AP Literature Service Learning 2020/21

How ethical is your chocolate?: exploring issues of fair trade

by Alisa Z, Henie Z, Lillian F, Amy L and Sophie Z

AP Lit students

Think about the last time you took a bite into a creamy, aromatic piece of chocolate. Do you know where it came from and how it was produced? 

Many people in our Concordia community consume chocolate on a weekly, if not daily, basis (according to our survey). And yet, most people do not know about the ethics of producing chocolate. After learning about the horrors of colonialism and neocolonialism in the Congo in our AP Literature class, our project group zoomed in to investigate the chocolate supply chain, a system rife with unethical labor practices and environmental issues. 

Beyond our interviews, survey, and media research, our most shocking finding was perhaps our observation of our student body’s response to the corrupt nature of the industry. To conduct some official observations (as part of our MISO research plan), we set up a table in the PC lounge with a bowl of “Free Kisses”. Right next to it, we had a poster with a “Did You Know” fact sheet about child labor in relation to those same chocolates.

As people walked past the table, some briefly scanned the posters but took chocolate nevertheless; others took the chocolate so quickly it didn’t seem like they even saw the posters. 

It was interesting that one person’s decision to take a piece of chocolate could influence a whole group of people to also do the same. This bandwagon effect is also observed in real life: when we are surrounded by a community that is socially-conscious, we all tend to become more cognizant of our decisions, but when it is normalized to willfully ignore human rights problems as they pertain to the products we consume, everyone allows themselves to become more oblivious. 

To strengthen the culture of conscious consumerism in our community, we planned an immersive simulation aimed at educating the student body about the bitter, often-unacknowledged aspects of chocolate production. We decorated the entrance with seemingly innocent balloons, lights, and posters about each step of chocolate production. But once students stepped inside the room, they entered a dark space that simulated the “dark side” of the chocolate industry. 

At the first station, we presented the grim impacts of cocoa farming on the natural environment of west African countries whose economies heavily rely on cocoa production. To the surprise of many students, 90% of the Ivory Coast’s rain forests have disappeared in the last 30 years, and government officials often turn a blind eye towards such issues because of the national profit the chocolate industry generates. We used a photoshopped picture of “Jinqiao after deforestation” to explain the negative feedback loop that mass deforestation creates. Deforestation makes it difficult to produce cocoa, as the trees are the most fertile when grown in shade. This only further perpetuates deforestation and monocultures as cocoa farmers seek to use more rainforest-covered areas for their plantations. 

At the second station, we discussed the child slave labor that many chocolate companies employ in their cocoa supply chains. We told the story of Aly Diabate, one of around 1.6 to 2 million children aged 5-17 estimated to be working in hazardous conditions on west African cocoa farms today. He was 11 when he was abducted and auctioned off as a cocoa slave to a plantation in nearby Ivory Coast, where he and children even younger worked 80-100 hours a week in hazardous conditions, with no schooling and without their families. We bought raw Fairtrade cacao nibs for the students to taste to make this learning process more immersive and impactful, to allow them to further understand how their chocolate is processed by real human hands with real human stories before it becomes the chocolate they normally eat. 

At the final station, we exposed how large corporations have had a bad track record of addressing these horrible abuses. It is an unfortunate truth that nearly 20 years after pledging to eradicate child labor, influential chocolate companies such as Lindt and Godiva are still unable to identify the source of their cocoa, let alone if child labour was used in its production. We encouraged students to support fair-trade certified alternatives such as Zotter's Chocolate (made here in Shanghai) and Tony’s Chocolonely from The Netherlands. 

At the exit station for our simulation, we offered a chance for students to choose between two options: they could either pay 5 kaui for some Zotter’s chocolate, or take a Hershey's sample for free. After walking through the simulation, all of the students chose to pay for fair trade chocolate, and they received a complimentary piece as a reward for their ethical decision. 

Walking out of our “Choco Land Tour'', students become better acquainted with the chocolate supply chain and the concept of fair trade. Although many issues faced by the chocolate industry are intertwined with larger problems like poverty and governmental corruption, we can start by supporting chocolate companies that are certified by fair trade. Only through our own awareness and actions can we gradually shift the industry towards more ethical and sustainable practices.