Equal Exchange Chocolates: Further Ensuring the Just Labor Practices of the Cacao-Chocolate Industry

The cacao-chocolate industry has experienced a slow but progressive movement toward shedding unjust labor practices ever since chocolate became popular upon contact with European voyagers during their arrival in the “New World”. Initially, slavery was the heart and vasculature of the industry: imported slaves worked to the extreme on cacao farms to produce refined products for the wealthy to enjoy, and the success of the industry relied heavily on the cheap labor provided by the slave trade (Coe). Though eventually abolished, exploitative labor, illegal slavery, and use of child labor still plagued the industry worldwide. After public awareness grew and studies conducted by organizations such as the International Labor Organization surfaced, the industry had finally reached a position where any type of indentured labor would incur public outrage and extreme consequences. However, other intermediary organizations, both national and local, still infiltrate the producer to consumer pipeline and thus allow small independent farmers to be exploited in terms of fair pay, safe working conditions, and other labor rights. Only until recently did the social movement of “Fair Trade” arise as a challenge to these practices, which advocates for sustainable development and transparency with small-scale farmers (Martin).

Equal Exchange Chocolates came into the picture when Fair Trade USA, an independent third-party organization formerly known as TransFair USA, pioneered the “Fair Trade For All” campaign, which sought to extend “Fair Trade” certification to large planation owners in a move that threatened the legitimacy of the organization and potentially jeopardized the very people that the company’s original mission aims to help (Gunther). This informs an analysis of the cacao-chocolate industry labor timeline and Equal Exchange Chocolates, a company seeking to further right the wrongs that the legacies of slavery left in the industry, which still needs to be improved to meet fair trade standards.



The cacao-chocolate industry has origins that are deeply rooted in the slave trade since it was conceived in the early 1600s, at a time in history where consumer interest in chocolate and its derived products was starting to peak. Slavery was key to the entire process of manufacturing chocolate products for Europeans to enjoy; this included farming, transporting, and preparing cacao in various ways before the highly sought-after product reached the taste buds of consumers. Between 1500-1900, 10-15 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to work on cacao farms because of the cheap availability of labor and the close proximity of the African people, located immediately across the Atlantic Ocean (Martin). The scene was no different in the Americas: the Spanish cited the encomienda, or grant by the Spanish crown to colonists conferring the right to demand tribute and force labor upon slaves. In theory, the encomienda was established so that the Spanish colonists could both care for and evangelize the Native Americans into the Christian faith, but in practice, the native peoples were treated harshly and labor was forced upon them, most of which was work in the cacao business (Martin).

Multiple rebellious efforts against slavery were crucial to its eventual abolition: former slave Toussaint L’ouverture orchestrated a resoundingly successful movement against the oppressive slavery system in Haiti when he, along with 100,000 slaves, destroyed numerous coffee and sugar plantations after being inspired by the French Revolution. As a result of this uprising, Haiti declared independence in 1804, and the slave trade was closed shortly after in 1807. Slowly but surely, slavery was phased out by law: the British Slavery Act abolished slavery in 1834, the French and Danish abolished it in 1848, the United States abolished it with the 13th Amendment in 1865, Cuba abolished it in 1886, and Brazil ultimately followed suit in 1888 (Martin). The cacao-chocolate industry experienced an enormous cleanse in unjust labor practices upon the abolition of slavery. However, despite national laws banning slavery, a black market for labor ownership services still existed, namely in West Africa in the early 1900’s.

