Tony's Chocolonely chocolate claims to be made with no slave labor
Cocoa sector has battled with poor labor practices and exploitation
From its base in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, a confectionery company is doing its bit to fight modern-day slavery.
Its unconventional weapon of choice? A rich range of chocolate products.
“We are a funny company,” says Henk Jan Beltman, chief chocolate officer at Tony’s Chocolonely.
“The reason that we are a company is not that we want to sell chocolate and not that we want to make money.” Instead, Beltman adds: “We want to make the world a nicer place.”
Tony’s Chocolonely is one of many companies dedicated to producing what’s known as Fair Trade chocolate by providing better prices to farmers and slave free working conditions.
Each bar is marketed with a promise to the consumer that no slave labor was used in the making of its chocolate.
The cocoa sector, worth more than $100 billion per year, has long battled with poor labor practices and forms of exploitation.
A 2015 report from Tulane University and the U.S. Department of Labor found that more than two million children were working in what it defined as “hazardous” conditions in the cocoa industry in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
According to the World Fair Trade Organization, one of the 10 guiding principles of the Fair Trade movement is to ensure good working conditions and ensure no forced labor has been used in the manufacture of any product.
Yet Tony’s Chocolonely believes the industry can further address this issue and that chocolate no longer needs to be a guilty pleasure.
Beltman says, “If you look at certification like the Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade or UTZ, those are all good but they don’t manufacture a product … and as a product owner you feel responsibility and it’s your responsibility to sell something you can be proud of.
“Whether it’s fish or phones or chocolate bars, it’s always the owner who is responsible for the stuff that they sell … and a certification body is never going to take that responsibility away.”
Art of the chocolatier
Its recipe for slave free chocolate starts on its cocoa farms.
By focusing on the fine details of its supply chain, Tony’s Chocolonely says it traces the origin of the cocoa it buys – all the way from the beans purchased directly from its farm cooperatives in West Africa to the finished product.
Yet it hasn’t been working alone. Industry giant Barry Callebaut has become a strategic partner.
At its factory in the town of Wieze, Belgium, Barry Callebaut has built a system that isolates Tony’s Chocolonely product.
Plant director, Xavier De Buysscher, says Tony’s Chocolonely beans are treated, roasted and segregated. Its liquid chocolate is stored into a separate tank.
Once this process is complete, the product is molded by Belgian chocolate masters, Althea, which stamps an ethical message into each bar.
The unequal shape of the end product reflects inequality in the world and outlines the West African countries that supply the beans.
This detail is in keeping with the Tony’s Chocolonely marketing strategy, to remind the consumer how and why the company began.
Life on the plantation
In 2003, Dutch journalists behind popular show “The Consumer Investigation Agency” exposed the trafficking of boys from Burkina Faso to the Ivory Coast, interviewing former slaves about life on the cocoa plantations.
The production team proposed to their audience that by eating chocolate all were complicit in slavery. After gathering testimonies from those who had been enslaved, reporter Teun Van De Keuken, unsuccessfully attempted to get himself arrested by the Dutch authorities to emphasize the point.
Three years later, determined to prove chocolate could be made slave-free, the journalists founded Tony’s Chocolonely.
Now run by an executive team, the original founders have left the company. But cocoa labor abuses remain in the headlines.
The 2015 Tulane University report said the number of child laborers in cocoa production in Ghana and the Ivory Coast had increased by 13% from the time the last study had been conducted five years before.
It also cited endemic poverty as a major reason trafficking and unethical labor practices flourish in the region.
Taste of success
According to Beltman, Tony’s Chocolonely operation has been hugely successful so far.
“We launched as a journalist initiative … but all of a sudden by sending out the message people were buying the product and talking about [it],” Beltman says.
“We hit one million euro ($1.1 million) revenue in the first year. This year we aim to hit around $50 million in revenue.”
Yet it’s not just rising profitability that points to success at Tony’s Chocolonely.
The fact that its methods have been fruitful is equally satisfying for all at the company.
“We only work with 7,000 farmers. We are a tiny company. But if we can do it then the big guys can do it as well,” Beltman says. “Then we solve the problem of slavery in the value chain of cocoa.”
“I’m gonna push as hard as we can to actually force other companies to work in the same way. There is no one in the world who wants to enjoy chocolate that comes from a source that’s enslaved,” he adds.