Cover image courtesy of Tony’s Chocolonely.
–by AnnaBelle Owens–
Tony’s Chocolonely is a Dutch chocolate company whose mission is to make chocolate 100% slave free. The company aims to eradicate the practice of child slavery in the West African chocolate industry by raising awareness and paying farmers more than its counterparts do. While the company is undoubtedly taking positive action in the face of child labor and slavery in the industry, the extent of their impact remains questionable. This post will examine the rhetoric and ideologies used in the marketing of Tony’s Chocolonely, in order to determine whether the company fairly represents their actions, motivations and real-world influence.
With colorful and whimsical packaging reminiscent of Willy Wonka, Tony’s Chocolonely brands itself as the bright future of the chocolate industry and the end of child labor and slavery among West African cocoa producers. The company’s mission and actions have made it an ethical leader in the industry, which overall is fraught with exploitation and an unequal supply chain that exploits producers. However, Tony’s claims––to be the solution to the eradication of slavery––are not perfectly proportionate to their actions. Their marketing tactics oversimplify the issues of child labor and slavery, and Tony’s real impact is questionable and unsubstantiated. The company manipulates Western attitudes towards Africa and “helping” in order to sell its products. Supposedly, the company exists solely to eradicate slavery in West African cocoa-growing regions; however, its existence and business model remain ethically questionable.
Overview: West African Cocoa Industry
The cocoa industry in West Africa is centered in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. These two countries alone produce 60% of the world’s cocoa supply (“Cocoa Farmers” Fairtrade Foundation). Despite their importance as producers in the global cocoa industry, farmers in West Africa are forced to sell their crops for extremely low farm gate prices. While these prices are determined in both countries by national cocoa boards, they depend largely on global industry trends. Global cocoa prices plummeted by about 36% in 2017 and have still not recovered. The most recent statistics show that on average, West African cocoa farmers are earning $0.78 per day, which only accounts for about 30% of the minimum living income in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. (Fountain & Huetz-Adams 6-7) Cocoa farmers in West Africa are struggling, particularly in recent years, and their extremely low incomes force them to cut corners when it comes to labor and production practices.
Child labor and slavery are huge problems for cocoa producers in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. According to the latest Cocoa Barometer report from the VOICE Network, a watchdog group of cocoa NGOs, 2.2 million children work in cocoa production in West Africa (Fountain & Huetz-Adams 6). According to a Tulane University report, in 2014, 37.9% of children living in cocoa-growing areas of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana worked in cocoa production in some way. The majority of these children (about 90%) perform hazardous work, including extreme physical labor, exposure to agro-chemicals, using sharp tools, and working long hours or overnight. (“Final Report”44; 19) While child labor is problematic, it does not always necessarily represent outright exploitation of children. Many of these children work for their parents as a way to lower production costs or as a way to be productive in regions that lack access to schooling (Vigneri et al. 11). Child slavery, on the other hand, is more difficult to quantify. In her article “Modern Slavery, Global Capitalism and Deproletarianisation in West Africa,” Kate Manzo points out that “Slavery can be redefined as something else, such as indentured servitude. It can also be ‘hidden, well hidden’ … behind fraudulent labour contracts or false claims to kinship relations between adults and child labourers” (526). Because of this, slavery is both overreported and underreported; estimates and claims range from complete denials of the existence of child slavery in West Africa to assertions that over 90% of farms exploit child slaves (Manzo 525). While the true statistic is most likely somewhere in between, child slavery does undoubtedly exist in the West African cocoa industry, and often involves the exploitation of children trafficked from Mali (Manzo 526).
After media coverage and increased public awareness of these issues, in 2001 the industry’s main chocolate manufacturers signed an inter-governmental agreement called the Harkin Engel Protocol. The document formally recognizes the industry’s problems of child labor, and specifically the worst forms of child labor, as well as a vague action plan, with the goal of eliminating these practices. The document was signed by the president or CEO of most major chocolate producers, including Nestlé, Hershey, and Barry Callebaut, to name a few. (“Protocol” CMA) However, despite the supposed commitment to responsibility for ethical labor practices, the industry has failed to reach its goals of reducing child labor and has instead simply pushed back its deadlines a number of times (Fountain & Huetz-Adams 16). The chocolate industry overall is not taking seriously its responsibility in the perpetuation of poverty and child exploitation in West African cocoa regions.
