You may have been dismayed to read the recent headlines about the chocolate maker, Tony’s Chocolonely. Despite claiming to be on a mission to make chocolate 100% slave free, this apparently ethical brand was reported to have found 1,700 cases of child labour in its supply chain, a rise of 387 on the previous year. Cue a media furore and a whole load of finger pointing that the brand was misleading its customers. In short, Tony’s Chocolonely was being nothing short of hypocritical.
Or was it? Should we all forgo our fix of Tony’s Almond, Honey and Nougat (a personal favourite) and boycott the brand? Look beyond the headlines and there’s actually a very different story going on here.
Illegal child labour is sadly endemic in the chocolate industry. It’s enough to leave a bitter taste in anyone’s mouth and is exactly why Tony’s Chocolonely exists. They don’t claim to be perfect, nor do they claim to be selling 100% slave-free chocolate. What they are doing is seeking to shake the industry from the ground up so one day we can all buy our favourite chocolate bar, safe in the knowledge that we’re not unwittingly endorsing illegal child labour or modern slavery.
The figures reported by the media were published in the brand’s annual FAIR report, which is designed to update stakeholders on the progress of its impact and mission. As the report stated, the reason why cases of child labour had gone up was because Tony’s Chocolonely was working with more farmers to source its cocoa and support its growing business, which meant the process of identifying and preventing child labour had effectively started from zero from the year before. As counterintuitive as it sounds, proactively finding and identifying more cases of child labour is a good thing because it means you can fix it. Tony’s Chocolonely is a relatively small player in a huge industry and eradicating human rights abuses from a complex and opaque supply chain is not going to happen overnight. Call Tony’s Chocolonely ambitious? Yes. But unethical? No.
So how did the nuances become lost and what does this mean for our clients, who we counsel to be open and honest above all else? The response to the data released by Tony’s Chocolonely would be enough to convince most companies to batten down the hatches and never talk publicly about their challenges again. But taking that attitude seriously hampers progress. The transparency shown by Tony’s Chocolonely benefits everyone. Not only because it shows how difficult creating sustainable supply chains can be, but it forces others to listen, learn and improve.
And there are lessons for the media here too. A free and independent press is essential to a healthy democracy and journalists have a responsibility to hold companies to account. But they also have a responsibility to report fairly and accurately. Reducing knotty and complicated stories to sensationalist headlines and clickbait doesn’t do anyone any favours. Progress in sustainability is built on truth and transparency and that requires all parties, media or otherwise, to play fair – not treat each other as fair game.