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Slave-Free Chocolate: Cause De Jour at College Campuses

The dark side of chocolate is a social justice cause de jour at many universities across the nation.

They’ve devoted informational websites, guest lectures, public relations campaigns, and entire courses to highlight chocolate’s bittersweet origins, promising to generate outrage against Big Chocolate and ruin the M&M experience for college kids forever.

Oft-cited statistics note that child labor runs rampant in West Africa, where roughly 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is grown. And the three big American companies that buy the allegedly ill-gotten cocoa – Mars, Hershey’s and Nestle – become the villains.

“Is my chocolate slave-free?” asks a UC San Diego “Stop Chocolate Slavery” website, which notes under its “take action” page that “if you are angered, shocked, sickened … by the use of slave labor to make a luxury product for the world’s rich, then say so. … Tell the chocolate companies that exploit the slavery, and the feckless legislators who have thus far let them get away with it … that you won’t be buying their products or giving them your votes until they’ve changed their ways.”

An October 2012 event at Georgetown University dubbed “Chocolate & Environmental and Social Justice Issues” delved into the perceived evils of Big Chocolate.

A Santa Clara University “Truth About Chocolate” website argues that the three biggest chocolate manufacturers in America should be held accountable for child labor in West Africa.

Critics also often dismiss Big Chocolate’s efforts to address child labor issues as largely half-hearted, ineffective, and lip service, among other complaints.

But a 2012 Fair Labor Association report on Nestle’s West Africa dealings found the company is “well positioned to make a large, positive impact on the livelihoods of workers in the cocoa supply chain.”

Hershey’s recently introduced a line of so-called fair-traded chocolate, and also launched an outreach and educational program in West Africa to teach farmers best practices and child labor laws.

In 2011, Mars Chocolate partnered with Fairtrade International and announced a commitment to use only certified cocoa by 2020 and to “invest heavily in (West Africa) and other major cocoa producing countries over the next decade to provide hundreds of thousands of farmers with the tools, material and training necessary to dramatically increase yield and, by extension, farmer income.”

These businesses employ tens of thousands and contribute to the global economy. But whether college campuses, often critical of corporations, will give Big Chocolate a fair shake remains to be seen.

This spring, however, Harvard University is giving it a try, with a class called “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.”

Taught by Carla Martin of the Department of African and African American Studies, the course, according to online Harvard material, “will introduce the history of cacao cultivation, the present day state of the global chocolate industry, the diverse cultural constructions surrounding chocolate, and the implications for chocolate’s future of scientific study, international politics, alternative trade models, and the food movement.”

Course assignments “will address pressing real world questions related to chocolate consumption, social justice, responsible development, honesty and the politics of representation in production and marketing, hierarchies of quality, and myths of purity.”

The course promises to trace the history of cacao trees, a primary chocolate ingredient, from their Latin American origins, through cacao’s history in the West, and “its involvement in the slave trade, historical and modern.”

It will also “consider chocolate in relation to social issues” including race, gender, sexuality, labor rights, global trade, and “representation through advertising.”

Even though the full class description throws in a few nods to chocolate’s deliciousness, it mostly portends a harsh critique of Big Chocolate. This despite the Fair Labor Association’s noting in a 2012 report that the blame for child labor in West Africa does not fall exclusively on chocolate manufacturers.

“A realistic strategy to eliminate child labor in the Ivory Coast needs to start with the attitudes and perceptions of the various actors in the supply chain and communities at large,” the report stated, referring to indigenous Africans. “One company alone cannot solve all the problems of labor standards that prevail in the cocoa sector of the Ivory Coast.”

Fix contributor Jack Butler is a student at Hillsdale College.

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