Media’s role in cocoa sustainability

Stop the white noise: How can chocolate makers be tempted to bite into cocoa's poverty and child labor crisis?

By Oliver Nieburg

- Last updated on GMT

Heartrending poverty and child labor figures in African cocoa are white noise without suggestions on how they might be reduced ©iStock/MariaArefyeva
Heartrending poverty and child labor figures in African cocoa are white noise without suggestions on how they might be reduced ©iStock/MariaArefyeva

Related tags Child labor Sustainability Chocolate Supply chain management International cocoa initiative

Reporting effective approaches to tackle deep-rooted poverty and child labor in the cocoa sector should take precedence over shock headlines, writes ConfectioneryNews’ editor.

The media must continue to fire home the stark realities of the cocoa sector in West Africa.

It's true Ivorian cocoa farmers earn less than $1 a day​ that 2.03m children​ in West Africa are engaged in hazardous cocoa work and that animal species are at risk​ from large-scale deforestation.

But scaremongering to win traffic through click bait will not bring these practices to an end.

To Decry Or Commend: Nestlé And Child Labor

child in school

In Nestlé’s Ivorian cocoa supply chain, ICI found 5,891* children involved in hazardous activities when running its child labor prevention system in just 40 cooperatives comprised of 26,000 farmers in just three years. That is an average of 60 children per cooperative.

Should media take a hardline approach, make the shocking numbers the topline and say if this cocoa has made its way to the US Nestlé has illegally imported cocoa contrary to the revised US tariff code​?

Maybe – but It will not make the problem disappear, and will likely deter the chocolate industry from tackling the problem transparently. Nestlé to its credit is starting to address child labor and 4,680 of kids identified as being engaged in child labor are now getting the support they need to attend school.

Most chocolate companies do not want child labor in their supply chains – it is bad for business - moreover company employees are people too with consciences.

The major players are all trying to stamp out the practices. Media reporting will be at its most effective by scrutinizing the effectiveness of projects and pushing companies to scale up proven approaches to deadlines.

Counting sheep

Negative headlines may mobilize the cocoa and chocolate industry to act, but without context and a clear path to solve the problems, it will simply prompt defensive PR communications from the industry extolling current sustainability projects.

Twenty years of media reports warning consumers of a dark secret​’​ that child laborers may make their chocolate has done little to change consumer-buying habits.

Child labor numbers in West African cocoa climbed 21% from 2008/09 to 2013/14, while future prices for cocoa are at a four-year low – meaning farmers may become worse off.

Millennials purport to be more socially conscious, but seem likely to stick to cheap chocolate as long as those options are on-shelf, based on research​ by Hershey.

The change has to come from the industry offering those choices.

There is no shortage of headlines decrying the inhumanity of the cocoa sector, no lack of films depicting impoverished farmers in origin countries, but there is a real scarcity of answers on how the crisis could be solved.

Answers are the hardest questions

It is crucial for the press to consult a wide array of sources that have suggestions to alleviate the problems – for example:

  • The International Cocoa Initiative’s (ICI) Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation System (CLMRS) – piloted by Nestlé, Barry Callebaut, Cargill and Olam.
  • Puratos Grand Place’s ‘anti-extreme poverty tax’​.
  • The International Cocoa Organization’s (ICCO) executive director’s suggestion to raise retail prices for chocolate.
  • Recommendations in the Voice Network’s Cocoa Barometer​ – such as simply paying more for cocoa.
  • The ISO/CEN standard​ on sustainable cocoa.
  • High-yielding cocoa varieties​.
  • Divine Chocolate’s model for cocoa farmers to have ownership​ in chocolate companies and to receive a share of profits as dividends.
  • Rainforest Alliance’s call for long-term credit access​ for farmers.
  • The World Cocoa Farmer’s Organization’s (WCFO’s) call​ for the industry to cut out intermediaries and directly source from farmers, while supporting a project to map and group farmers in a global database.

Measures like these are vastly under-reported.

Trade press in particular - often reliant on industry backing for revenue - owe it to their industry to consult outside voices.

This means views from cocoa farmers themselves, cooperatives, farmer trade groups, NGOs, governments, certification bodies and scientists.

Controlled messages

Reporting effective methods towards cocoa sustainability is already tough – and is about to get tougher.

Journalists write about remote places and although the chocolate industry is today more open to discussing the topic, asking a company about its ties to child labor rarely leads to a meaningful response.

American PR professionals outnumbered journalists 4 to 1 in 2010, according to Fordham University research​.

We often pass through intermediaries whose job is to control the message.  Some companies even refuse to speak by phone and will only respond via email, if at all, with brief messages carefully scrutinized by PR teams.

Time warp

Then there are the deadlines.

 A report that took its authors years or months often needs to be deciphered and published in an hour due to the immediacy of online news. There is no room for error.

Many journalists work like this within slim editorial teams.

These pressures are not new, but may soon worsen, hindering journalists' capacity to discuss possible solutions in cocoa sustainability coverage.

Media consumption habits have changed rapidly. More 18-24 year olds consumed their news online and via social​ media in 2016 than by TV and print.

Ad blocker dilemma

Ad-blockers now threaten online media. Around a quarter​ of US internet users have an ad-blocker installed, which is a risk to an industry heavily reliant on digital advertising.

This had led media to explore alternative revenue streams.

Journalists increasingly spend more time promoting news via social media and on future revenue drivers such as events and video, leaving less time to have a full understanding of a topic as multifaceted as cocoa sustainability.

ConfectioneryNews and native advertising


ConfectioneryNews has no native advertising content to date, but some of our sister publications have “promotional features”​. We have taken precautions to delineate these ads from the main news with clear labeling, wider article columns than news articles and placing the content in separate sections of the site – not in with the headlines. Moreover, none of our journalists write the content, while the labeling is in perpetuity.

Native advertising: Can it ever be impartial?

Ad blockers have also given rise to native advertising – paid-for articles dressed up as news.

Native advertising has already made its way to cocoa sustainability. It gives coverage to underreported efforts, but through a narrow lens.

The Guardian has carried ‘paid for’ articles from the likes of Fairtrade​ and Nestlé​ on the topic.

The UK paper also accepted third party funding from Mondelēz for its Sustainable Business section, which includes an article​ that calls out Nestlé for defending a cocoa child labor lawsuit in the US.

Its staff describe the article as “completely independent reporting” ​in the comments section, but the ‘Supported by’ ​tag with the Mondelēz logo no longer appears in the top left of the webpage. Readers now will not know that Mondelēz gave its financial backing to the story without reading the comments section.

A Guardian News & Media spokesperson told us: “The Guardian’s Sustainable Business supply chain series is no longer supported by Mondelēz International. It is standard practice to remove supported by labelling from editorial once the contract ends.”

‘Brought to you by…’

Native ads could skew the cocoa sustainability debate and thwart progress.

Companies with the money can bypass the critical eye of the media and communicate a tailored marketing message directly to consumers as if it were news.

In this environment, the press should continue to hold supply chain actors to account – particularly those failing to live up to promises, those dragging their heels or actors engaged in questionable practices.

But we shouldn’t relish these stories. A technical paper​ on a pruning and fertilizer technique that can boost yields and income for farmers does not make a sexy headline, but it will do more to bring the chocolate industry closer to a fairer, more sustainable cocoa sector.

[This article comes as a result of a flight cancellation. I was due to be part of a panel debate on the media’s role in cocoa sustainability at the Chocoa conference in Amsterdam, but was forced to pull out.]

*This article previously put the figure at 2,403, but ICI has since updated its figures.

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