May 28, 2009

Update on the Mars Chocolate Relief Act

Last Friday I told you about the Mars Chocolate Relief Act, a giant giveaway of chocolate to the first half million people who go to their website every Friday through September. Mars claims it's an effort to spread joy across America.

But then one of my readers wrote in and alerted me to this article, which details how companies like Mars and Nestle partially rely on child labor from the Ivory Coast in Africa to produce their chocolate. I was disturbed by the article and so I looked into the matter further this week.

First of all, I wrote the following email to Mars through their website:

"I registered for my free coupon last Friday and told my readers about it on my blog. A reader responded with a link to this article: (link from above) How do you respond to charges that you use child labor on your cocoa farms?"

The following day, I received an email that read: "Thank you. We have received your email and will respond to you in due course."

I haven't heard from them yet, but this exchange took place last Sunday, only four days ago. In the meantime, I've done a bit of google research and found that like most things in life, the truth isn't so easy to pin down.

It seems that activists have been pressuring the large chocolate companies about the issue of child labor since 2001. And just last month, Mars announced new sustainability commitments. Reading between the lines, they're basically taking baby steps towards doing the right thing. A spokesperson for the International Labor Rights Forum called it "an important first step toward sustainable cocoa farming, but not enough to ensure workers aren't exploited." You can read the entire article here.

So they're moving in the right direction, but it's still better to buy Fair Trade certified chocolate until they make that commitment. Whether you want to register for the free chocolate is up to you. I'm not going to promote it on my blog anymore, but I'm not necessarily committing to never eating those brands of chocolate again. But I WILL follow this story and I appreciate having my attention brought to the issue. I'm going to try to buy Fair Trade chocolate as often as possible. Oh, and one bit of good news is that Cadbury, my personal favorite, has announced it would seek Fair Trade certification by the end of the summer. Maybe Mars and Nestle will follow suit and we won't have to worry that our pleasure might be causing pain to little children halfway around the world. Not to get too political, but - does anyone really buy the extreme free market line that businesses don't need to be regulated and will always do the right thing? They need to have activists all over them for EIGHT YEARS just to get them to stop using child labor?

If you know anything about this controversy or have any ideas or opinions to share, please leave your thoughts in the Comments section.


hiptobeme said...

It's difficult sometimes for people here in our fortunate part of the world, to know how and where our money affects other parts of the world and the people who live there. I have the same conundrum when I shop at a big box store,for example. If the clothing is made in Thailand, what is my guarantee that the clothing was not sewn by tiny little fingers? For little to no pay? Child labour is a huge issue and many corporations such as the chocolate and textile industries are so huge and removed from the factories that produce their goods. It would be wonderful to always buy locally and from Fair trade sources, but unfortunately, it is not always possible for families with moderates incomes. We may not even be aware at times. When we are aware though, we can try to change our purchasing habits. Thank you for providing more clarification on this, and for following up with Mars.

calimama @ compactbydesign said...

Angela, it will be interesting if you get anything other than a canned response to your email. I hope you keep updating with the info.

I agree, it's unfortunate but true that most companies (especially the big ones) will only do what is best for everyone, and the planet if they are told they must. Either by oversight or by the consumer's dollar. Here's to changing the world, one chocolate bar at a time!

Kate said...

Diane at Big Green Purse has great post on Seeds of Change Chocolate.

I'm a big fan of Theos (made in Seattle) and Dagoba chocolate.

Angela said...

hiptobeme- Yes, sometimes it's overwhelming, but it's true we can try to be informed about our purchasing decisions. There are so many windows to open- I can't believe I'd never heard about the slave labor on cocoa farms. There's so much news and information out there, sometimes it's tough to sift through.

Calimama- I will definitely write a post if I get a response. And yes, one chocolate bar at a time!

Kate- Thanks for the link. I'm going to be a more conscious chocolate consumer from now on! it will probably give me an excuse to buy much better chocolate!