The bitter truth about chocolate

This page last updated April 7th, 2020
Child labour in West Africa

This page in brief

Most of us enjoy chocolate, but looking behind the scenes of how the cocoa is grown reveals some nasty facts. Many growers are paid low prices that keep them in poverty, and child slave labour is used on some farms.

Action to right these wrongs has been slow, with targets and commitments being missed. But momentum is growing, due in part to consumer advocacy and buying habits. At first, a few smaller chocolate companies sourced their cocoa from Fairtrade or similarly certified growers. Then the larger companies began to make some of their range certified. Now most major companies have developed communiy development plans that they will hopefully complete in the next 5 years, and bring justice to the cocoa industry.

We consumers should continue to keep the pressure on by choosing certified chocolate as much as we can.

Chocolate is big business

The figures on the internet don’t always agree, but here is the best summary I can work out (based on data from 2015-2019):

  • The chocolate confectionary business is worth about $100 billion worldwide.
  • More than 60% of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, with Cote d’Ivoire accounting for about half of this.
  • The world’s cocoa crop is worth about $10 billion per year.
  • 40-50 million people depend on cocoa for their livelihood. However many growers do not receive a living wage.
  • Child labour is common in West Africa and about 2 million children work in the production of cocoa. Most assist on poor family farms – because prices paid to them are so low, this is often the only way a family can make ends meet – but it is estimated that about 20,000 are illegally trafficked and forced to work as slaves under extremely harsh conditions (see Wikipedia).
  • Instead of attending school, some child labourers work up to 12-hour days.

There can be little doubt that some of the chocolate we all eat was grown on plantations which exploit and abuse slave children. Despite the claims and efforts of chocolate companies, this situation seems to have deteriorated slightly since I last updated this page about 4 years ago (an impression supported by external observers).

World response

This situation has been publicised in recent years and slow steps are being made towards alleviating the situation:

  • The cocoa and chocolate (e.g. Nestlé and Hershey) industries, and the governments of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have set up procedures and protocols to reduce slave labour and pay growers a fairer price, but progress so far has been slow. In fact, many reviews indicate the prosperous western chocolate companies haven’t done nearly enough (Washington Post, Raconteur and Wikipedia).
  • Three certification processes, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ (which is now part of Rainforest Alliance) are aimed at guaranteeing the supply chain of certified chocolate is fair. However certified brands account for less than 1% of all chocolates bought, and sometimes things can still go wrong.
  • Larger manufacturers have responded slowly since an agreement in 2001, and several targets to reduce child labour were missed. But the positive change is gathering momentum. Some companies have obtained independent certification for a small part of their range while others have joined industry schemes or set up their own schemes. Several studies show that independent certification is a better guarantee of ethical behaviour, though it is certainly not an absolute guarantee.

Requirements to end child labour

Be Slavery Free (formerly Stop the Traffik) has identified 10 requirements for companies to end trafficking and child labour, and achieve sustainability for the farmers:

  • Annual Third Party Auditing Against International Standards
  • Traceability to Farm Level
  • Committed to Sustainability Logo on 100% of Products
  • Ensuring a Living Income
  • Active Child Labour Monitoring
  • Community Development Program with External Impact Assessment
  • Community Action Plan Devised Through Local Participation
  • Increasing Access to Education for Children
  • Program to Increase Farmer Yields
  • Programs for Female Empowerment and Youth Inclusiveness

Be Slavery Free uses these criteria in its ratings (see table below), and other assessments of the chocolate industry use some of the same criteria.

Positive outcomes?

