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Chocolate with a Conscience

When does a chocolate company need a Child Rights and Community Development Specialist? When it’s trying to eliminate child and forced labor from the cocoa sector. 

If that sounds ambitious, it is. Tony’s Chocolonely was founded in 2005 with this mission, and has grown into a successful business while making progress towards the goal. Raise the Voices recently spoke with Julie McBride, who carries that lofty title, about her role and how the Tony’s system of monitoring and remediation works. 


Julie McBride

Raise the Voices: What is a Child Rights and Community Development Specialist, and why does the company have one?

Julie McBride: Well, the entire reason that Tony’s Chocolonely was started was inequality in the cocoa supply chain, particularly around child labor and forced labor. So it’s really at the core of our mission, which is why there is a specific role that’s focusing on child labor. We source cocoa in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which are the two countries where 65% of the world’s cocoa is sourced, and where the real problems around the cocoa sector can be traced back to.

RtV: What is the company’s mission and focus?

JM: The impact mission is to change the cocoa sector, which sounds big, but we really want to inspire consumers and other companies to act. We want to show that this model can be done, can be replicable to others, and we want to be the gold standard for cocoa sustainability. We draw people in with the brand – the colorful lettering and the interesting flavors. But I think what makes consumers come back is the mission.

RtV: Is there one thing the company’s achieved during your tenure that you’ve been most proud of?

JM: A turning point was reaching €100 million in Sales. That was a really proud moment where we could show that impact and making money can go together. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, we can really reach scale and reach profitability.

RtV: How do you make sure those core values and the mission around child labor, farmer conditions and so on are adhered to all the way through the value chain?

JM: We’ve got five key sourcing principles which drive our work. First is strong cooperatives of farmers – we want to invest with them to build them up. The second is long term commitments. Third is traceability, and we have a couple of different mechanisms for making sure that we’re strong there, for example Bean Tracker is a specific tool that we have for tracing cocoa from beans to bar. The fourth principle is to pay a higher price. This is really key, because the supply chain for cocoa is really set up to squeeze as much out of farmers as possible, without paying what they are owed. You’ve got 2.5 million small shareholder farmers on one side and you’ve got billions of consumers on the other side, and in the middle are very few players who are taking beans at massive, massive scale and driving billions of dollars of profit, and that’s all down to not paying a fair price to farmers. So making sure farmers attain a living income is key. The fifth sourcing principle is productivity and quality. We want to work with farmers to increase the quality of the beans that they’re producing, but also to increase their productivity, because the more that they can produce and get a higher price, it will help raise the bar on living income.

The main mechanism for monitoring the labor aspect is the Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation System or CLMRS, which is what I am responsible for. 

RtV: What is the CLMRS, and what counts as a case of child labor that you would track?

JM: We are implementing a system that aligns with the national legislation in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, not an outside Western ideology. Both countries have laws on the tasks that children and young people can and cannot do, so that’s the standard that we work on.

Within each cooperative, there is a team of community facilitators, who are responsible for visiting each member of the cooperative annually to sit with the family and discuss child labor. And it’s really intended to be an open discussion; there’s no hiding behind a bush peeking out to see if you can find a child using a machete. You can sit with children and ask them, are you working and what kind of work are you doing, and are you working when you should be in school? Are you using sharp implements? Are you wearing the right shoes? And 95% of the cases that we find are from children just self-declaring. And then the other 5% is from unplanned farm visits.  

The most common types of work that we find would be using sharp implements to open cocoa pods or carrying loads that are too heavy for their age. Then the first step is to have a sort of awareness raising session with that family and in a very open way. We have specific training or methodologies on how to do this, but it’s very visual and it’s very participatory where the community facilitator will show pictures of children carrying loads and then the risks that they can have, and talk about the potential consequences for health long term of carrying weights or dealing with pesticides. And if there’s a particular reason why that child is working and is not in school, then there can be an activity to help get that child back to school. That could be for example facilitating a birth certificate. In Côte d’Ivoire, having one is a requirement to attend primary school but birth certificate registration is not done as systematically as it should be. Or it could be providing the uniform, or a bike, or for older children, setting them up with a vocational trade. But it’s all done specific to the child and often specific to the household.

