for 43% of the world’s cocoa. In fact, nearly 40% of the country’s population works in cocoa farming, making economies like these highly dependent on cocoa production.

Taking advantage of this dependence is unfortunately easy. Every day, children are sold to cocoa farms as slaves for the ultra-low price of $250 per child. An estimated one-third of the world’s slaves are children, and around 1.8 million of them are subject to the Worst Forms of Child Labor conditions set by the United Nations. 

Surely something has been done … right?

To the credit of our nation (for once), multiple attempts have been made to address the impact and prevalence of child labor in the American economy, though, unfortunately, they have been largely unsuccessful.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton attempted to take action by issuing Executive Order No. 13126, which stated that federal agencies were prohibited from purchasing products made by enslaved children, including cocoa. “Cocoa-derivatives” (chocolate), however, were not included under the mandate, so soldiers continued to unknowingly indulge in the dark fruits (beans?) of child labor.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol, signed in September 2001, aimed to directly address problems in the cocoa industry by forcing industry leaders to work with NGOs to “monitor and remedy” abusive forms of child labor in the growing and processing of cocoa beans. While this looked good on paper, it turned out to be incredibly difficult to enforce, and the initial goal of implementing certification standards by 2005 has been extended several times over. Furthermore, the protocol is criticized for only incentivizing improvement in symptoms of child labor — think: checking specific tasks off a checklist — rather than attacking its source: corruption. 

That brings us to one of the major issues at play here: The metaphorical “root” of the bloodied cocoa plant isn’t restricted to American soil. The prevalence of profit-driven, power-hungry plantation owners and similarly greedy chocolate companies spur corruption within the supply chain. To complicate matters further, the United States doesn’t even make the top five countries worldwide that consume the most chocolate per capita. While we can and should strive to “cleanse” the cocoa industry, it’s clear that surmounting these challenges will require greater international efforts and cooperation.

What is slave-free chocolate?

Founded in 2007 in response to growing concerns over chocolate sourcing, Slave Free Chocolate is a self-described “grassroots organization” that promotes public awareness of the use of Worst Forms of Child Labor and child slavery in the cocoa farms of West Africa. Part of the group’s mission is to advocate for a “No Slavery Here” certification system and stamp for cocoa products.

As is the case of many NGOs, its website might come off as a bit holier-than-thou, but the core principles are all there, and they have a respectable goal: simplify the process of purchasing ethically sourced products for lazy consumers (and maybe sprinkle in some positive education!). 

Want to really impress your date? Nothing screams chocolate-y indulgence like these Fair Trade, organic and child-labor-free labels. (Photo: Slave Free Chocolate)

Great, I’m a lazy consumer. Where can I buy ethically sourced chocolate?

A good place to start is this list from the Slave Free Chocolate website. While it isn’t comprehensive, it provides useful links to several ethical chocolate brands (and gives you an excuse to drool over their online products). A word of caution if you choose the grocery store route, however: Not all certifications guarantee slave-free production, as many of these programs focus on improving general poverty conditions that may contribute to the use of child labor rather than targeting slavery itself. My advice? Stick to the list, but if you want to go that extra mile, check out local vendors who tend to be more open about their sourcing.

In the spirit of what is, in my opinion, one of the corniest holidays around, I’ll leave you with this final note: This Valentine’s Day, show the people you love that you care not just about them, but also about the millions of children enslaved by cocoa farms around the world. Choosing slave-free chocolate is choosing love. 

Contact Carissa Lee at carislee ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Carissa Lee '22 is a writer for Arts & Life's Culture beat, an account manager for The Daily's Ad Sales team, and a member of the Social Media team. Her primary interests include Oxford commas, visual arts, and the culinary world--hence her passion for all things Arts & Life. When she's not obsessively scrolling through "Bon Appetit's" Instagram feed or going on long runs at 6 am to feel "productive," she is studying to major in Human Biology, with the intent to pursue a medical degree. Contact her anytime at carislee 'at' stanford.edu.