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The Humanitarian Side of Everything: Coffee and Chocolate

Welcome to "The Humanitarian Side of Everything: Creating Positive Impact in Your Daily Life" on Listenable! This is Lesson Seven, and I'm your host, Alexa.

What's better than a cup of coffee in the morning? Only a delicious chocolate bar to go with it.

In Lesson Seven, we're talking about the humanitarian side of coffee and chocolate- two of the world's most lucrative goods.

Let's start with coffee. Most of the world's coffee is grown in Africa and Latin America by farmers who sell their beans to larger companies. Unfortunately, volatile prices and weather can drastically affect how farmers are compensated for their beans.

In Guatemala, climate change has significantly hurt coffee growers. Many are subsistence farmers already subject to poverty – but climate change that makes their land infertile and unusable for agriculture has turned many of these farmers into climate migrants.

While today we enjoy sipping on Guatemalan coffee, climate change will likely wipe out the once-lucrative business. Warming temperatures contribute to coffee rusts. Climate change increases the frequency of droughts and floods. As a result, production is decreased or - in the worst cases - destroyed. This plunges farmers deeper into poverty.

Your chocolate is tied up in similarly devastating social impacts. According to a 2020 report, there are about 1.6 million children laborers on cocoa plantations in West Africa.

Child labor and even slavery have been a problem in chocolate supply chains for quite a while. In 2000, reports surfaced about child labor in the supply chains of companies like Nestle and Mars. Children worked in dangerous conditions harvesting cocoa on plantations in West Africa, where most of the world's cocoa is grown. In response, Congress passed the non-binding Harkin-Engel Protocol, under which several major companies pledged to root out the worst forms of child labor and slavery from their supply chains. However, the companies have repeatedly missed checkpoints and haven't made progress towards eradicating forced labor. A report showed that child slavery has actually increased on cocoa plantations since 2000.

As consumers, no one wants to eat chocolate harvested by children or slaves. But it's difficult to hold major companies accountable for their actions. Beyond advocating for greater transparency in supply chains and accountability for companies that violate the most basic human rights, consumers should educate themselves about the food that they eat.

Tony's Chocolonely is a chocolate company that ensures they don't use slave labor and advocates for a slave-free cocoa industry. Activism is central to their brand – from educational tools on its website to an annual impact report that showcases their efforts to produce slave-free chocolate.

Like other sustainable and equitable brands, Tony's Chocolonely is committed to paying their workers a living wage. They do this by paying their farmers an additional premium on top of the Fair Trade premium. This results in higher prices for their chocolate, but it ensures that the market price of their chocolate bars will provide farmers with a living income.

There's a long way to go in eradicating child labor and slavery from the chocolate supply chains and from many other supply chains. A 2015 report from Tulane University, and more recently a Washington Post investigation, demonstrate the prevalence of illegal labor practices and human rights abuses. As a social enterprise, Tony's Chocolonely is leading the charge, but action by consumers, institutions, and governments seems necessary to confront a growing problem. The existence of child labor cannot be separated from governance and poverty issues in West Africa.

What you eat is a humanitarian issue. From this closer look at coffee and chocolate, we've learned some of the specific issues in the food industry. As consumers, we can make a difference. We'll learn more about that in our next lesson about ethical businesses.

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Written by

Alexa Bussmann