As heart-shaped boxes of chocolates fill stores near us, we are reminded there is a lot of love in the air on Valentine’s Day. But there is a darker side to this holiday that few realize or understand, and in a time when ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing is on the rise, this matters more than ever. While investors are now taking a look at how their portfolio impacts the world around them, consumers can do the same with the products they purchase in their daily lives—and buying ethically sourced Valentine’s Day treats is a great place to start.

About one third of the world’s chocolate comes from Côte d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast. In this West African country, human trafficking and child labor run rampant. Few consumers do an extensive background check on the products they buy, but if they did, they would be surprised by not only the scale of human trafficking around the globe, but also how it interacts with the products we buy every day. According to the United States Customs and Border Protection, “at any given time in 2016, an estimated 40.3 million people are in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labor.” That statistic boils down to there being about five and a half victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people on earth. It happens on every single continent and in just about every single country and impacts many major industries—especially the chocolate industry. But, by doing research on their own purchases and supporting campaigns that work to end unethical practices in this industry and beyond, consumers and investors can bring an end to this dark shadow over an otherwise sweet industry.


 Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

While boycotts and divestments are often the main paths that come to mind when consumers look to influence industries, investing and supporting firms with a positive impact also shares a message with the industry. For chocolate, a company that is trailblazing sustainable practices is Tony’s Chocolonely. Tony’s is a completely transparent chocolate company that acknowledges the issues in the industry and steps up to combat them. The company describes the chocolate supply chain as a type of hourglass with millions of cocoa farmers at the top and billions of consumers at the bottom. In this system, farmers do not receive adequate pay for their products, hence they cannot pay themselves, their workers or have any money left over to improve their operations. This cycle of poverty leads to not only inhumane living conditions but also leads directly into modern slavery and forced child labor to make ends meet. In the middle of this hourglass are the big players that continue this imbalance—and Tony’s is working to loosen their hold on the industry.

Another example is Alter Eco Foods, which works to foster small-scaled co-ops with farmers to encourage the growth of their farmers’ businesses and ultimately their communities. Alter Eco is also a certified B-Corp, which means these “are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.” But shopping ethically does not always mean supporting boutique brands because larger retailers, like Trader Joe’s, are also listed as some of Fairtrade America’s certified chocolate providers.

Brands like Tony’s and Alter Eco prioritize investing in helping farmers expand and professionalize their farms, as well as acquire a higher price for their cocoa. Brands can also be certified Fairtrade or certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which are two easily identifiable signs of a sustainable chocolatier. And the more people and companies that commit to this mission of a slave-free supply chain, the sooner we can achieve that goal.


Support Organizations Pushing Systemic Change

After switching purchases and keeping an eye out for certifications like Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, there are broader steps consumers can take head on to support the organizations that combat human trafficking. Programs like the Food Empowerment Project work with corporations to promote transparency in the chocolate industry and publicize lists on the chocolates they do and do not recommend for consumers. Additionally, Stop the Traffik is dedicated to not only raising awareness about trafficking but also creating the political will to end it. One way they have gone about this is campaigning to get huge chocolate manufacturers to report their products as being “traffik free.” In early successes, Stop the Traffik has played a role in Cadbury, of the famous Cadbury Creme Egg, committing to a fair-trade Dairy Milk and Mars promising to certify its whole range of products as “traffik free.” This is a strong start but is nowhere close to the finish line.

But even as the work toward a better chocolate industry continues, be sure to do your part this Valentine’s Day by:

  • Doing your research before you buy with the help of tools like the Food Empowerment Project Chocolate List app to quickly search for sustainable brands while you are at the store;
  • Supporting organizations like Stop the Traffik and the global campaign to end human trafficking in the chocolate industry; and
  • Not narrowing this lens to just the chocolate industry, but instead keeping an eye out for certifications like Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and B-Corps when considering all your daily purchases.

This Valentine’s Day, and every day thereafter, make sure to keep an eye out for fair-trade products and do a little research to see exactly where your dollars are going.

Madison Hardy is an ESG research intern at Bailard and a student at Columbia University.