February 1, 2021
For decades, Nestle has been cited again and again for the human rights abuses and environmental devastation caused by its supply chains. Despite that, they still manage to make all kinds of ethical claims that would have you believe otherwise. At one point, Nestle even held fair trade certification on its U.K. KitKat bar. Then in 2020, they dropped the certification and plunged thousands of small-scale cocoa and sugar farmers into economic uncertainty.
In this episode, we speak with Fortin Bley, President of the Ivorian Fair Trade Network (IFTN), the farmer organization which supplied Nestle with their fair trade cocoa, and IFTN Coordinator, Franck Koman. We’ll also hear from Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. Together, we’ll find out how Nestle’s decision is impacting small-scale cocoa farmers and the chocolate industry as a whole. And we’ll learn what we can all do to support a truly fair future for the world’s cocoa farmers.
Dana Geffner: So, we’re a non-profit who talks a lot about the ways that our food system is rigged in favor of big corporations. And about the ways that people are organizing to change that. I’m Dana Geffner, and I’m the Executive Director here at Fair World Project. One of those companies whose name comes up a lot when talking about food is Nestle. They’re the biggest food company in the world by their own calculations with sales reaching over $90 billion per year. They make everything from dog food to chocolate to coffee to bottled water. They own upwards of 1000 brands. Names you’ve heard of like Purina Dog food, Nescafe, and the famous Nestle Crunch bar. And companies you might not have thought were Nestle: such as Perrier, San Pellegrino—they’ve even got a stake in the upscale Blue Bottle coffee brand. Nestle is everywhere.
Over the next few episodes, we’re going to be talking about this Goliath of the food world. We’ll be talking with people who have worked with them, and people who are building a world that – hopefully- can take us far beyond what they’ve built. To get us started, Anna Canning Canning, Fair World Project’s campaigns manager is going to delve into the chocolate industry and some recent events that mean a lot for all of us working for a more just food system.
Anna Canning: So, we talk about Nestle a fair amount. And before I get to the point of this episode, I need to address something that comes up every time we mention them.
Every time we say something about Nestle, there’s one story that comes up. Nestle is quite possibly the most boycotted company in the world, although there aren’t really official statistics on that sort of thing. They are targeted by people trying to protect their water rights here in my home state of Oregon, & in Michigan, & all over the world. They are getting sued by former child laborers from cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire or Ivory Coast. We’ve supported small-scale coffee farmers opposing their plans to build an instant coffee plant in Mexico. But every time we mention any of these things, without fail, there’s one thing that comes up. Baby formula.
Maybe you were already thinking about it. Maybe you’ve already started that email to remind me. If you weren’t, here’s the back story. Back in the ‘70s, activists brought to light some pretty sketchy advertising practices by Nestle. They were marketing their baby formula to new parents in African, South Asian, and Latin American countries, giving free supplies to new mothers in hospitals, and promoting their formula as the best way to feed your baby. The problem was that once their free supply of formula went away, families then had to buy more formula – something they couldn’t afford and might not have access to clean water to mix up. And if a baby’s not breastfeeding, the mother’s body will stop producing milk. It’s not like a switch that just turns on and off. That milk is gone. And so those families are left with no good choices. The results? Malnutrition, waterborne illnesses, and hunger.
Activists around the globe launched a boycott that lasted into the ‘80s. Nestle sued an NGO who put out a pamphlet calling them “Baby Killers” and won because the court couldn’t find them specifically criminally liable for what happened to these babies. But the advocates did end up pushing the World Health Organization and others to step in & write new rules around the marketing of breast milk substitutes. And those campaigners won an even bigger victory. Even now, all these years later, any time we post something on social media or send out an email mentioning Nestle, the first commenter always reminds us of baby formula. Those campaigners may not have won in court, but they won in the court of public opinion.
I bring all this up not just so you know that we haven’t forgotten Nestle’s baby formula debacle. I bring it up because, despite all their marketing trying to sell themselves as the friendly company who is going to feed the world, this is what people remember. Which is why the next thing has always seemed so incongruous to me.
For about 10 years, the UK version of Nestle’s KitKat bars were Fairtrade certified. Maybe I’m just an insider, but it seems pretty wild to me that a company getting sued by former child laborers on cocoa farms is also able to cash in on marketing a product as fair trade. But that’s actually how most well known fair trade certifications work. Certifications look at a specific product – the chocolate bar you’re holding in your hand right now—and follow the paper trail on the ingredients that go into it. Most certification labels don’t ask questions like “who owns this company,” or “are they also supporting bad policies with their profits.”
For just about two decades now, we’ve had this idea that certifications will set standards and companies will voluntarily meet them in hopes of getting people who care to buy their products. More money will trickle down to the farmers. The companies will see that people care about ethics and then will want to do better across all their supply chains. I think that’s how the story goes. But is it working out? That’s the simple version of the question we’re going to be asking over the next few episodes.