Despite national laws against the practice of slavery, indentured servitude still existed in countries such as Cameroon, São Tomé, and Principe. A striking example of this is the illegal slavery post-abolition within the Cadbury family’s business ethics during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (Hasian). John Cadbury began selling teas, coffee, and chocolate drinks in 1824, and progressed to being the sole manufacturer of chocolate to the Queen under the Royal Warrant. Upon inheritance of his father’s company during a regressive period in the market, George Cadbury focused the company entirely on chocolate, forming the foundation for the company that is so well known today. Controversy sparked when it was discovered in 1901 that slave labor was used on the cacao farms in São Tomé and Principe (Hasian). Public scandal erupted, and eventually British companies boycotted cacao from São Tomé and Principe, while illegal slavery continued into the mid 1900’s. Other examples include the exploitation of children for labor, which is most often caused by poverty, lack of alternatives, cultural rationalization, and large-scale economic forces. The International Labor Organization defines the worst forms of child labor as follows: all forms of slavery such as sale and trafficking of children, the use or offering of a child for pornography, the use of a child for illicit activities such as selling drugs, and forcing work upon children that is likely to harm the health of morals of children by nature. Evidence of these forms of child labor listed above existed in the 1990’s in West Africa and even bled into the early 2000’s in Ghana according to a study conducted by Tulane University. Policies such as the Harkin-Engel Protocol aimed to put an end to this exploitative strategy. A “Global March Against Child Labor” was launched in 1998 by civil-society organizations in over 100 countries to eradicate child labor (Athreya). Eventually, illegal slavery and child labor steadily began to be phased out as the watchful eye of both labor organizations and the public cast a veil of shame over the practices, indicating another stepping stone of progress for the cacao-chocolate industry as it wiped these indentured labor practices from its operations.


Eliminating harsh forms of labor that threatened the health of workers, both children and adults alike, was paramount to the progressing integrity of the cacao-chocolate industry, but it did not mean that all forms of unjust treatment were eradicated. In the very recent past, small-scale cacao farmers and plantation owners were still at the short end of the proverbial trade “stick” due to the various other levels of organization that existed in the assumed binary relationship between the global market/big chocolate and the cacao farmers. National government organizations, paired with local level community organizations, added an additional layer of transaction to the economy, with various methods such as marketing boards, caisse systems, and altered legislations that created a crisis for farmers and lowered cacao prices to unfair levels (Martin). Responding to this new wave of unjust labor, the social movement of “Fair Trade” entered the scene. “Fair Trade” is a way of doing business

“that ultimately aims to keep small farmers an active part of the world marketplace, and aims to empower consumers to make purchases that support their values” (Equal Exchange Fair Trade).

The Fair Trade movement advocates for goals such as direct relationships/long term contracts between importers and producers, higher than conventional market prices, and safe/sustainable farming techniques, to name a few. Essentially, the movement seeks to justly compensate producers and ensure a fair exchange of goods so that the consumers pay the producers without a need for manipulative middlemen. A third-party organization by the name of Fair Trade USA, formerly called TransFair USA, was developed as labeling group amongst other Alternative Trade Organizations (ATOs) to certify products that met the standard of the Fair Trade movement (Equal Exchange: Fair Trade). With the Fair Trade movement undergoing and the creation of organizations to support it, it finally seems as if the cacao-chocolate industry has reached the pedestal of responsible labor practices.


            Equal Exchange is a company that challenges the existing trade model favoring large plantations, agri-business, and multi-national corporations and was founded on its goals of connecting consumers and producers through information, education, and the exchange of products in the marketplace (North). Michael Rozyne, Jonathan Rosenthal, and Rink Dickinson founded the company in 1986, influenced by their passion for organic food after spending time in a food co-op in New England where they gained valuable knowledge and experience in producer/consumer dynamics. Originally the company sold coffee, and then added tea products to its shelves later on. Not until fairly recently in 2004 did the company include chocolate and cacao in its product lines based on a survey of consumers that detailed a great desire for chocolate (Equal Exchange: Executive Bios).

Amongst Chocolate Minis, Hot Cocoas, Baking Cocoas, and Chocolate Chips, each in numerous flavors, the twelve signature Chocolate Bars

Very Dark 71%, Panama Extra Dark 80%, Ecuador Dark 65%, Milk Chocolate 43%, Dark Almond 55%, Dark Caramel Crunch Sea Salt 55%, Dark Mint Crunch 67%, Milk Caramel Crunch Sea Salt 43%, Dark Orange 65%, Dark Lemon Ginger Black Pepper 55%, and Extreme Dark 88%


are the staple of the selection (Equal Exchange: Products). All chocolates are certified Fair Trade and USDA Organic, with a short blurb explaining the origin of the ingredients in the bar listed on the packaging. The company sources their ingredients directly from farmer partners all around the world, including Oro Verde from Peru, Manduvira from Paraguay, and Fortaleza del Valle from Ecuador in accordance with Fair Trade standards: “Equal Exchange chocolates and cocoas are crafted using only the purest ingredients, grown with care by small farmer co-ops. We source from these small farmer organizations because we believe they are the heart and soul of the Fair Trade movement” (Equal Exchange: Chocolate & Cocoa).