History and Overview: Tony’s Chocolonely
The founder of Tony’s Chocolonely, Dutch journalist Teun (Tony) van de Keuken, became aware of the problems of child labor and slavery in West African cocoa regions in the early 2000s while working as a presenter on a Dutch TV show about problematic food supply chains. In 2003, van de Keuken filmed himself eating a few chocolate bars and turned himself into Dutch authorities as a chocolate criminal. He attempted to prosecute himself for benefiting from child slavery through his consumption of chocolate. When the courts refused to hear his case, he went to West Africa and found some former child slaves who had been exploited on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire who were willing to serve as witnesses in his case. Eventually in 2007, the courts ruled definitively that they would refuse to prosecute van de Keuken, because if they ruled against him, then they would be obligated to prosecute every chocolate consumer in the Netherlands. (“How it all started” Tony’s Chocolonely)
During the middle of his legal battle, in 2005 van de Keuken founded Tony’s Chocolonely and began to produce chocolate. The company’s mission is to eventually make “100% slave free the norm in chocolate.” The company has a clearly defined roadmap and timeline, with three main “pillars,” or goals: to create awareness, starting in 2005; to lead by example, starting in 2012; and to inspire other companies to act, starting “the sooner the better.” (“Our Mission” Tony’s Chocolonely) Tony’s attempts to do this primarily through paying farmers an additional premium on top of the farm gate price and fairtrade premium that they already receive, as well as ensuring transparency throughout the supply chain by maintaining close relationships with farmers and closely tracking the cocoa beans they buy (“Annual FAIR Report” Tony’s Chocolonely). Overall, the company works to improve the lives of cocoa farmers in West Africa, with the eventual goal of revolutionizing the entire chocolate industry.
Despite the clearly positive goals and claims of Tony’s Chocolonely, their real-world impact and the implications of their actions are more ambiguous. For the rest of this blog post, I will explore a series of questions by analyzing the company’s branding and rhetoric in the context of the quantifiable impact that the company recently self-reported in their Annual FAIR Report.
How much does Tony’s Chocolonely actually help?
Tony’s main goal is to make chocolate 100% slave free, and they attempt to ensure this through the extra premium that they pay to the farmers that they buy from. In their Annual FAIR Report, Tony’s asserts that “poverty is the root cause” of illegal child labor and slavery, and they argue that the only way to effectively deal with the issue is to pay farmers a minimum living wage for their cocoa beans (19). They assume that once farmers receive a minimum living wage, they will be less likely to use children as sources of labor. However, this assumption is not completely supported by the literature on child labor in the cocoa industry. In a research study report issued by the International Cocoa Initiative, researchers found that “the determinants of CL [child labor] are complex, household poverty being only one,” and that because of “the wider cultural underpinnings of CL in cocoa farming, family demand for, and utilization of CL, may not respond quickly to an increase in yields or income” (Vigneri et al. 11). The researchers state that children often work on cocoa farms because of a lack of physical access to education, because their parents want to prepare them to run the farms when they come of age, or simply because of the shortage of adult workers, which they argue is “one of the main causes of child labour incidence” (13). By focusing only on income as a deciding factor in child labor reduction, Tony’s Chocolonely does not fully address the causes of child labor, and therefore cannot effectively create complete and lasting solutions.
Despite their ever-present claim to be on the road to ending slavery, Tony’s is also extremely vague about how they deal with the issue of slavery. In their Annual FAIR Report, the company cites a statistic from the 2018 Global Slavery Index that there are at least 30,000 enslaved people who are forced to work on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana (9). The word “slavery” appears 50 times in the Annual FAIR Report. They systematically define all the different types of illegal child labor practices in cocoa production in a graph on page 11 of the report, but nowhere do they define what exactly constitutes “modern slavery,” and neither do they provide a definition anywhere on their website. Also, while they carefully track instances of illegal child labor and have actually resolved a few cases over the last two years, they have no model for tracking or responding to cases of slavery that they might encounter. All they say about slavery in their supply chain is that “there is no systematic use of forced labor in our supply chain,” because an investigation performed in 2017 did not find any cases of slavery among farmers who work with Tony’s. (“Annual FAIR Report” 12) Despite their clearly defined roadmap, timeline, and goals of creating awareness of the problem and eventually influencing the rest of the chocolate industry to pay farmers better prices, there is no other specific action or plan laid out in their fight against slavery in the industry. Because of their lack of reliable data about the existence of slavery in the West African cocoa industry, they will have no way to measure their impact in the future. Once again, Tony’s Chocolonely implies that through one simple action (paying their farmers higher premiums), they will eradicate the complex problem of slavery in the West African cocoa industry. For a company whose most important purpose is supposedly the eradication of slavery, it is surprising that they have absolutely no tangible proof of the efficacy of their actions.