Nestle’s UK KitKat’s were Fairtrade certified. That’s past tense now. A few months back, they announced that they’d be dropping fair trade and switching to Rainforest Alliance certification. And so, in this series, we’re going to delve into that a bit. We’ll talk to some of the people most impacted by Nestle’s decision, as well as some people who can help us step back and understand the bigger picture. We’ll walk through the main ingredients in a KitKat bar one by one to get a better understanding of both this decision –and really to probe the question of what it would look like to do fair trade here and now in 2020.
To start with, we reached out to Franck Koman and Fortin Bley of the Ivorian Fair Trade Network. They work directly with the farmers growing the cocoa that went into these KitKat bars. Shortly after Nestle’s decision to drop fair trade was released, they came out with a strong statement saying that Nestle “Stopping the relationship with Fairtrade is to silence our voices [as Fairtrade producers].” You can see the rest of that statement linked in the transcript on our website.
My conversation with Franck and Fortin took place online and was translated from French – the voices you’ll hear are not their own but read from a transcript of the interpreter.
Anna Canning: So to begin, can you each say your name and the organization that you work with?
Franck Koman: I’m going to present myself. I am Franck Koman and I take care of the coordination of the Ivorian Fair Trade Network.
And the goal of the association is to contribute to the economic development of its members. And to do that, we have three kinds of intervention. The first thing is to present its members and to defend their interests.
Franck Koman: And the second one is to contribute to developing their capacities and possibilities. And the third one is to promote the goals of fair trade, fair trade market. The most important action is to defend the interests of the farmers. And that’s what we’re doing right now.
Anna Canning: I see. So what kind of crops do the farmer associations or farmer organizations that you work with grow?
Franck Koman: In Ivory Coast? What we do mainly is cocoa. About 95% is cocoa.
Anna Canning: And who are the big buyers of that cocoa?
Franck Koman: There is Nestle, is one of them. One of the biggest ones.
Anna Canning: According to the Ivorian Fair Trade Network, Nestle’s decision to drop Fairtrade will impact a total of 16,000 fair trade cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire. And those farmers, what have they heard from Nestle?
Franck Koman: Right now we’ve heard nothing from Nestle, but Nestle got in touch with us and we’re getting ready to, to, to receive, to talk with Nestle next week.
Franck Koman: During that meeting, they’re going to be explaining to us why they made that decision that they made and us and we’ll be talking together. We’ll be seeing together what we can do. Well, what we fear is that that person that’s going to be talking with us will not have the necessary authority, you know, to help because he’s only an agent of the company, not one of the people who can do something.
Anna Canning: And that’s part of the problem. These farmers are a long way away from the people who actually make these decisions. Franck walks me through the long supply chain that takes cocoa from the farmer who grew it to Nestle. Small-scale farmers harvest their cocoa pods and then sell them to a local buyer who acts as an intermediary with the cooperative. The cooperative then sells to Nestle’s intermediary—Barry Callebaut or Cargill. These companies are some of the biggest in the world. Cargill’s got their fingers in all sorts of products – grain in the US Midwest, palm oil, soy beans. They’ve been named “the worst company in the world” by the NGO Mighty Earth for their footprint across the countries where they do business. This long chain of intermediaries between the farmer who grows the cocoa and Nestle aren’t just bug – they are a feature of the system. It’s designed to work this way. Cocoa farmer poverty. Child labor. Deforestation. Too often, when these big problems come up, companies like Nestle are conveniently able to throw up a big cloud of plausible deniability. And it also makes it so that Franck and Fortin are a long way from talking with the corporate decision-makers. Even though they represent a national farmers’ association.
We’ve got a rocky connection, so Franck and our translator cut in and out a lot. But in between dropped calls, he tells me that one of the ways that a farmer knows that they are selling to Nestle is that they are part of Nestle’s Cocoa Plan. CocoaPlan is the name Nestle’s given to their own in-house social responsibility program. It’s got some nice marketing slogans about how it tackles big issues in cocoa –but the standards aren’t public. That means it’s really hard to know what standards they’re actually trying to meet when they say they’re aiming for “better lives,” “better farming,” and “better cocoa.” Fortin explains Cocoa Plan from his perspective:
Fortin Bley: It’s not a certification. So, Nestle is a buyer. So they focus on creating the conditions of productivity, they work with the problems of child labor.
Anna Canning: You may think that there are a lot of labels on a chocolate bar when you go to the grocery store. But there are also a ton of these programs for the farmers who grow the cocoa. A recent report found that there are 92 in West Africa alone. That’s 92 different ways to attempt to fix the problems in the cocoa trade. People here in the States often tell us that all the ethical labeling and marketing claims on the shelf in the store are confusing. But Fortin is completely clear on the distinction.
Fortin: I want to say that a difference between Rainforest Alliance and the Fair Trade system, everyone wants to know who is, what, what is the fair trade system? The fair trade system promotes democracy, transparency, equity, and fair trade system promote the human development.
Fortin: And when the producer go to do Rainforest Alliance, it is not the same. All the environmental protections [do] not to help the producer
Fortin: In the Rainforest Alliance it is, do this, do that, do that, do that, do that, they give you to-do lists and you can apply it. You can execute. This is a very, very different.