Equal Exchange’s innovative business model is highlighted by a unique governing structure where the company is completely owned by its workers. The company operates on a democratic basis that emphasizes equality amongst all of its parties and workers. Every employee has one vote in business decisions and is an equal stakeholder in the company. Equal Exchange has repeatedly acted to promote Fair Trade standards: they were the first to introduce Fair Trade coffee/sugar, brought Fair Trade products to the schools of America, and fought to protect organic certification for small farmer co-ops, to name a few (Equal Exchange: not business as usual). They even launched an annual “Reverse Trick-or-Treat” Halloween drive to end forced child labor in cacao-growing countries (CSRwire).


            Just when it seemed as if the cacao-chocolate industry, embedded in the new Fair Trade movement, had made significant strides in ending the unjust labor practices that had defined it in its long history, controversy strikes again. Paul Rice, president and CEO of Fair Trade USA, pulled the organization out of the international FairTrade Labeling Organizations (FLO), to pursue a new vision he deems “Fair Trade for All,” which essentially permits buying from larger plantations, estates, and collections of jointed farms (Gunther). Unlike Equal Exchange, Fair Trade USA is not a democratic organization and is subject to the influence of big market food corporations. Critics of this move by Rice argue that including bigger coffee, tea, and cacao plantations would endanger the small farms that the Fair Trade movement initially sought to protect and for whom it advocated. Leading this critical charge is Equal Exchange, and its co-director Rink Dickinson has been quite vocal regarding the situation:

“Fair Trade is for small farmers and small producers who are democratically organized. If you take the democracy out, you have traditional aid or world bank development or what TransFair USA and the European certifiers are calling ‘Fair Trade’” (Equal Exchange: Fair Trade).

Equal Exchange is still fighting, to this day, Fair Trade USA’s decision to lower standards, eliminate small farmers, and invite large-scale plantations into commodity crops. To combat this issue as it currently develops and further establish responsible Fair Trade values, the company has created the “Equal Exchange Action Forum” aimed at building a community of “citizen-consumers” that will elicit buying support, investing support, and political support.


            The cacao-chocolate industry supplies the world with products so beloved and craved by children and adults alike. However, the history of the industry is clouded with problematic practices rooted in priorities that jeopardized the safety of millions of people. Slowly but surely, successful steps were taken to end the unjust treatment of workers from a time where slavery was acceptable. Though significant progress has been made, the industry is still facing challenges regarding the fair treatment of workers and producers. Equal Exchange, a chocolate-producing company, was founded on the fundamental principles of ensuring Fair Trade standards and empowering consumers to make purchases that mirror their values. Their goal is simply to allow people to enjoy the delicious delicacy that is chocolate while making sure hard-working producers do not get consumed by capitalism.


Works Cited:

Athreya 2014. Ending Child Labor. United States Agency of International Development. Web. Accessed 5 May 2017.

Coe, S. et Coe, M. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames and Hudson. Everbest Printing. Print.

CSRwire 2011. Equal Exchange Launches 5th Annual Reverse Trick-or-Treat Halloween Drive to End Forced Child Labor in Cocoa Countries. Springfield. Print.

Equal Exchange Company Website. Equal Exchange Coop. Web. Accessed 5 May 2017.

Gunther, Marc. ”A Schism over Fair Trade.” Marc Gunther. Business. Sustainability. Web. Accessed 5 May 2017

Hasian 2008. Critical Memories of Crafted Values: The Cadbury Chocolate Scandals, Mediated Reputations, and Modern Globalized Slavery. Journal of Communication Inquiry. Print.

Martin, C. 2017. Lecture Slides, AFRAMER 119X, Harvard University.

North 2005. Equal Exchange Sweetens Fair Trade. Grassroots Economic Organizing Newsletter. Print.


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