The Global Slavery Index 2018 shows that in the West African cocoa industry, slavery is largely driven by chronic poverty and unstable cocoa prices, factors which force farmers to find ways to reduce labor costs (59). Tony’s premiums are a way of increasing farmers’ incomes; however, Tony’s Chocolonely admits that this action is not an adequate, long-term solution in reducing poverty. In their Annual FAIR Report, they write:
At the risk of repeating ourselves, poverty is the root cause of illegal child labor and modern slavery in the cocoa industry. Does this mean that a living income is an automatic guarantee against poverty? Unfortunately, no. Poverty is a complex problem that can’t be solved with a single solution. There are many causes and underlying problems. More money is all well and good. But it won’t change the fact that you can’t send your children to school. Or that, as a parent, you have to walk miles every day to fetch clean drinking water. (28)
In order to reduce chronic poverty, Tony’s Chocolonely works with their farmers’ cooperatives to see what extra actions they can take to address major issues in relieving symptoms of poverty and in improving lives. Main issues that the communities pinpointed included improved access to sanitation facilities, drinking water, electricity, and education. These issues are dealt with by the cooperatives themselves, using the premiums that Tony’s pays, not by using extra funds allocated for the projects. (“Annual FAIR Report” 29-30) This type of community support falls under the umbrella of sustainable development since the farmers and cooperatives are responsible for funding their own projects and are therefore not overly dependent on hand-outs from the company; Henk Jan Beltman, the Chief Chocolate Officer of the company, is quick to emphasize that “it’s not charity” that the company does (“Bitter Chocolate” Rotten). However, in light of all this information, a new question arises: Is the premium actually enough money to make all of the company’s promises come true?
Tony’s Chocolonely sets a “living income reference price” in order to determine the premium that it will pay its farmers. They determine this price by analyzing country averages of family size, operational cost per farm, farm size, productivity per hectare, and outside income. They compare their results with the cost of living for each country, and their premium makes up for the gap between the normal price paid to the farmer and the cost of living. (“Living Income Model” Tony’s Chocolonely) This means that instead of each household member earning $0.78 per day like the average cocoa producer in Côte d’Ivoire, farms who sell to Tony’s Chocolonely should earn on average $2.49 per person per day for everyone in the household (Fountain & Huetz-Adams 6; “Living Income Model” Tony’s Chocolonely). This is a huge difference in the lives of farmers, but it is only enough to guarantee a basic, minimum living income. Also, it is important to remember as stated above that the premiums are not solely for the use of individual farmers; the cooperatives that they work for decide how exactly to use the premiums, and a large part of the money is used for community development projects such as installing sanitation facilities, building schools, etc. (“Annual FAIR Report” 30). In an interview for the Netflix documentary Rotten, Henk Jan Beltman states, “there is only decency to pay a minimum living income to a farmer, right?” While it is inarguably the decent thing to do, two questions remain: First, is providing a minimum living income enough to achieve Tony’s Chocolonely’s stated goals? If child labor is deeply engrained in the culture of West African cocoa production, and it is not mainly determined by household poverty like Tony’s claims, then the premiums are most likely not enough to completely curb the problem. Tony’s will have to do more than just pay fair prices for their products. The second question is, should Tony’s be paying their farmers more than just a minimum living wage? On their Annual FAIR Report, they include a pie chart which shows the price breakdown per bar of chocolate. The gross margin for Tony’s and the retailer makes up just over 50% of the cost of every chocolate bar, while the additional Tony’s premium makes up only 1.4% of the cost of each chocolate bar. (“Annual FAIR Report” 72) The company claims that “Tony’s Chocolonely exists to change [the unequally divided cocoa chain]” (“Our Mission” Tony’s Chocolonely). For a company whose sole existence is supposedly to revolutionize the entire chocolate industry in order to eradicate child labor and slavery, there is surprisingly little tangible difference between Tony’s and any other fair-trade chocolate company. While Tony’s actions are absolutely a step in the right direction in such a problematic industry, they are unable to effectively support their assertions and promises.
How are the ideologies and assumptions in their marketing problematic?
The gap between Tony’s branding and their real-world impact highlights the questionable ideologies and assumptions inherent to their marketing tactics. Overall, Tony’s brand is lighthearted and whimsical, using bright colors and uneven, oversized font to convey their messages. The brand is intrinsically fun, and their wording is simple, colloquial and friendly. They often address the consumer directly, and there is a portion of their website where you can “measure your impact”; the consumer can input the type and number of bars they ate and can see the number of ethically-sourced cocoa beans that they consumed, along with a message thanking them for helping the company to buy from more farmers and pay higher premiums. (“Our mission” Tony’s Chocolonely) The company creates an experience where the consumer feels that they are personally contributing to the eradication of slavery and child labor in West Africa. This type of marketing is very similar to that done in one-to-one business models, which usually offer a good or service to someone in need for each one purchased by a Western consumer. In an article for the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, the author calls the model “a winner,” and quotes professor Deborah Small, who states that “We know from research that people are most motivated to help when they feel a connection to those whom they’re helping” (“The One-for-one Business Model” Knowledge@Wharton).
