Buying chocolate is a process that takes most people around 15 seconds and hardly requires a second thought beyond whether we prefer a nutty crunch or a crispy one. But for every 15 seconds spent buying most typical supermarket brands of chocolate, buyers are also tacitly supporting unfair labor practices, contributing to poverty, and fueling child slavery. In reality, the sweetness of chocolate belies the bitterness of the chocolate supply chain. Most mass producers of chocolate such as Hershey’s, Nestle, and Mars, rely on child labor and unfair practices to funnel their chocolates onto store shelves. Even practices aimed at solving these issues, such as Fair Trade certification to guarantee fair prices to cocoa bean farmers, are rife with problems and inconsistencies themselves. In light of these realities, it may seem impossibly difficult for a consumer to find a truly ethical way of consuming chocolate. However, some chocolate companies are working hard to overcome such problems. Askinosie Chocolate, in particular, is a bean-to-bar chocolate company that seems to defy standards for ethical consumption and shows an incredible commitment to transparency throughout its supply chain. Lauded by notable publications such as National Geographic, O, The Oprah Magazine, and USA Today as an ethical choice for chocolate buyers, as well as receiving a 2014 Good Food Award for “craft chocolate makers and confectioners who ‘do the right thing’” (“In The News”), Askinosie presents itself as a model chocolate company with an honorable commitment to ethical consumption.
As mentioned, the chocolate supply chain is rampant with unscrupulousness tactics and exploitation. One of the key concerns is improper labor practices at the root of the supply chain–most notably, cocoa bean farmer compensation. When the chocolate industry is “worth an estimated $110 billion a year,” and cocoa bean farmers are “some of the poorest people on the plant” (Percival), something is clearly amiss. Cocoa bean farmers are miserably underpaid, receiving a heavily disproportionate amount–estimated at 3%–of the profits from chocolate bars (Torre and Jones). According to Orla Ryan, “What this means is that the poorest farmers can make just $500 a year, an income which makes it impossible to do little more than survive, let alone hire labourers, buy fertiliser or invest in new seedlings” (Ryan 60). It isn’t surprising, then, that farmers are generally driven to find the cheapest labor to cultivate cacao, which often turns out to be child labor.
The industry’s dependence on child labor to produce cocoa beans is perhaps the most blatantly vicious problem in the chocolate supply chain. In Bitter Chocolate, Carol Off details appalling working conditions–”The farmers, or their supervisors, were working the young people almost to death. The boys had little to eat, slept in bunk-houses that were locked during the night, and were frequently beaten. They had horrible sores on their backs and shoulders, some as a result of carrying the heavy bags of cocoa, but some likely the effects of physical abuse” (Off 121). Additionally, the IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) estimates 300,000 children to be working in hazardous conditions on cocoa farms (Ryan 48). Since two-thirds of all cacao is sourced from West Africa, where child labor is widespread (Dand 73, Ryan 49), it is inevitable that child labor is largely sustaining the production of big companies such as Hershey’s and Mars, despite how much these companies try to deny it.
Though there have been attempts at remedying problems in the chocolate supply chain, these approaches seem to teeter between being marginally beneficial and woefully unhelpful. Fair Trade certified chocolate, for instance, which assures higher compensation for farmers in developing countries in exchange for a higher price to consumers, is becoming increasingly prevalent and is often touted as the desirable choice for fashionably ethical consumers. This trend, however, can easily beget a mentality in which non-Fair Trade certified items are seen as categorically less ethical than Fair Trade items, hurting business for farmers without Fair Trade certification even if they practice ethical production. Since Fair Trade certification can be prohibitively costly to obtain and requires being in a cooperative, it tends to be mostly accessible to the rich, detracting from the original goal of increasing sustainability for poor farmers. Furthermore, Fair Trade lacks standardization in certification, often fails to properly ensure that standards are met, and it has no guarantees for product quality (Haight). This propagates a culture monopolized by larger companies that frequently misrepresent their products and evade transparency in business dealings, with no rigorous evidence that Fair Trade is actually attaining its goals of proper farmer compensation and sustainability. Thus, while Fair Trade certification isn’t necessarily bad, per se, it hardly connotes a golden standard of ethical production.
In the face of these glaring imperfections in the chocolate industry, Askinosie Chocolate seems to be a shining beacon of virtue. Its website earnestly claims, “We’re dedicated not just to making the best quality chocolate you can buy, but to making it in such a way that the more you learn about it, the better you feel about it” (“Our Story”). Founded on the values of transparency, direct trade, and community involvement, the company engenders a culture that feels not only ethical, but also benevolent.
Askinosie goes to great lengths to ensure proper compensation for its cocoa bean farmers. Farmers are paid considerably higher than the Fair Trade price and middlemen are eliminated from the equation, promising a shorter, more transparent supply chain. Askinosie’s “A Stake in the Outcome” program is based on “Open Book Management” whose philosophy is this: “if employees shared in the profits and the outcome of a company’s success, they would feel greater ownership in the process leading up to the end result” (“A Stake In The Outcome”). Accordingly, Askinosie Chocolate practices direct trade by traveling to each of their four cocoa origins–Ecuador, Honduras, Tanzania, and the Philippines–and personally meeting with farmers to have open conversations about profits–which are proportionally shared with farmers–and to discuss strategies for improving cocoa bean quality (“A Stake In The Outcome”).
