I’m the mother of four children, age two to six. That means I’ve spent six Halloweens supervising my kids as they canvas our neighborhood, snapping up chocolates from our neighbors. I only discovered last year that my kids were collecting the products of child laborers, some of whom have been trafficked for the chocolate trade.
Every October, American kids like mine are treated to a wide array of chocolates—Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Butterfingers—because hundreds of thousands of children in West Africa are enslaved harvesting cocoa beans. These children are performing this work for the benefit of most of the mainstream chocolate providers in the United States. A report from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and other African countries estimated there were 284,000 children working on cocoa farms in hazardous conditions. Many of them have been taken from their families and sold as servants. U.S. chocolate manufacturers have claimed they are not responsible for the conditions on cocoa plantations, since they don't own them. This group includes Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and the U.S. division of Cadbury. Collectively, they are responsible for pretty much every snack-size candy bar available in stores this Halloween.
The connection between major candy bar manufacturers and child slavery is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. I consider myself proactive about educating myself about social justice issues, and yet I only found out last year by way of a documentary produced by the BBC. I was shocked to learn that the International Labor Rights Fund has sued the U.S. government for failing to enforce laws prohibiting the import of products made with child labor. And I was even more surprised to hear that the chocolate industry has blown by numerous deadlines set by Congress to begin regulating itself. A few major chocolate companies have mounted some smoke-and-mirror campaigns over the past year, either offering obscure fair-trade chocolate bars in addition to their slave-made materials or making a big show of donating to charities that support farmers. This does not change the fact that they refuse to be accountable for human rights abuses of children in their supply chains.
What concerns me even more is that we, as consumers, are not demanding that this be stopped. Some continue to buy chocolate even after learning about these human rights abuses. I’ve heard excuses from people in my own life, and they echo the rationalizations I’ve made myself in the past: "We can’t afford fair-trade." "We’re addicted to chocolate." "We can’t change everything." Secretly, we just don’t relate because these are kids in a far-off country instead of our own. It’s ok as long as we don’t have to see it happening right in front of us. We’ll take the candy bar.
I’m here to ruin it for you. Now you know. We can’t look away. Our family has limited its chocolate purchases to free-trade, but Halloween poses a unique challenge. Kids are bombarded with big-brand marketing on Halloween, and may be looking forward to some of the candy bars that we know to be unethical. Fair-trade chocolate is not always presented in a way that appeals to young kids, but there are options out there packaged in kid-friendly, seasonal wrapping. Candy that doesn't contain chocolate is always an option, too.
This Halloween, my family is breaking up with commercial chocolate and buying fair-trade. I hope you will, too.
Now read about where to find ethical Halloween candy that doesn't suck.