Clean Up On Aisle 7; Rehabilitating Dirty Industries

It goes without saying that pairing the word “clean” with some industries is the worst kind of oxymoron; coal, oil, pesticides. But folks in other industries have been trying to clean up their acts with everything from conflict free diamonds to sweatshop free apparel. Add two more industries to the list; gold and chocolate.

Cocoa can be grown in environmentally friendly ways, but too often because of high demand, it is not. Originally a forest plant, it is possible to cultivate cacao using sustainable practices that encourage biodiversity, maintain forests and minimize soil erosion. In order to increase yields, however, many farmers have shifted to planting cocoa in full sun, requiring higher fertilizer and pesticide inputs, as well as the cutting down of surrounding forests. This shift has led to increased health risks for farmers and their families, contamination of soils and waterways, and loss of wildlife habitat. In addition, the European Fair Trade Organization has calculated that traditional cocoa farmers receive only five percent of the profit of the sale of the chocolate, with 70 percent of the profits going to the international trading organizations and the chocolate industry.

The chocolate trade is also one of the worst in terms of human rights, continuing to use child slave labor for production, a fact that the Chocolate Manufacturers Association was forced to acknowledge in 2001. In the Ivory Coast, for example, it has been documented that hundreds of thousands of boys aged between 12 and 16 have been sold as slaves and have undergone severe abuse working on the cacao farms. The Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer and exporter of cocoa beans, with West Africa collectively supplying nearly 50% of world cocoa, an industry that US citizens partake of to the tune of $13 billion a year. Despite a promise to certify all chocolate slave free by 2005, the main stream manufacturers have yet to do so. So consider this; since chocolate is a blend of cocoa from different areas, every chocolate bar that is not fair trade or slave free certified is basically tainted by slavery.


To draw attention to the modern day slavery involved in the chocolate trade, chocolate lover and journalist, Teun Van de Keuken sued himself under Dutch law for buying chocolate that he knew or suspected was made with slave labor. His action drew much needed attention to the dirty little secrets of our guilty pleasures. While waiting for his court case, he founded a slave free chocolate company, Tony Chocolonely. Watch the video he made and I promise that you will never willingly buy another Nestlé chocolate product. Setting aside that their chocolate is terrible and made with the cheapest possible ingredients, they pretty much acknowledge that they know that some of their chocolate is produced using slave labor and that they simply don’t care. A spokesperson was even recorded saying, “Okay, call it slavery, but you know they’re dirt poor down there anyway...”

Other chocolate companies, like Dagoba and Divine Chocolate, are sourcing organically produced chocolate from sustainable farms with fair trade practices, taking on both the social and environmental concerns. But don’t be fooled, organic doesn’t necessarily mean slave free, so check the label carefully.

Another consumer product that now offers sustainable alternatives is gold, an industry I have written about previously. I’m personally not much of a gold fan, but I was interested to discover some green ways to bejewel oneself. greenKarat specializes in ecologically friendly jewelry using recycled and reused materials. Conceding that our love of gold and use of it in ceremonies will not go away despite documentation about the human and environmental costs, they look to mitigate that by using recycled gold. They even point out that while gold mining continues at a pace of 2,500 tons a year, there is enough already mined gold to satisfy all demands of the jewelry industry for the next 50 years, much of it in the form of old and unused jewelry. And while they support ecological gold initiatives, they oppose diamond mining completely, asserting on their website that “with the unconscionable human and ecological sacrifice it extracts. With the availability of equivalent synthetics to handle cultural and industrial needs, mining of diamonds is simply no longer needed.”

It is good to see companies and individuals creating environmentally and socially conscious alternatives to some of our dirtiest industries. That more people don’t take advantage of these alternatives and continue to support practices that degrade children, people and the planet is disheartening. I would like to think it is because they don’t know better yet. So when you see someone pick up a Hershey’s chocolate bar, maybe it’s time to have a chat about the real cost of that candy.



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  • Posted on Jan. 15, 2008. Listed in:

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