Ethical Holiday Gifts? There’s a List for That

From seasonal candy to chocolate treats to gifts for family and friends, there’s a lot of shopping going on. And, because exploitation is baked into so much of our global economy, there are lots of questions about how to choose ethical holiday gifts – or at least support exploitation as little as possible. As watchdogs of “fair trade” and similar labeling claims, now is the prime season for our work.

We’re not going to add another gift guide to the mix. Instead, our offering is a few suggestions on how to read those scorecards and best brands lists. There’s no one single way to make your values match your purchases – after all, they are *your* values. But each list is shaped by its own values and choices too.

What does “Slave-Free Chocolate” Mean?

SlaveFreeChocolate.org is both a list and an advocacy organization by the same name. One thing that’s important to note: “Slave-free Chocolate” is their vision, not a guarantee.
Their criteria includes, but is not limited to, certifications and the answers to three questions:

  • Where do you source 100% of your cocoa?
  • Do you have something on your website to spread awareness?
  • Do you have initiatives that are either beneficial to the farmers or the environment?

Slave Free Chocolate made waves in the chocolate industry earlier this year when they removed Tony’s Chocolonely from their list. The reason? Despite their vision for “100% slave free chocolate,” Tony’s chocolate is made by Barry Callebaut, one of the major chocolate companies currently being sued for child labor in their supply chains. Those ties “[allow] them to produce chocolate cheaper than those who do everything ethically from soup-to-nuts,” Slave Free Chocolate’s director said in an interview.

What does Vegan Chocolate Mean?

Food Empowerment Project is a vegan advocacy group that has a chocolate list “To help people buy chocolate that does not involve the exploitation of human (children or adults) or non-human animals (such as cows and goats)”. Their criteria for inclusion on their list includes whether the chocolate is vegan as well as the answer to the questions:

  • What countries of origin does your cocoa come from?
  • What countries are your vegan products sold in?

Food Empowerment Project’s list does not rely on certification as they, rightfully, point out that certification does not guarantee that a product is free from child or forced labor (for more on this, see our podcast episode with Charity Ryerson of Corporate Accountability Lab). Instead, they focus on excluding chocolate produced in Western Africa or Brazil. While there is more evidence of forced labor being found in these locations, Food Empowerment Project’s standards focus on a broad geographical definition instead of looking at supply chains or business models.

What does Union-Made Mean?

AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S., maintains a list of union-made products on their site. Their criteria is simple: is it made in a union factory in the United States? Their list is quite useful when looking for anything from appliances to restaurants. They also have a chocolate list – but what their list doesn’t contain is any criteria for ingredients such as cocoa, sugar, or palm oil, all of which are likely grown outside the United States. The AFL-CIO also maintains a database where one can check on current boycotts called by workers on brands.

What’s in a Scorecard?

Green America is part of a coalition that releases a Chocolate Scorecard ranking the largest chocolate companies on their policies relating to a range of human rights and environmental policies. The scorecard explicitly ranks companies on “company commitments and policies. It does not assess effectiveness or implementation.” Big chocolate companies’ collectively have a bad track record on following through on commitments—that’s how a company like Nestle can get a top mark on child labor, despite being sued over their failure to address child labor in their supply chains.
The stated goal of the scorecard is to make companies’ commitments public, and potentially shame the big chocolate companies into doing better.

What’s that Label Mean?

Finally, Fair World Project has two resources we make available. There’s a list of “Mission-Driven Brands” which focuses on companies whose business models are focused on original fair trade principles and benefit to small-scale farmers and artisans. The criteria are focused on business models instead of individual products, and lean heavily on membership in trade justice-focused organizations instead of certifications. The criteria also require that brands are not supporting or lobbying for harmful policies such as free trade deals.

We also have a “Reference Guide” to labels that you may see in the store. The criteria rank certifications on their standards—not their implementation. Scores are for topics that certifiers can take action on, including building in participation of the people they’re supposed to benefit (those are the “intended beneficiaries” mentioned) as well as things that companies and certifiers alike make a lot of claims about, such as fair wages and prices. It’s important to note what’s not here: there are no guarantees that the presence of these labels, especially the most common ones, offer any guarantees of human rights, unfortunately. Research and too many exposés have shown that a certifiers’ annual audit alone is inadequate to protect workers’ and human rights. Finally, some of the strongest protections for workers’ rights don’t have any label on the package to let you know they exist, for example, the Milk with Dignity Program.

Ethical Holiday Gifts – And Beyond

Zooming out from the details of all these criteria for a moment, one thing is clear. Our global economy is built on extraction and exploitation. And the same corporations that are doing a lot of the exploitation tend to have the biggest budgets to market their goods to us as in some way “ethical.” There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of noise to cut through.

And, too often, in the name of simplicity, a lot of nuance gets omitted. People are organizing and doing good, ethical work even in countries with high rates of child labor. Instead of casting blame based on geography, we can keep our focus pointed on the corporations whose buying practices are driving exploitation.

Sign up for our newsletter for ways to keep holding those corporations accountable, advocating for better policies, and backing the work of people around the globe building a better world every day.

 

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