Ethical Chocolate – the big issues & the brands showing chocolate doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure

Ethical chocolate bars

Ethical chocolate

Chocolate, I love it. But until I found some amazing ethical chocolate brands, I was less of a fan.

I know chocolate has always been marketed as something of a guilty pleasure but it was early in my sustainability journey that I realised many chocolate brands are heavy on the guilty-part and light on the pleasure, especially for cocoa growers and their communities.

In today’s blog, I want to introduce some of the ethical issues surrounding chocolate production, including child labour, workers living in poverty and deforestation.

But don’t despair if you’re a chocoholic! I’ll also be telling you about some of my favourite chocolate brands that are shaking things up and creating a model for producing ethical chocolate. 

Human and labour rights

Chocolate is a product of the cacao bean (frequently referred to as “cocoa”). The cacao bean grows best in tropical climates, which is why West African countries – mostly Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast – supply about 70% of the world’s cocoa.

Despite chocolate being marketed and sold as a luxury product throughout much of the world, cocoa farmers are paid incredibly low prices for their crops. This means that, in many cases, they’re unable to pay their workers a living wage. 

In turn, cocoa workers are often unable to find acceptable accommodation and work long, punishing hours. They’re exposed to hazardous working conditions, such as handling pesticides without protective clothing, and may struggle to access healthcare, education or even clean water.

This impacts the wider communities where growing cocoa is the main livelihood. People are malnourished, living in poverty and there is widespread gender and ethnic discrimination.

Image of a Cocoa pod for our ethical chocolate blog

Child labour and slavery in the chocolate industry

Stretched to their limits, impoverished cocoa farmers need to cut their costs, which means many turn to child labour and even slavery as a solution. A report by Tulane University found that there were approximately two million children working in hazardous conditions in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana combined in 2015. Although this number had fallen to one and a half million by the 2019 growing season, it’s clearly still a substantial problem, representing 43% of all children living in agricultural households in cocoa-growing areas.

These figures include 800,000 five- to 11-year-olds who work with sharp tools, hazardous chemicals and are forced to carry heavy loads. 

A further 8,000 children in Brazil are reported to work in the cocoa industry, many performing dangerous tasks.

Child labour keeps children away from education, limiting their future opportunities, and threatening their physical and mental health.

Big brands such as Mars, Nestle and Hershey’s, as well as many smaller chocolate companies, all buy their cocoa from farms in Western Africa and Brazil that have been directly connected with child labour, trafficking and slavery.

Over recent years, a number of journalists and organisations have shone a light on enforced child labour and trafficking across borders. The documentary Invisible Hands, for exampleshowed traffickers in Ghana selling children to cocoa farmers for $34 a child. Some children who have been taken from their families will never see them again.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol was introduced to get chocolate manufacturers to voluntarily certify that they had stopped the practice of child labour but the success of this initiative has been limited. 

A recent report from UNICEF showed that child labour actually increased by 20% in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire during the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While we, as consumers, continue to want large amounts of chocolate at rock bottom prices, child labour will continue to be a reality.

Women in the cocoa industry

Women have been described as the “invisible” workforce at the heart of the cocoa industry. They do approximately 70% of the work on cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast, for example, but receive just 20% of the wages.

Although most cocoa producers live below the extreme poverty line, surviving on an average of 74p a day, women face an even tougher deal, having just 23p a day to live on.The BBC report linked to above highlights that, “Patriarchal attitudes often exclude [women] from decision making, land ownership, and the all-important stage of selling the crop. Legally landless and therefore not considered “farmers”, women’s ability to join co-operatives, receive training, access finance, and improve their lives, is limited”.

Chocolate and deforestation

The world’s appetite for chocolate is ever-increasing; in just the US, 58 million pounds of chocolate (more than 263 million kg) is eaten on Valentine’s Day alone. But cocoa is slow-growing – it can take an entire year for one cocoa tree to grow enough beans to make half a pound of chocolate, and the older a cocoa tree gets, the lower its yield.

