There are questions I wish I didn't have to ask myself.
One of them arrived in my inbox yesterday, from Rachel Nussbaum, the rabbi of Kavana, a Jewish cooperative community that our family belongs to. Social justice is an important part of Kavana's mission, and the group that focuses on it has been learning about slavery and child labor in the African cocoa trade.
Now I'm guessing that you are well aware that conditions for workers throughout the Third World are often miserable. Low pay, brutally long hours, and dangerous conditions are commonplace. I certainly know this, but in truth I don't pay as much attention as I know I should when I make purchases. When it comes to produce, I buy as much local and organic as possible, but with plenty of other goods I try to remain in my bubble of blissful ignorance.
The information that the social justice group shared with me about cocoa exploded that bubble. In summary, much of the cocoa from West Africa, most particularly the Ivory Coast, is harvested by child slaves. These children are trafficked into the cocoa plantations and kept there to work without pay, with brutal reprisals and even murder awaiting them if they try to escape.
The US has been part of a decade long effort to end these practices, but the legislation was watered down to begin with and the results have been spotty at best.
Rather than lay out all of the details, let me refer you to two excellent articles at the CNN Freedom Project, and the Huffington Post. One thing is obvious – this industry isn't going to change by itself. Consumers can make all of the difference. If we vote with our dollars and demand products that are slavery free, producers will find the motivation to change.
So I'm asking myself: Do I want to be handing out candy made by slave child labor on Halloween, to other innocent kids? Would it really be in line with the values of Judaism to give them Hannukah gelt made with this chocolate? Would I want to express my love for my wife on Valentine's day that way? And obviously the answer is no. I don't ever want to be cooking with or eating a product with this kind of cruelty involved, and especially not for something that is a luxury.
So how do you know if your chocolate is safe? Well, the first and best answer is to buy products that are Fair Trade certified or Fair For Life certified (which Theo uses). These products have the greatest assurance that high human rights standards are in place, and furthermore that farmers are being paid a price that allows them to have a better life. There are apps for Facebook, Iphone and Android that can help you find these products.
Without a fair trade certification, you'll have to talk to indvidual producers to find out what standards they have in place. Local producers should be able to answer you directly, and larger companies often have information on their websites. If they don't want to answer these questions, you might infer something about their practices.
Finally, if those options don't work for you, you could also try to purchase chocolate that is harvested in other parts of the world besides West Africa and especially Ivory Coast.
I'm making the commitment right now. If you feel the same way, leave a comment below.