Since the quality of cocoa affects profits margins, the farmers are incentivized to work harder to improve harvests. Askinosie thus promotes cocoa bean quality as well as high farmer compensation–two feats that Fair Trade has had limited success with. Fair Trade labels are often tacked onto lower quality cocoa since this allows the cocoa to sell for much more than it’s worth, setting a low bar for quality in Fair Trade chocolate. The Askinosie website boasts that their chocolate is “100% traceable” and that they “know the name of every farmer” (“Direct Trade”), implying that the company is deeply involved with every step of the chocolate-making process, from bean to bar. At any step, the company can and does modify its techniques in order to verify proper production. This also ensures environmentally friendly practices–”our cocoa beans are grown using organic, pesticide- and chemical-free practices that are ecologically responsible. We know this because we see it firsthand!” (“Direct Trade”). Video documentation of the 70-step chocolate-making process exemplifies Askinosie’s uncompromising commitment to transparency–and, as a result–to quality.
Askinosie also exerts a heavy hand in improving the various communities of the locales that produce the cacao, which truly elevates the company to an unparalleled level of altruism. In Kyela, Tanzania, and Davao, Philippines, Askinosie has created “A Product of Change”–an innovative sustainable lunch program that allows communities to essentially provide food for their own children (“Direct Trade”). It enables the communities to create unique local products such as Kyela rice and Filipino cocoa blocks and sell them to Askinosie, who facilitates access to the global market by selling the products abroad and gives 100% of the profits back to the communities to be used to provide school lunches for students. According to their website, the company has provided more than 315,000 meals since 2011 and “since the program’s inception, school attendance has increased, 90% of Malagos students have gained weight and achievement test scores are up 25%” (“A Product of Change”). In stark contrast to chocolate companies that seem to fuel hunger, poverty, and general deterioration, Askinosie has made marked advancements toward overcoming them.
Finally, Askinosie’s Chocolate University program involves the community around the Askinosie factory by allowing young students to participate in the company’s ventures. Schools in the community have direct relationships with the Askinosie factory and students are able to participate in the chocolate making process as well as form relationships with students abroad at the various origins (“Chocolate University”). Furthermore, applicants from local high schools travel to the origins and engage in the process of harvesting cacao and participate in the various community programs, allowing the students to cultivate a drive for altruistic entrepreneurship and be active participants in bettering the community (“Chocolate University”). This also further commits another layer of transparency to Askinosie’s business operations, showing that the company is legitimately holding up to its claims.
Askinosie Chocolate establishes itself as a genuine, honest company that is exceptionally dedicated to the betterment of not just the chocolate supply chain, but also the world. With its firm commitment to transparency and practicing business in a responsible and sustainable way, Askinosie stands out as a chocolate company that truly sets the bar for greatness, making it harder to consume chocolate that isn’t ethical. It’s easy for us to ignore the hunger that plagues cacao farmers in developing countries when our own bellies are loudly crying out for vending machine chocolate, but as Askinosie has shown us, chocolate making does not have to be unethical. In fact, it can be a process that’s remarkably beneficial and uplifting.
Dand, Robin. International Cocoa Trade. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 1999. Print.
Haight, Colleen. “The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee (SSIR).” Stanford Social Innovation Review. Stanford PACS, 2011. Web. 6 May 2015. <http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/the_problem_with_fair_trade_coffee>.
Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New, 2008. Print.
Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. London: Zed, 2011. Print.
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A Stake In the Outcome. Digital image. Askinosie Chocolate. Web. 6 May 2015. <https://askinosie.com/media/page-headers/A-Stake-in-the-Outcome.jpg>.
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“Our Story” Askinosie Chocolate. Web. 6 May 2015. <https://askinosie.com/learn/our-story.html>
Percival, Matt. “Cocoa-nomics: Why Chocolate Really Doesn’t Grow on Trees.” CNN. Cable News Network, 3 Apr. 2015. Web. 6 May 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/13/world/africa/cocoa-nomics-does-chocolate-grow-on-trees/>.
Pipkin Chocolate Team. Digital image. Askinosie Chocolate. Web. 6 May 2015. <https://askinosie.com/media/images/PipkinChocolateTeam.jpg>.
“Roasting Beans from Askinosie Chocolate.” Roasting Beans from Askinosie Chocolate. Web. 6 May 2015. <https://player.vimeo.com/video/87807961>.
Torre, Inez, and Bryony Jones. “Cocoa-nomics Explained: Unwrapping the Chocolate Industry.” CNN. Cable News Network, 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 6 May 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/13/world/africa/cocoa-nomics-explained-infographic/index.html>.