In the face of this pressure to produce more, cocoa farmers clear huge areas of tropical forests rather than reusing the existing, depleted land on their plantations. Experts estimate that 70% of the Ivory Coast’s illegal deforestation is due to cocoa farming.

Several reports have found that cocoa production is directly endangering elephant and chimpanzee populations in Western Africa and the Ivory Coast.

It’s clearly an unsustainable approach to farming and a significant contributor to the ecological crisis. 


One of the big challenges we face as consumers is finding chocolate producers who are genuinely making ethical chocolate and tackling the above issues head-on. 

Greenwashing (the practice of spending more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing rather than actually implementing business practices that minimise environmental impact) is rife in the chocolate industry.

Images of happy cocoa farmers (and not a child labourer in sight), vague claims about “natural ingredients”, company-produced logos trumpeting “sustainability” and low prices are sadly commonplace.

Even brands that have built their reputation on producing slave-free chocolate have been called out for their wider connections. Is a company as ethical as it claims if they’re in some way contributing to unethical practices within other organisations, even unintentionally? 

It’s a serious issue and one reason why businesses have to be diligent about the ethics of everyone in their supply chain.

How fair is Fairtrade?

Many of us may have started our journeys to be ethical consumers by shopping for Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance-accredited products. While these schemes have made some progress, there are many people who feel they don’t go far enough.

In 2019, Ethical Consumer pointed out that “Even a company found to use violence against forced labourers could continue to bear the [Rainforest Alliance] logo if it had the right processes in place”.

Meanwhile, the Fairtrade scheme has been associated with high prices and fees (making it inaccessible to many small farmers), admin fees having to be absorbed by local communities, division within those communities, and concerns about worker welfare.

This means that we can’t take anything – even widely recognised accreditation – at face value.

Ethical chocolate, cocoa pod, cocoa beans and raw cacoa powder
Cacao pods, beans, nibs and powder.

Ethical chocolate companies who are remaking the chocolate mould 

So, what can we do as consumers? Does this all mean that chocolate should be off the menu from now on?

Fortunately, I’m delighted to say that there are some brands that are making chocolate with a conscience.

Luisa’s Vegan Chocolates

Shop Zero is one of the few places to currently stock Nottingham-based Luisa’s Vegan Chocolates. Luisa is the first bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Nottingham. She sources the finest quality beans directly from farmers (many of whom are women) in Colombia, paying them up to 69% more for their crops than the Fairtrade scheme.

She has personally visited the farms to ensure ethical practices and that the farmers are paid enough to look after their families and the environment where the beans are grown.

Colombia has become a centre for illicit drug cultivation with many families being forced into farming coca – the base ingredient of cocaine – under the violent control of drug cartels. 

With fair wages and entrepreneurial support, cocoa is the optimal “swap-out” crop for coca because it requires very similar growing conditions. Luisa is working with The University of Nottingham to give three female farmers in Colombia the training and technology needed to farm sustainably.

All of Luisa’s chocolates are vegan and packaged in home compostable packaging. If you don’t have a compost bin at home, you can simply return the wrapper to Shop Zero and we’ll take care of it for you.

Raw Chocolate Company

I’m also thrilled to supply a range of ethical chocolate products from the Raw Chocolate Company.

Chocolate from this Brighton-based business is made from vegan ingredients – all of which are certified organic – in a zero-waste kitchen. The company uses a proportion of its profits to work with its cacao supplier, Sierra Organic, to buy and plant cocoa trees in sustainable agro-forests in Peru.

Sierra Organic traces all of its products from the source, checking quality, use of pesticides, ethical working practices, sustainability and more.

Hope for the future

Luisa’s Vegan Chocolates and the Raw Chocolate Company are showing that chocolate can be produced ethically. Access to a fair living wage, knowledge about sustainable farming practices and better working conditions directly benefit cocoa-growing communities.

You can shop the full range of ethical chocolate and related products that we sell at Shop Zero here.

Leave a comment

Item added to cart.
0 items - £0.00