In Tony’s Chocolonely’s model, consumers know from the second they see the seal on the package that the chocolate is helping to make the chocolate industry slave-free, and they feel good about buying the product because they are encouraged to feel as if they themselves are a part of abolishing slavery. This marketing tactic can be extremely powerful, and while the company claims to do this as a means to raise awareness for the cocoa industry’s problems, it also undeniably helps them to increase sales. Unfortunately, Tony’s Chocolonely’s framing of the issue as a problem that can be solved if we all work together and buy more of their chocolate products serves mainly to reinforce assumptions about Africans and to infantilize the issue of slavery in cocoa-growing regions. Within the narrative that Tony’s creates, enslaved Africans are an idea instead of individuals; they are the needy few who can be saved by ethical Western consumers. All consumers need to do in order to help abolish a cruelly inhumane institution is to eat delicious chocolate – a truly whimsical idea that only serves to inflate Western egos and make the facts of the situation more ambiguous.
Can there be ethical chocolate consumption under capitalism?
Some literature even calls into question the ethics of companies who profit from humanitarian causes. For Lisa Daily in her piece titled “Change Your Underwear, Change the World,” such companies are examples of the problematic trend of ethical capitalism. She argues that ethical capital
… naturalizes a faulty form of ready-made solutions that inevitably secures the continuation of excessive consumption …, perpetuates the myth of individualized private sector solutions to structural inequalities, and cements existing hierarchical social relations despite appearances of empowerment and solidarity through the rhetoric of freedom, voluntary exchange, and competition. (229)
For Daily, companies like Tony’s Chocolonely, TOMS Shoes, or Thinx, which paint themselves as the free market solutions to complex problems abroad, merely participate in a spectacle of helping. The spectacle which Tony’s Chocolonely participates in reinforces problematic narratives and hierarchical relationships between the West and Africa. Daily also states that “The imagined bonds of collectivity are fun and compassionate for those with the freedoms and power – economic or otherwise – to participate, while potentially being either nonexistent or a matter of sheer survival for others” (241). The Western consumers who buy into Tony’s Chocolonely’s marketing tactics are participating in and maintaining an unequal relationship; where they retain their power and have fun eating chocolate and feeling helpful, West African farmers must participate in Tony’s spectacle because their only other option is to go back to earning extreme poverty wages. While this relationship is more distant and therefore less problematic than many unequal humanitarian relationships, it is nonetheless questionable and violates the dignity of the West African farmers who produce cocoa for Tony’s Chocolonely.
Tony’s Chocolonely is also inherently problematic because it is a European company run by Europeans that attempts to solve a West African problem. In her article “White Man’s ‘Burden’ and the New Colonialism in West African Cocoa Production,” Bama Athreya criticizes the Western companies and organizations that signed the Harkin-Engel protocol while “excluding any real dialogue with West Africa-based indigenous activists or organizations and foreclosing the possibility of a grounded, substantive conversation on what needed to be done to address the root causes of trafficked labor” (54). While Tony’s Chocolonely did not exist until after this protocol was signed, they are still guilty of participating in a biased conversation on the issue of slavery. Tony’s focuses mostly on their premiums as a way to abolish slavery in the chocolate industry; with no more specific plan outlined, Tony’s risks oversimplifying and failing to effectively respond to such a complex problem. Athreya also asserts that “The privileging of northern white voices in the human rights debate, and in particular in the corporate accountability debate, is deeply problematic. We will never challenge the oppressors if the voices in the forefront are the accommodators and those with financial and professional interest in friendly relationships with the corporate targets” (56). Despite its claims to exist solely to address the problem of slavery in the chocolate industry, Tony’s Chocolonely is now deeply invested in the industry itself; from October 2018 to September 2019, the company’s net revenues were €69.6 million (“Annual FAIR Report” 73). While the company does want to revolutionize the entire industry and to see changes in other chocolate companies, they do not seem to be taking a very hard stance against the actions of other chocolate companies. Finally, Athreya argues that “The ‘white knight’ substitutes for these grassroots voices may serve to convince company executives and northern consumers that change is being implemented, but no real change will result from such conversations” (57). While Tony’s Chocolonely does seem to be making a positive change in the industry by paying farmers a living wage, perhaps more sustainable and significant change will happen through West African organizations and companies, who have a more important stake in revolutionizing the industry and solving its problems.
As of today, Tony’s Chocolonely is probably the most ethical major company in the global chocolate industry. The company is committed to paying producers living wages in order to support development in cocoa-producing communities. In theory, economic development should mean decreases in illegal child labor and the eventual eradication of slavery in the cocoa regions of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. The company’s brand and assertions offer an image of a bright future for the chocolate industry. However, these claims are deeply flawed, especially when compared to the real actions that the company has taken. The company’s marketing is suspiciously friendly and fun, and this in turn helps to disguise the questionable ethics of a capitalism whose supposed main goal is helping. While Tony’s Chocolonely is an ethical leader of its industry, it will likely fail to keep its promises.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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