Anna Canning: This is the key difference that Fortin is making here. While Nestle promotes their own Cocoa Plan, it focuses mostly on getting farmers to increase their productivity, to grow more in hopes of making ends meet. And Rainforest Alliance? Their frog label has farmers focus on a checklist of to-dos. Fortin makes a big distinction here between both of those and Fairtrade standards. Fair trade standards focus on transparency, equity, and human development – as he described it. And they go about it in a different way too –the emphasis is on democracy, not on someone else’s checklist.
Fortin Bley: [With Fairtrade, there is] a minimum price guarantee with fair trade that doesn’t exist with Rainforest. Also, the premium for fair trade is higher than the one for Rainforest.
Anna Canning: This “premium” is a small additional amount that a buyer pays per pound – or in the case of cocoa, per metric tonne.
Fortin Bley: On one side, the producer has control of what the premium is used for. But on the other side, that is decided by, by chocolatiers, by the industrial people. But with fair trade, it’s a producer who has the control of how to spend the money.
Anna Canning: One of the most well-known talking points about fair trade is that there are minimum prices set for most products. That’s really important when you have crops like coffee or cocoa, where the price goes up and down a lot, influenced by a lot of factors that a farmer has no control over. Despite years of criticism from advocates like us, Rainforest Alliance doesn’t set any sort of minimum price. They actually just redid their entire standard. But still, no minimum price guarantee.
OK, so we’re a bit in the weeds with pricing right now, but we’re going to stay here a minute longer because it’s not just minutiae. Let’s be real – we’re talking about a system that bills itself as sustainable but is still OK with farmers being unable to feed their families or cover the cost of production.
And this premium that Fortin describes—this is a small amount per pound, or, in the case of cocoa, per metric ton, that goes on top of the price paid for the crop. The current Rainforest Alliance premium set up makes it optional for buyers to pay that premium. In the fair trade system, there are a couple of these premiums – one to recognize that organic farming takes more time and effort. There’s also one dedicated to social projects. Farmers—farmers who are members and owners of the cooperative—vote on how that premium gets spent. And, as Fortin points out, that’s important.
Fortin Bley: With fair trade, the producer is involved in all the decisions and he has a say in what’s going on.
Fortin Bley: Fair Trade is the most beneficial for the producer.
Anna Canning: So in the time that you have been getting the fair trade price and the fair trade premium, can you tell me a little about some of the projects that the cooperatives have done with those premiums?
Fortin Bley: They build schools in villages. And health centers also. They were able to dig wells, to bring water to people, they were able to train people for certain trades.
Anna Canning: What sort of trades?
Fortin Bley: training for farmers to do what was needed to change the type of crops that would grow. That’s something they were able to do also.
Anna Canning: Ah, so to diversify the farmers’ crops.
The social premium projects that we’re talking about here might very well be one of the most talked about parts of fair trade. And for Franck, that is the part he keeps returning to. Not just what they do with their money, but how they get there.
Franck Koman: So when the, when the farmer can decide what to do with the money, he puts his heart into it and it’s more long-lasting. And when he’s involved in all the decisions, it helps the farmer to feel valued and important. And he doesn’t feel like a beggar. The producer needs to be heard. He doesn’t need people to come and impose things on him. It’s important because what he does is a trade, he needs to be valorized, he needs to feel worth.
Franck Koman: So if we want a project to be sustainable, we need to include the producer. Because we’ve seen in cooperative, projects, that were initiated by chocolate companies or industries, these projects fizzle out after 10 years because the producer was not involved in decision making. So it was not his immediate focus. So with fair trade, the cooperative makes development plans every year. With fair trade, producers can think about the future and to plan for long-term projects. But on the other side, the producers are not involved in decision making so they have to wait for instruction. Then people tell them what to do.
Anna Canning: Franck keeps coming back to this point. And I do too. Because, listening to him, it seems pretty obvious, right? If you want something to last, people need to be invested in it. It needs to be something that matters in their lives. But the number of so-called corporate social responsibility programs or labels that are not set up this way is staggering. And the dynamics of this are more than just standard top-down corporate management where your bad boss tells you what to do and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s a really long history here. And when you think about that history, what Franck’s describing really mirrors colonialism. There are centuries of precedence for European companies, governments, standard setting organizations – all of them – taking this role of deciding what would be best for people living here in Cote d’Ivoire. These companies of what’s often called the Global North created the problem of cocoa farmers living in poverty by treating them like a source for cheap ingredients. And now, they’re repeating that pattern, setting the terms of what gets called ethical and once again cutting out the actual people and communities.
To be clear, Franck doesn’t quite put it in those terms.
Franck Koman: We need not to make the producer a tool for production, a production tool, but he needs to remain a human person, a human being.
Anna Canning: But his words really drill home how that system treats farmers. Through its organized farmer groups, he sees fair trade as something fundamentally different. And that difference? It’s the difference between a future with cocoa farming and one without.
Franck Koman and Fortin Bley: Fair trade gives the producer a voice to speak up. We really want to ask to be allowed, to continue to work with fair trade… And with this system, the producer can pass on his training to the next generation, if there is not a next generation to follow up on the work, there is not sustainability. As the years go, the producer is learning more and he doesn’t want to stay in an environment where everything is dictated to him. When the producer is not involved in the decision, eventually he’s gonna stop because he doesn’t have a say so.