We didn’t invent the CLMRS, the International Cocoa Initiative, an independent non-profit and Nestle created it, and we work with them as independent verifiers of the system. But I do feel we’ve made it our own. As it was originally conceived, you would have a trader who would have community facilitators that are on their payroll who just come in and collect data, come out and make a plan, and come in and implement that plan. Other chocolate companies use the system too but they take different approaches and might only visit say 30% of the members every year. But we think our own system is the gold standard. We want to visit every member every year. We think that poverty is not necessarily a static thing where you can say, “okay, you’ve had your visit, see you in three years.” We want to make sure that we’re keeping on top of things.  We also think that having the cooperative own that system and data is super important. We see them as high level business partners and expect them to take control and manage the system themselves.

RtV: As the company grows and your operations become more complex, how do you plan to scale the monitoring?

JM: I think that links to what I just said about the partners becoming owners and becoming our level business partners. The longer that we run CLMRS at a cooperative, we see the prevalence of child labor go down. It usually starts at about 50% in each country; that is, we expect to see 50% of children engaging in work. But as we’ve had three to five years working with the cooperative, that goes down to 4%. So the longer term partners are taking ownership over the system. They feel it’s their CLMRS, and they need less oversight and attention from us. We can focus our attention on the newer partners.

We also have a team that’s growing and ready for scale on the ground in Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire. When I started only two years ago, we had three people, and now we have eight. We do need that team in Abidjan and in Accra who can have that day-to-day contact with the cooperative as needed, and that will also help us to continue to grow. I have a regular checkup with each cooperative, but having people on the ground to give tailored support is also extremely helpful. And we in headquarters are regularly visiting West Africa. I was there five times this year.

RtV: How are you measured?

JM: We’re looking at numbers of new cases found and numbers of cases closed each year. We also track awareness. This year [awareness sessions] reached more than 500 people in both countries, which was the biggest number of individuals reached in a year since Tony’s has been tracking this.

We’ve added two new cooperatives each year – that’s a couple of thousand farmers, it’s a couple of thousand members of families, a lot of children. It’s true that as we grow, the number of cases we find will go up. As we expand, we reach more people. But reaching more people is also very positive because it means we can really have an impact on more people and we can reach more families.

RtV: How does Tony’s hope to influence peers in the industry?

JM: We want to encourage transparency. We see a lot of efforts to obfuscate and be very vague in reporting, and the conversation around child labor is also something we really want to see change. Whenever there’s been an expose or a story or documentary about child labor, companies come out and say, “This is unacceptable. We’re going to get to the bottom of it.” And that’s really suggesting that it’s the farmers’ problem, but companies have the responsibility to fix their own supply chain as well.

We really want to encourage others to join us. Tony’s Open Chain is one of our ways of doing that, inviting people into our supply chain. Ben and Jerry’s just joined a couple of months ago, which was super exciting. That’s also a really nice model because we’re actually taking cocoa beans and we’re splitting them. We take the cocoa butter mass, and they take the powder for the ice cream and it’s just a lovely harmony where farmers are getting the maximum out of their beans.

RtV: What do you want consumers to be aware of when they’re buying chocolate?

JM: Consumers need to remember their power as a consumer. It’s important to do your homework and be a conscious consumer. See where your chocolate is coming from. Is it from Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire? See what kind of sustainability programs the maker has in place. Are they certified? Are they Fair Trade? Are they Rainforest Alliance certified? Is the packaging made of plastic? Is it recyclable?

It’s worth making sure that you’re getting the most out of chocolate because chocolate is a wonderful, wonderful product. It gives us so much joy. I think we want to make sure that we’re not contributing to the dark side of it as well. 

You can read the most recent FAIR report from Tony’s Chocolonely here.

December 2, 2022
by Sophie Barratt

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