How Fair is Fair Trade? Is Nestle’s partnership with FLA legit?

Ok, so I’ve talked about the certifications out there, and I’ve said these are a good stepping stone to knowing that there’s some level of regulation revolving around the production of a fair trade chocolate bar. But, how fair is it really?

This is really hard to discern. While you can be certain that fair trade chocolate is not made of beans that come from farms in West Africa that use child slave labor, you cannot always know or be guaranteed that the farmers who are a part of the cooperatives are receiving enough money to send their kids to school. So, in a culture where most children working on family farms is the norm, is boycotting the answer? How can we discern between trafficked children who’ve been taken away from their homes and children who are working with their families?  Fair trade does guarantee an above market price for the farmer for their cocoa beans, setting a floor price that was designed to protect small producers. With cocoa prices fluctuating, this is better than nothing and does make a difference. However, it is discouraging to learn that large companies can fluff up their image by promoting one fair trade bar amongst many non-fair trade ones, as well as using other ingredients in their chocolate bars that have a gritty value chain. Why not aim for fair practices throughout your business model?!

The fact of the matter is, we have to look beyond to the root causes, those of poverty, corruption, and lack of education. These conditions, ever present in the Ivory Coast, allow for exploitative practices to flourish. Some families have no choice but to have their children work on the farms. On top of that, taxes for cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast are extravagantly high, about 40%, and are pocketed by the government.

So what can we do? I think as consumers, all we can do is demand and purchase Fair Trade chocolate, and ask where our chocolate comes from. If we can push the big players to give us transparency, they can in turn put pressure on the governments to demand fairer labor conditions. As for who pays more, I’d say we all pay more, on a consumer level, and on an industry level.

And, it might be working…as seen in yesterday’s announcement that Nestle is now working with Fair Labor Association to investigate whether there is child labor on the farms they source their cocoa from. When I first read about this I thought…hmm, but, you’ve known, for a good 10 years at least, that’s there’s a high likelihood this is the case. Still, I advocate action on any level, and I guess, they’ve addressed the issue more than they did years ago when they were sued by the Intl. Labor Rights Fund on the issue of child trafficking on farms they sourced cocoa from. My concern however is that FLA themselves have been scrutinized for their credibility. According to FLA Watch, the organization was started by large multi-nationals in the Apparel industry and some non-profits to monitor factory conditions and accredit large companies but was not explicit in calling out unethical practices and may still not be.

I’m no expert, but I hope these efforts by Nestle and FLA are more legitimate than simply image boosting. I just don’t think a large company can overturn its practices without raising the price of its chocolate, if indeed it decides to remove itself from most of its current sourcing options. And then, how about using their massive profits to help build roads and pay the farmers more to raise their standard of living in the Ivory Coast? There have to be viable alternatives and incentives to eliminate forced child labor, and to allow farmers the opportunity to give their children a choice in where they work and what they learn.

What are your thoughts on this? If anyone knows more about certification or has ideas on how consumers can impact better business practices in this industry, please send your comments!

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3 Comments

  1. Courtney said,

    December 2, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Love your blog Monali!!

    The Nestle case is interesting. I think that if Nestle is making true efforts into investigating and hopefully curtailing child trafficking practices by some of it’s cocoa sources, then that is great. And if it’s only for image boosting reasons–that’s fine too! In fact, you probably want a bottom-line incentive like that linked to the cause, so it’s a win-win solution.

    • December 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm

      Thank you Court! You make a good point, any action in the right direction is worthy action. Perhaps, eventually, the wheels will fully turn and translate into beyond single bottom line incentives. Thanks for pointing that out. Hope you keep reading, I look forward to following these big companies.

  2. December 19, 2011 at 5:12 am

    […] so. As the blog “Cacao for a cause” suggests in her post of December 1, 2011, Fairtrade does guarantee an above market price for […]


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