It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like chocolate. We associate the stuff with all of our favourite things – romance, gifts, luxury, appreciation and sensuality – and in the past cocoa beans were even used as currency. Our level of indulgence in it is often seen as self care, and that’s when it’s almost obvious presence isn’t taken for granted entirely. Given the fact that it’s ubiquitous and often inexpensive it’s no wonder that one aspect of it is frequently overlooked. The real price of chocolate is often not the number on the shelf in the supermarket.
Chocolate lines super market aisles as fillings, coatings, chocolate chips, hot drinks, cold drinks, spreads and flavourings. It’s in our breakfast cereal and our desserts – sometimes even our scented candles and lotions. The fact that we want to surround ourselves with it should tell us something about how special it is, and yet the fact that we do so trivialises it too. One thing stays the same, however, and that’s that it’s near impossible to imagine a world without it.
According to Gulnaz Khan, writing for Ted Ideas, “Worldwide people consume over 7 million tons of chocolate each year…In the US, the average person consumes 12 pounds (5.5 kilograms) of the sweet per year, while the British, Germans and Swiss clock in at over 17 pounds (8 kilograms)”. At this point, we’re almost made of the stuff, so it seems bizarre that so few of us really know the true cost of chocolate.
In order to truly appreciate the real price of chocolate, we need to consider a few factors. Firstly, the fact that chocolate is produced from beans of the cocoa plant, which is a finicky one to grow. It requires very specific conditions in order to thrive, and these can only be found in a narrow belt within 20 degrees north and south of the equator.
With such limited space in which to grow the plant, frenzied consumers push producers to clear land in order to grow more of it. “Our ravenous demand for chocolate is driving people worldwide to clear forests for cacao farmland,” writes Khan. “In the Côte d’Ivoire, for example, more than 80 percent of the country’s forested areas have vanished between 1960 and 2010″.
This naturally means encroaching on areas that are, or that should be, protected – which has a devastating impact on the environment and the wildlife within in it. The real numbers of protected land that’s being consumed by our desire for valentines treats is alarming. According to Khan, “In the Côte d’Ivoire, an investigation by the environmental nonprofit Mighty Earth found that almost half of Mont Peko and Marahoue national parks were lost to cocoa plantations since 2000. In Indonesia, 1.7 million acres of forest — home to elephants and critically endangered orangutan, rhino and tiger populations — were cleared for cocoa plantations between 1988 and 2007. In Peru, which saw a five-fold increase in cocoa production between 1990 and 2013, satellite images revealed that thousands of acres of Amazon rainforest were cleared for cocoa trees”.
It’s not hard to see how all this deforestation then fuels climate change which, in an unfortunate cyclical act of seemingly karmic retribution, further harms cocoa production. That innocuous bar of chocolate has, therefore, done a whole lot more to fuel climate change than is usually acknowledged – you certainly wont’t see that number on the packaging. According to a report by MightyEarth.org, chocolate “truly is a guilty pleasure”.
One of the reports most striking discoveries was that ” for years the world’s major chocolate companies have been buying cocoa grown through the illegal deforestation of national parks and other protected forests, in addition to driving extensive deforestation outside of protected areas”. In fact, “many of Ivory Coast’s national parks and protected
areas have been entirely or almost entirely cleared of forest and replaced with cocoa growing operations”. And this unsustainable model of production continues to grow as our demand for chocolate increases.
Monumental environmental damage aside, the average farmer, labouring to keep this $100 billion industry afloat, earns a mere $.50-$1.25 USD per day.
Clearly, when we look at the bigger picture – all of the factors that make up the real price of chocolate – this tasty treat doesn’t seem so affordable. According to Khan, “more than 80 percent of cocoa comes from 7 to 8 million small family farms who can barely afford basic necessities”. They have very little say over global prices, and are entirely at the mercy of price volatility. This perpetuates chains of extreme poverty, which in turn perpetuate the use of child labour, which along with child trafficking, frequently occurs when planters require cheaper labour.
A whopping three-quarters of the people in the Côte d’Ivoire rely on the chocolate industry for their livelihoods, and as they’re already earning less than ten percent of every chocolate bar sold, persistently low prices ensure that they’ll remain trapped in poverty.
What do chocolate companies do to alleviate the situation?
According to Khan, “The major chocolate brands have pledged to eliminate child labor and slavery in their supply chains, but in 2019, The Washington Post reported that Hershey, Mars and Nestlé couldn’t guarantee their chocolates were produced without child labor. In fact, The US Department of Labor estimates that 1.48 million children are still ‘engaged in hazardous work’ in Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire”.
It’s clear that these companies aren’t overly concerned about how their products are manufactured, as long as they can sell them for higher profits. This means the onus is on individual consumers to consider how much they themselves value the environment and human lives when calculating the real price of chocolate and filling their shopping baskets.
What can consumers do?
Being a consumer puts us all in positions of power. Our decisions can fuel market change and potentially rectify many of the wrongs that force millions of others to live in poverty. Not to mention, our decisions – even the small ones – can collectively have a massive impact on the rate of climate change and the health of the planet.
It’s well within our power as consumers to look into the labour and sourcing practices of the companies we buy from. We can also make some simple, small changes, writes Khan, that can have a positive impact on not only individual farmers, but on African nations and the planet as a whole. Here’s how to do that:
Don’t stop buying chocolate: Going cold turkey may do more harm than good, as so many people rely on the industry to survive. Instead of buying no chocolate, learn to be smarter about what you do buy. That brings us to our second point.
Shop smart: Do your homework by researching your company of choice on websites like The Good Shopping guide, Ethical Consumer and Shop ethical!. Khan also recommends looking for chocolate that is “independently certified by the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ or Fairtrade, groups which monitor environmental and labor conditions”. This is important, because your purchases indicate to producers and retailers that you want more ethical products.
Appreciate your chocolate more: Instead of seeing chocolate as an every day thing that doesn’t hold much value, consider the millions of people slaving away at below minimum wage in order to get it to you. Think about the vast tracts of land that are being destroyed, and the wildlife being endangered in order for you to indulge in that chocolate bar. Appreciating something’s true value can often mean paying more for it. Think of it as a good wine, or an excellent coffee. Sometimes it’s worth paying a little extra for something you truly appreciate.
The Mayans knew chocolate’s worth. They thought of it as the food of the gods. They traded with it. They respected it. Somehow, we’ve forgotten the true value of this thing we often see wrapped in brightly coloured plastic. By simply remembering the real price of chocolate – the impact it has on livelihoods and on the planet – we have the power to change an extremely damaging industry and turn that guilty pleasure into pleasure alone . By paying slightly more, and by being a tad more selective we, as a collective, can save the world from the growing destruction the chocolate industry has wrought. Doesn’t that make you feel powerful?