Anna Canning: Yeah. So in your cooperatives, do you have, are many of the youth then staying to become cocoa farmers or are they not interested?
Franck Koman: There’s not many young [people] right now who are interested in the production of cocoa because they see how their parents are suffering, they see how everything is already decided for their parents. So they are not motivated. So if the system that comes in makes the motivation of the farmer disappear, that would be a problem for the producer because many of the producers are getting old.
Anna Canning: So for the future, if Nestle says, no, they will not keep on working as fair trade, what does the path forward look like for the farmers that you work with?
Franck Koman: If Nestle doesn’t, doesn’t change its decision, the producers will lose their motivation. If there was a producer who was used to be able to decide what he could do, now, it’s like his mouth is going to be closed. Somebody is going to close his mouth now. Now we’re not just talking to Nestle. We want to talk to the whole industry.
Franck Koman: So if Nestle doesn’t change its decision, the producer will have to do what he has to do, but it will be like dehumanizing the producer. I’d like to say that we, we, we address the whole cocoa industry.
Anna Canning: This question of the sustainability of cocoa that Franck brings up is not an idle threat. It seems like every few months there is a new article out talking about how cocoa is on the path to extinction with climate change. We’re going to get to that part in a later episode. But what Franck is saying here is that the biggest threat to the future of cocoa farming is this path we’re currently on. This system that treats the people who grow cocoa as just tools to produce more is going to destroy itself if we don’t change course.
I ask him what the alternative looks like. What would it look like to have a truly fair chocolate trade?
Franck Koman: It’s a market where everybody has a say so, and can give their opinion. Where no part is set aside, no party is set aside. Everybody works together, where everybody can express themselves. Where there is a fair price.
Anna Canning: Before we finish. Do you have any last words that you would want to say to people in the U.S. about chocolate?
Franck Koman and Fortin Bley: Thank you to all those who are in that system. Behind the consumption of chocolate, there is a whole community of people to look at.
Anna Canning: That is a very good point. I think sometimes when you’re in the store, you only see the label and you do not know all the people and the stories behind it.
Franck and Fortin: You should encourage people to continue consuming fair trade products. Because behind the fair trade products, there is a valorization of many people and it gives a smile to a child.
Anna Canning: Now that Franck and Fortin have gone in-depth on this decision and what it means to their network of small-scale cocoa farmers, we’re going to zoom out for our next conversation.
Anna Canning: That last line about a child’s smile from Franck is actually a really good way to ground ourselves for the next interview. My next guest is Simran Sethi. She’s a writer who has written a book on chocolate (as well as wine, and coffee) and done an entire podcast on chocolate.
When I asked her how she first got interested in chocolate, she cut straight to the chase.
Simran Sethi: You know, I’ve eaten chocolate, my entire life it’s brought me such extraordinary joy. I write in my book that it was my every birthday cake. It was my wedding cake and it helped me get through my divorce, you know? So it’s been this substance of real solace.
Anna Canning: I have to admit, working in the field I do and talking about chocolate from a policy sort of perspective, I’ve become a real buzzkill about it. But both Simran and Franck rein me in a bit. Chocolate itself is a delightful thing. It’s the corporate structures that we’ve built up around it that are the buzzkill.
Simran Sethi: And when I went for the very first time in Ecuador, which is one of the places in the upper Amazon where cocoa was born and I realized I couldn’t recognize it in nature, I had absolutely no idea where it came from… And the process, you know, this, this bumpy pod that could be yellow or deep purple or modeled yellow and green or orange, at the other end of that, recognizing we eat the seeds, the seeds that are actually this beautiful lavender color, and they’re super bitter become this extraordinary product that we call chocolate. That transformation was so revelatory to me.
I wanted to focus there. And so I have spent a lot of time writing about chocolate in my book and a number of articles for publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post and Smithsonian, and then creating what became the world’s first kind of comprehensive chocolate podcast. So it’s something that’s very close to my heart because I think it’s something we love. And it’s something that holds the whole world issues ranging from science and politics to geography and justice. So that’s, that’s why it really took over and captivated me.
Anna Canning: Wow. Yeah, there’s so many threads that you can pull out from chocolate. In all of that exploration that you’ve done about chocolate and the trade, the science, the food itself, what really sticks with you?
Simran Sethi: Well, I think for me, what really sticks to me and I’m someone who has actually done like sensory analysis training and how to taste cocoa , I was a visiting scholar at the Cocoa research center. I’ve learned how to make chocolate. Like I really have done my best to learn about a lot of the continuum. And the part of the chocolate story that sticks out to me the most is the, are the opening chapters. And by that, I mean, the farmers behind the crop, it’s this robust industry and it’s this extraordinary product. And yet all most of us know about it are the people who grow cocoa, we know that they live in poverty. And beyond that, that’s sort of the whole story. There’s not any sense of agency. There’s not any sense of stewardship. There’s not any respect or gratitude for these people who are really living on the margins, you know, who are growing a crop that brings us joy but are suffering immensely in the process. And that’s why I’ve dedicated so much of my work to talking about that part of the story because I think without cocoa farmers, we don’t have chocolate. And yet, we focus a lot on the makers. We focus a lot on what you can do with cocoa. We focus a lot on making a chocolate dessert, but what we need to do is keep shining a light on the farmers behind the crop.