Despite some positive signs, child trafficking and near-slave labour are still (apparently) rife, and wages and profits in the growing areas are very low. There is still urgent need for improvement, as was agreed at a 2019 World Cocoa Conference in Germany:

  • Fairtrade appears to have more stringent labour requirements than Rainforest Alliance, UTZ and other certification schemes. These three independent schemes guarantee better results than industry schemes.
  • Only about 16% of profits go to the growing countries – growers (7%) and others (9%) – while the chocolate companies (35%) and retailers (44%) in the west receive the bulk of the profits. As a result, Cote d’Ivoire cocoa farmers earn less than a living wage for their families.
  • Chocolate companies have not, so far, been very open about exactly what their practices guarantee and how much (in dollar terms) they actually spend on improving labour conditions in West Africa. It seems they don’t always know which farms their supply comes from.
  • The money spent on poverty alleviation appears to be a small percentage of overall profits, and may be dwarfed by taxation avoidance by the same companies in West Africa. It is estimated that less than $10m of the annual $100bn turnover (less than 0.01%) has been spent on this.
  • Much of the current action appears to be aimed more at improving production and guaranteeing supply than in alleviating poverty, though it isn’t always possible to be sure.
  • If the amount paid to growers was doubled, to enable them to receive a living wage, it would only add about 25c to the price of a $3 chocolate block (provided all other costs remained the same).

Details of manufacturers’ responses so far

I have researched the websites of pressure groups such as Be Slavery Free, several ethical guides, and also chocolate manufacturers, and this is what I have found (star ratings are based on all listed products from that company):


Aldi has two “own brands” (Choceur and Moser Roth) which are both certified Fairtrade, making Aldi one of the highest rated companies (3.5 stars) with some of the most readily available certified chocolate (in Australia at least).


For several years Cadbury used Fairtrade cocoa for some of its products, but a few years back it withdraw from that arrangement in favour of its in-house Cocoa Life scheme. Cadbury and Fairtrade both say the two organisations will continue to work together to improve labour conditions on plantations, and Cadbury has pledged to “reach 200,000 cocoa farmers and a million community members” with a $400 million programme by 2022. But not everyone is impressed, as past programs haven’t always achieved their goals, and the four assessments shown below currently rate Cadbury poorly (1.8 stars).


Nestlé has its own Cocoa Plan which seems to show a strong commitment and some detailed planning to achieve an ethical supply chain and a better quality of life for cocoa farmers. The plan includes training farmers, helping them purchase higher yielding, disease-resistant cocoa trees, refurbishing schools and paying a premium for sustainably sourced cocoa. However its 2020 targets aren’t being achieved and have been deferred to 2025. Be Slavery Free also gives a positive assessment of Nestlé’s admirable aims and programs. Nevertheless, Nestlé currently only rates moderately in the guides (2.2 stars), presumably because of the gap between plan and reality.


Mars appears to be one of the companies more committed to a just supply chain, however like most of the others, progress has been slow. About a decade ago, Mars committed to 100% certification of its supply chain, and currently about half its production is UTZ certified. Then in 2018 it announced an ambitious program in which a $1 billion investment over 10 years would support smallholder farmers and safeguard children and forests. However the achievement date was put back to 2025 and there is little publically available on its progress so far. Mars scores only moderately (2.2 stars) on the ethical guides (see table below).

Ferrero Rocher

In 2012 Ferrero Rocher committed to be slavery free by 2020 and renewed that commitment in 2016. It uses all three certification organisations but recognises more needs to be done. In 2019 it renewed its determination to end child labour via three actions: (1) Sourcing certified and traceable cocoa beans, (2) Partnering with farmer groups and NGOs in projects on the ground, including a joint monitoring program and a Save the Children partnership, and (3) Developing joint actions with multi-stakeholder associations (i.e. industry groups). Ferrero Rocher has improved its rating in recent years and now scores 2.3 stars in the guides.


Lindt has possibly done the most of all the major manufacturers to support ethical practices. It sources most of its cocoa from Ghana, where it claims “the risk of child labour [is] lower because the cocoa market in Ghana has been strictly [state] regulated for years”. Lindt does not use certified cocoa because those sources cannot supply Lindt’s needs, and it chooses to try to control and verify its entire supply chain itself, via a program including traceability and farmer organization; training, knowledge transfer and internal monitoring; farmer investments and community development; and verification and continuous progress. Lindt has the highest score of the major manufactuers (3.3 stars) in the assessments in the table below.