Anna Canning: Yeah. That’s such an interesting juxtaposition that you talk about there that we think of cocoa as being this really luxurious thing, but the people who make it are in such poverty. And it’s a simple observation, but like how do, like can you maybe share with us a little bit about how that imbalance has come to be?
Simran Sethi: Absolutely. And I’ll say, you know, one of the things about being a luxury is it’s an affordable luxury. So it feels, especially right now in the middle of all the challenges we’re facing in the world. It’s a comfort, but it’s an indulgent comfort. And the reason I want to underscore that is it’s like a luxury that most of us actually have within our purview, right? It’s not, I don’t know, caviar, champagne. It’s a luxury we indulge in. And I think for that reason, it’s really important for us to understand the lives of the people who make that possible and who are not, you know, getting paid luxurious prices for it.
So I think many of us grew up thinking, okay, like a chocolate bar, candy bar, I should say more specifically, which only probably has like 10% cocoa content if, if even that should cost like a dollar, a buck, 50. you know, back in the day, it was 50 cents, you know? And, and now we see with, with the emergence of the craft chocolate movement, an understanding that this is a quality product, like something like coffee and that it should actually, the price should be reflective of the labor that goes into it. And I, to answer your question about how this came to be, how do we get this idea? You know that we can sort of see it as an indulgence, but the people who make it are on the margins and are not being given a fair price for the work that they’re doing. I think that comes with the decoupling, right? So if we look at a crop like coffee, or even like cocoa, they’re grown in one place, cocoa is grown in an equatorial band, 20 degrees, North and South of the equator, but it’s often been turned into this quote unquote luxury product in the Global North. So it gets shipped to places like Amsterdam. It gets shipped to Europe, it gets shipped to the United States.
And the United States is the world’s chocolate factory, most of the major manufacturers are headquartered there. And that’s where it becomes this other thing. And that’s where it goes from being this commodity that gets a really low price to the product that gets a significantly higher price. And that decoupling is the thing that keeps us from understanding the plight of cocoa farmers. Of coffee farmers. Because we simply don’t know them. Right? We think about, maybe the chocolate maker down the street, the coffee roaster down the street, or that Willy Wonka kind of Charlie and the chocolate factory fantasy, we’d go to Hershey, Pennsylvania, visit the chocolate factory there. We have a closer relationship with those entities than we do with the farmers. And that again is underscored by what I shared. I’ve been eating chocolate for a good 45 plus years. I had absolutely no idea where it came from. I could not recognize this product in nature, but I would argue it’s one of the most important food products in my life. Not a nutritional staple, but a spiritual one. Like a soul staple? That’s nonsense, right? That’s crazy that I was standing in that forest going, where is it? Where is it? And then, they crack open the pod, the folks I’m with these farmers and some other folks. And again, I’m like, well, where’s the chocolate? Cause when you crack open the pod, you see these pulpy, you don’t even recognize they’re seeds in there right? It’s just this pulpy mass. It looks like, I don’t know to me like that Chiclets gum, like, you know? like a little set into this oblong pod are all of these, these pulpy orbs. So again like where’s the chocolate? and here I am, I’m writing a book on chocolate and I haven’t yet discovered this. So just to say, this, how this came to be is the story of capitalism. It is the story of the commodification of food. It is the more we can separate the people who create these products from the end product the more ability there is to shift the price. The more ability there is to shift the amount a certain entity will get for that product. And it just, it takes us further away. It takes us away. They’re not centered in our care because, because they’ve been engineered not to be.
Anna Canning: This point that Simran is making is so key. When I talked to Fortin and Franck, they pointed out that they didn’t even get Nestle’s decision to drop Fairtrade from Nestle directly. While Nestle in the UK might have met with some fairtrade campaigners, they didn’t meet directly with the people whose lives will be most impacted by their decision. It’s just one way that the system is engineered to take the farmers out of the story. To make them just another input in a chocolate bar.
I asked Simran what her response was to Nestle’s decision to drop the fair trade certification for their UK version of their Kit Kat bar.
Simran Sethi: I had many thoughts about Nestle being one of the biggest food and beverage companies in the world. And a lot of the commitments they’ve made and how quickly and readily they drop them…They were one of the first companies to make zero-deforestation commitments, but they only started monitoring their supply chain when there was this big expose done by an NGO called Mighty Earth. ..They were cited for their child labor challenges and they made commitment after commitment, after commitment that they have continued to break. And I am assured that under COVID they, and a number of other major chocolate manufacturers will be saying the same thing. We simply cannot monitor our supply chain. Right? We cannot oversee everyone.
And yet at the same time, what they say is, but let us monitor ourselves. We will do sustainability on our own things. Like we’ve shown through our track record that we’re actually not going to adhere to the external commitments we made, but now let us just take care of ourselves….