Hershey is another company that committed to 100% certification by 2020, and it upgraded its commitment to stop child labour in 2018, when it introduced its Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation System of “Prevention, Detection, Remediation and Reporting”. A review of 34 thousand children living in cocoa communities at that time found only 8.7% were engaged in inappropriate work, and none were the victims of forced labour, although sometimes false information is given to certifiers. However, as with others of the big companies, it isn’t clear how much Hershey has fulfilled its aims, and so it is rated as 2.3 stars.

Other companies

There are a number of smaller companies that focus on sustainability and wage justice, and charge a generally higher price to achieve this. Most would be rated 4 or 5 star. Notable among these are:

  • Haighs (UTZ certified) and Chocolatier are highly rated Australian chocolate makers.
  • Divine is part owned by Ghanian growers, is Fairtrade and sells in USA and UK.
  • The Good Trade and Fairtrade list a number of smaller ethical and sustainable companies selling in the US.
  • Alter Eco is a sustainable manufacturer selling in Australia and USA.
  • The Good Shopping Guide lists a number of highly rated manufacturers selling in the UK.
  • Tony’s Chocolonely is a successful European company set up to be 100% slavery free. I have tried it, courtesy of a friend from the Netherlands who sent me a 1 kg block in the mail, and it is delicious!

In summary

The following table shows the how some well known chocolate brands score on four different guides. The are some inconsistencies because some assessments were made several years ago, and some companies are beginning to improve their supply chain. Also, chocolate sources may be different in different countries.

This table is just a guide. You should check out these guides for yourself – see the links at the bottom of this page.

CompanyBe Slavery FreeGood Shopping
Shop Ethical
Darrell Lea👎✭✭✭✭
Ferrero Rocher✭✭✭✭✭✭✭✭✭
Green & Blacks (Mondelez)✭✭
Kinder (Ferrero)✭✭✭
KitKat (Nestlé)✭✭✭
M&Ms (Mars)✭✭
Smarties (Nestlé)✭✭✭
Toblerone (Mondelez)✭✭
Tony’s Chocolonely✭✭✭✭✭

The big picture

It is apparent that:

  • Most large companies have consistently not met their own commitments over a decade.
  • Most have made new commitments for 2025 that look good on paper.
  • Consumer advocacy and buying habits have surely made a difference by putting pressure on the major manufacturers.
  • Certification schemes have not delivered as much as we all might have hoped. Companies have been wary of signing up to schemes that may not supply their needs.
  • Most major companies now use a combination of their own in-house community development programs with some independent verification and/or certification. If followed, these schemes have great promise and will likely do better than could be achieved by certification. But it remains to be seen whether the schemes will be sufficiently transparent and the companies will actually, this time, keep to their commitments.

With growers only receiving about 7% of the price of a chocolate block, it wouldn’t cost western chocolate eaters much to double their income. This should surely be our minimal aim.

While smaller manufacturers will always have their place (hopefully), for the sake of the growers it is the big 6 that are most important. If Lindt, Mars, Nestlé, Mondelez, Ferrero and Hershey’s set the standard and fulfil their commitments, the rest will surely follow.


Making a difference

We, the chocolate buying public in the wealthy western world, can make a difference.

Change our purchasing

We can make a shift in our purchases towards the many smaller, specialist brands (see references above).

Alternatively, we can buy only those lines from the major brands that have the Fair Trade, UTZ or Rainforest Alliance logos. Or major brands that we are satisfied are truly establishing ethical supply chains.

This change may involve some sacrifice, as certified chocolates are often more expensive and have a much smaller range. It may not be realistic to only purchase certified chocolate, but we can go a long way towards that. It seems like a small price to pay.


We can write to chocolate manufacturers encouraging them to use certified child labour-free cocoa, or demonstrate publically that their supply chains are ethically based. Or we can join organisations that facilitate on-line petitions from time to time. If we are willing to change our buying habits, we can explain this to the manufacturers.

Get more information

You can find out more, even write in support of Fairtrade certification, at these websites:

Photo: Child labour on a cocoa plantation in Ivory Coast © Copyright World Vision Australia 2015. All rights reserved. Used by permission..

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