Simran Sethi: So I guess going back to your question, I think to myself, you know, organizations worked so hard to get Nestle to make that commitment to fair trade certification. And then they agreed to do it for their Kit Kats, their most popular bar. And then they decided to drop it and it, again to me underscores the fact that the industry as a whole is not committed to actually uplifting farmers out of poverty. …
Anna Canning: As in our earlier conversation with Fortin and Franck, the number of corporate social responsibility programs that companies have launched comes up.
Simran Sethi: It’s really disheartening to me to see how much effort is made to create individual protocols. Like one company will have this sustainability thing. One will have another, they don’t work together. They don’t hold themselves accountable and they don’t explain the bigger context within which they work. And so it becomes really hard for consumers to understand what child labor remediation looks like. To understand what deforestation commitments actually look like, because they’ll say, “Oh, well, we just did X for 150,000 farmers.” But not recognizing this is within the context of millions of farmers, you know? The child labor monitoring and remediation systems that are in place, they’ve reached less than 20% of over 2 million children that are impacted. But then you’ll see a company say, “Oh, look at the great things that we’re doing.” Or they’ll say, “Oh, okay, well we’re dropping the certification, but don’t worry. We’ve got our own program in place and we’re going to take care of it.” And it’s like, under what like history should we believe that you’re going to take care of it? And when we look at a company like Nestle to come back to your original comment, they have proven time and time again, not only with chocolate, but beyond chocolate, that they are not up to that challenge. And that they are not interested in doing much beyond increasing value for their shareholders, not for the stakeholders. Every single person and place and community that is part of that long supply chain, but rather focused on those who own, you know, own shares in their company.
Anna Canning: Yeah. It really is a stark difference there for sure. And so, you know, looking then at the people who are going to be most impacted, who I would argue are sort of some of the key stakeholders there in Cote d’Ivoire, which is one of the top producers of cocoa. Can you talk a little bit about that place and what cocoa has meant for that country?
Simran Sethi: So for Ivory Coast in West Africa, I think a lot of people maybe don’t realize that coffee and chocolate are African foods, y’all. The majority of cocoa is grown in West Africa. Predominantly in Cote d’Ivoire, or Ivory coast. And it is the lifeblood of that country. It is one of the sustaining crops now, unfortunately, cocoa is an export crop and the country is reliant upon major manufacturers to ensure that farmers are compensated. It is a complex calculus. It is a complex set of relationships that involve international manufacturers, as well as local governments, as well as end consumers. And those are just a few of the players involved… But the ones who are most vulnerable in this chain are those farmers.
And I think back to a couple of years ago, when the bottom fell out of the commodity market for cocoa and overnight, those farmers lost one-third of their income. Now, if we think about the industry of farming, it’s a very risky endeavor. Farmers have to put their labor and any money that they’re putting toward inputs into that crop in hopes that it will grow. And the perversion of economics is when you have an oversupply, when you did your job, double thumbs up, you did your job. And you know Mother Nature smiled upon you. And it was a really bumper crop. So you got an over-abundance of cocoa. Well, what happens? What happens when you have an oversupply? Well, law of economics says the price for that crop is then going to drop. So you put in all this labor as the farmer, and then you see your labor devalued after you’ve already harvested it. In the case of grains, you can store something. Or oil, if we think of another commodity, you can store that away until the market kind of readjusts. So you can hold back some of that supply. Cocoa starts to ferment and then starts to rot as soon as it’s harvested. It’s not one of the ones that you can hold back. So you got to sell it. And you’re selling it more likely than not to a middle person—a middleman, because they are typically men who will then go on to sell that crop again. And so you’ll get paid, if you’re a cocoa farmer, the lowest amount for that crop. And then it will increase the earnings will increase as it moves up the chain for the various players involved. But you’re the most vulnerable. You’re the ones who, you’re the one who has to get rid of it. And I think that’s what we’ve seen here is a country that has been shown to be incredibly vulnerable to external players. Even the government has recognized.
And that’s why I’m heartened to see some of these relationships forming between Ivory Coast and Ghana, as an example, two of the largest producers of cocoa in the world to say, we are going to try to take some of our power back. Because it, fundamentally, this is about poverty. And when you have poverty, you have challenges like child labor come out of that. There are no parents who want to send their children. They would much rather send their children to school, excuse me, rather than have them work in a field. Like that’s just the truth of it. But if you need children to be working in order to feed yourselves, then you do this. There is no country that would rather deforest…Yet, what we have discovered is that Ivory Coast, between 1990 and 2015 lost 85 percent of its forests. So the same places that are vital for biodiversity that hold wildlife populations that are allegedly protected are the very same places that are being compromised. I really believe in the goodness of people. I really believe they’re not doing this. At the end of the day, they lose from this. In order to do anything other than for survival reasons. And so, what this has meant, these multinational corporations, making decisions to say, we’re no longer going to certify our cocoa. We’re going to just have at it on our own. We’re going to make a set of decisions on our own. And we’re going to prioritize shareholder value over the stakeholders, including the places where cocoa grows and the people who grow it means that there’s less accountability, you know? And it means that there will be greater suffering in countries like Ivory Coast.
Anna Canning: It was interesting talking to some of the farmers from the organization that was selling to Nestle and what they kept saying is, people talk about sustainability in cocoa. And the thing that is sustainable is if our farmers feel like they have choices and they feel like they have power. And that is what is going away. And you can talk as much as you want about sustainability, but if people don’t feel like they have power to make their own decisions, then there is no future.
Simran Sethi: Exactly. And what is sustainability? It’s this unwieldy concept that is defined by each institution individually. Like we don’t have an overarching notion as a global community, as consumers, chocolate lovers, whomever of what sustainability is…I actually teach courses on sustainability graduate courses on sustainability communications. I say, ask. The very first question you should be asking is “how do you define sustainability?” And they’ll throw out people, planet and profit. And they’ll throw out these sort of, okay, what do you mean when you talk about people? Oh, well livelihoods. Okay. How many people are you talking about? Right? So you have to keep getting granular. And that’s how we get to these things where it’s like, wow, your sustainability plan only addresses 5% of the farmers growing cocoa you know or something like that.
Anna Canning: Another thing that makes sustainability so difficult to define is that too many of these programs are coming at it from a consumer’s point of view, not a farmer’s.
Simran Sethi: And I think there needs to be a lot more nuance in how we approach farming. And that should include something like being willing to pay more and recognize how difficult it is to grow these crops. Being willing to understand that organic grown in monoculture is not the solution. Be willing to start to understand something like the concept of agroecology. Understand what biodiversity means. Like do a little homework on our, on our side around something that is so precious, this intimate commodity that we call food. So we can make decisions that also give us choice that are in service of what we want to support, not just sort of these blanket like, okay, well, I hit the certification.
Anna Canning: “Sustainability” is a hard concept to pin down. And even if we can, if we pin it down from the right perspective, and consider the nuances, the reality is that sustainability isn’t enough. We, collectively, as people who live on this planet, are at a point that’s past what can be sustained. And cocoa is one of those crops that’s most at risk from the climate consequences of unchecked capitalism. I asked Simran how our current climate crisis is impacting cocoa and the people who grow it.
Simran Sethi: So it grows in that band, I mentioned, that thin band, 20 degrees North and South of the equator. Think about what a warming planet does to a band around the equator. You know, it’s drought, it’s excessive rainfall, it’s extreme weather, it’s soil salinity. It’s an increase in the salinity of soil. All of these things impact yield. And that in turn impacts the livelihood of cocoa farmers, because cocoa farmers are paid for the amount of cocoa that they grow, not the quality.
Simran Sethi: Cocoa is a highly vulnerable crop. And climate change is here. And the people who are growing cocoa are being adversely affected by climate change already. That’s what all these storms are doing. That’s what the volatility of these hurricanes are doing. You know, just as an example in Mexico, we have seen a heat wave that we haven’t seen in 30 years. A storm that we hadn’t seen in 17 years…
This climate volatility, these extreme weather events are becoming a more regular occurrence. Add to that, the layer of pandemics that we will surely not see the last of. And we recognize we need to start solving these problems. So I have often talked about climate change through the lens of chocolate. Because again, it’s something that people can get their heads around. You might not understand sea-level rise in isolation. But if I tell you like your cocoa is being compromised, maybe you’ll start to pay attention. And it is, it is being compromised. It is impacting yield. It is impacting flavor. It is impacting the people who grow the crop.
Anna Canning : Yeah. It is a grim outlook in many ways.
Simran Sethi: It is, it is only grim though, if we don’t do anything about it. And I think that’s the key here. I haven’t painted some glorious picture of the chocolate factory, but the thing is, we’re all the Charlies. Like we all have agency here to help reshape what this industry looks like. And if chocolate isn’t your jam, like figure out which crop is and go do the work there because every crop is impacted. Like the world is impacted. Agriculture is impacted. And I think that’s what I really want people to understand. Like, it’s, it feels dark, but these are solvable problems. They’re within our purview, poverty alleviation is in our purview. We can stop deforesting. We can stop these trajectories that we’re on. If we start to make a different set of decisions, if we elect a different set of politicians, if we hold the institutions accountable, like get off your duff and write a letter to Nestle and tell them, Hey, guess what? Because you have stopped doing this thing, I have stopped buying your chocolate. I am now supporting X company instead. If enough of us start to do these things, these things will change because that’s the supply chain. Like they rely on selling their supply and we are the end of that chain as consumers. And I think now more than ever, we have an opportunity to, to show, to flex our power. I think we relied on other entities to do it, but it starts with writing those letters. It starts with deciding, I am going to choose this product over that product, but it doesn’t end there. It’s not about individual change. It’s about systemic change and recognizing our role in enacting that as well.
Anna Canning: That’s really well put. And I think that takes me to a final question for you. Cause I know we’re running towards the end of time. What would it look like if there were a truly fair ethical chocolate trade, what would that look like?
Simran Sethi: To me, it would look like, um, recognizing that relationship with the people who grow cocoa and compensating them fairly for it. Right now, cocoa farmers earn between, and these are old statistics. There’s not like new data, but less than a dollar a day, right? Or between three to 6 cents for every dollar we spend on chocolate. So like, just think about that for a second. You eat a chocolate bar and 3 cents go back to a cocoa farmer. Like, is that commensurate with the amount of joy that you got from that chocolate fix? And if not, what is our responsibility to shift that? How can we show our gratitude in a way that’s tangible? And I think that’s what we need to start looking at. How can we be accountable to each other?
I used to live in Lawrence, Kansas, and there was a mural of a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. She’s an extraordinary African-American poet. And the poem ends with, “we are each other’s harvest.” I’m mangling it a bit here, but we are each other’s business. We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s magnitude and bond. And I love that because what that points to is interdependence. you know, without cocoa farmers, there is no cocoa, but also without cocoa consumers, without chocolate consumers, chocolate lovers, there is no chocolate. So how can we complete that circle? And I don’t have a perfect answer for it, but I think it starts with paying attention to them and learning more about their lives and recognizing that farmers, people all over the world want the same things. We want our kids to be safe. We want to have good lives.
There was a cocoa farmer I met in Ecuador who says “with each bar of chocolate, you’re eating my hopes and my dreams.” And that really has stayed with me. His name is Vicente Norero. And I think about that. I think about that with the coffee I drink, and the coffee farmers I met in Ethiopia. I think about that with the chocolate, the cocoa farmers I’ve met now all over the world. That, that what they pour into this crop that becomes this glorious thing that we love is, are their hopes and dreams for their futures and for the lives of their children. And their legacy. And I think that’s the seed that starts to answer that question of what a truly fair chocolate trade would look like. It’s a trade that centers farmers, not manufacturers. It’s a trade that centers, and by centering I mean, like pays them fairly. That is just. That gives farmers a rightful seat at the table with a voice that is as loud as the end manufacturers, one that is heard and honored. Is one that writes this extraordinary unjust billion dollar industry that pays pennies on the dollar to farmers. That that equation shifts. Um, that’s what a truly fair chocolate trade looks like to me.
Anna Canning: Well, put. One thing that I find so striking, you know, you cited that three to 6 cents that a cocoa farmer makes from a bar of chocolate. And, you know, within my lifetime, that’s gone, that three to 6 cents, when I was a kid was 16 cents.
Simran Sethi: Exactly. In the eighties. Yeah it’s gone down.
Anna Canning: Yeah. Everything else in the world has gone up, right? The cost of living. Everything. And that share of the bar has gone down. And those companies have continued to get richer because of that.
Simran Sethi: Exactly. I remember when the bottom fell out of the market and there was a call with one of these major manufacturers, I think it was Mondelez. I got on the investor call, you know, they do them every quarter and they bragged about their earnings. And that’s the perversion of this system.
Anna Canning: In 2016, the prices on the cocoa trading markets plummeted. The crops that farmers had worked so hard to grow lost 1/3 of their value on the New York market where cocoa is traded like stocks or oil. A 33% decrease in whatever earnings they were planning for at the end of the season. Meanwhile,
Simran Sethi: Did the price of a Twix drop? No, it did not. It held constant. So where did that money go? Right. It went right back to that manufacturer. And now we see all those fissures in these systems. Like when we see meatpackers going, being pushed back to work, when we see that these systems were engineered to work this way, right? And to exploit, like inequality. Like here is our chance to call them out on this and to not let them get away with it. Not another one of these years of missing your targets on child labor or on deforestation. Like start to take strong stances. start to ask your elected officials, do you support, you know, trade agreements that encourage fair and equitable compensation for cocoa farmers? What kinds of things do your local governments allow for? What kinds of things does your, like your domestic government allow for? There were trade policies in place that should protect farmers, you know, domestically and internationally. And we just need to do a little homework to make sure that they do.
Simran Sethi: And I want to leave listeners with that. Like, one thing you can start to do right now is think about where your chocolate is made. We have extraordinary craft chocolate makers all over the world, but I hold a very special place in my heart for the chocolate makers who are also at origin. Because what that does is it keeps that money within that community. So I’m not saying like, stop supporting your craft chocolate makers in North America or Europe or wherever, but I’m saying start to maybe portion some of that to the craft chocolate makers that are also there at cocoa growing origins. Because keeping some of that money in that economy is an extraordinary thing. And some of those places are really new to manufacturing cocoa and building up that appetite. So for example, Ivory Coast, right? They don’t have a tradition of eating chocolate. So it’s just a crop that they grow, but slowly, slowly, they’re makers at origin. And let me tell you something. That relationship has transformed. when you’re not just harvesting a crop, you’re harvesting a food that you love. So by building up those, not only cocoa growing origins, but those chocolate making places, we start to create an industry that’s more robust and more delicious.
Anna Canning: Thanks so much for joining us on For a Better World podcast. This week we’ve taken a look at cocoa and the bigger picture of the people who grow it and systems that bring it to our supermarkets. Join us next time as we tackle the next ingredient in a Kitkat bar: sugar.
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