Focus: Tony’s Chocolonely reveals progress against its ‘slave free’ cocoa sector mission

The issue of sustainability remains at the top of the pile within the cocoa sector’s agenda. Paul Schoenmakers, head of impact at Tony’s Chocolonely, discusses its progress on the issue, and responds to concerns over its approach to tackling the major ongoing sector problem of child labour. Neill Barston reports.


Setting out its stall as an impact driven confectionery manufacturer on a mission to help deliver a ‘slave free’ chocolate industry clearly demonstrates Tony’s Chocolonely’s bold vision.

By the company’s own acknowledgement, there remains a significant volume of work to be done in terms of achieving its goal – which
remains a major issue for the cocoa sector.

As Confectionery Production has previously reported, the recent NORC at the University of Chicago report confirmed the true scale of issues
facing West Africa remains significant. Its findings unveiled the troubling fact that 1.5 million children are still exposed to hazardous labour, and
that over the past five years, the figure has in fact increased, rather than decreased, despite the best efforts of the industry and governments to improve the situation.

This has not gone unnoticed by Tony’s, which recently unveiled its Sweet Solution chocolate bars, marking the fact it has been 20 years since the HarkinEngel voluntary protocol was agreed, and subsequent programmes have not been successful in attaining the goal of eradicating issues with minors involved within the industry.

This major ongoing sector challenge has achieved particular prominence this year, given that 2021 has been designated as the UN’s year of eradicating child labour – which appears unfortunately timed amid the pandemic, as global markets face renewed pressures battling the coronavirus pandemic.

But as Paul Schoenmakers, head of impact at Tony’s Chocolonely, explains (see our exclusive recent video interview here), while there has been some notable work from the sector, he believes now is the moment for scaling up action far quicker to deliver meaningful change. “We’re not assigning blame; we’re calling on everyone to take responsibility. If we want 100 per cent slave free to be the norm in chocolate, we need legislation, and we need everyone to play their part. From chocolate fans, artisans and retailers, to governments and cocoa farmers, too.

“We are all part of the problem and we can all be part of the sweet solution,” he says of the launch of its latest series of ‘look-alike’ bars that mimic some of the sector’s most well-known brands in a bid to gain traction for the issue of sustainability. However, as the company has noted, it has itself come under the industry spotlight for its longstanding relationship with the major Barry Callebaut chocolate and cocoa processing group.

As the Swiss-headquartered firm has explained, while it has launched its own West African initiatives including Forever Chocolate supporting cocoa farmers and communities, itacknowledged that there still remains a notable problem with child labour, which it continues to address in terms of supporting wider schemes such as the Cocoa and Forests Initiative (with the region’s governments in Ghana and Ivory Coast, and industry), as well as supporting the recently introduced living income premiums to be paid to those in the sector.

But as for Tony’s Chocolonely, the company specifically opted to source beans from Barry Callebaut, yet its supplies are segregated, and the business pays more for them to support farmers. “Our mission is to make the entire chocolate industry slave free, and not just our own chocolate. Therefore, we have to address the root causes of child labour – poverty, with the average farmer in Ivory Coast and Ghana earning far below the global poverty line as identified by the World Bank.

This is at the heart of child labour and modern slavery, as well as deforestation, which remain the biggest problems in cocoa,” states Schoenmakers. He stresses there have been no recorded cases of modern child slavery in its supply chain, though he concedes child labour cases have been identified, which he says they are working hard to address. “We have a fully traceable supply of cocoa that is not intermixed with other streams. So, for all our chocolate, we know for 100 per cent where that cocoa has come from.

“That’s not simply us saying that, but every year we ask our accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers not only our finances, but also give assurances on nonfinancial key performance indicators (KPI’s) relating to our traceability claims. “Since we have started, we have never found modern slavery in our supply chain, though we do find cases of illegal child labour. But within the two biggest processing countries of Ghana and Ivory Coast, more than 1.5 million children work illegally – we’re not talking about helping parents at the weekend, but illegal work.”

As its latest annual report states, there are a number of key measures the business has put into motion that are contributing towards positive impacts in West Africa. This is reflected in its five key sourcing principles, which include a strong focus on traceability of its bean supply chain, as well as paying higher than average prices for cocoa that is an especially crucial factor.

Empowering structural change through supporting farming co-operatives has also been among its core goals, as well as building long-term relationships with farmers, with contracts that are designed to be created for a five-year term. The final, but equally important principle is that of increasing professionalisation of farming through instigating farmer training programmes aimed at improving the productivity, efficiency of operations and enhancing quality of beans.

In terms of its action on child labour, during the past year the business has enlisted high profile names to its cause including British actor Idris Elba who has backed its cause with a powerful advert, as well as US singer songwriter Pharrell Williams. He forged a link with Tony’s using his own brand of consumer goods to drive impact on the issue.

Leading the team

As for his own role with the company, Paul says that heading the impact team over the past few years has been a rewarding experience, enriched by the opportunity to engage with farming cooperatives on a regular basis with visits to West Africa.

However, as he notes, this hasn’t been possible under coronavirus travel restrictions, but he’s hopeful this will resume later this year and admits there’s no substitute for having that close connection with those communities in being able to understand the full scale of the issues they face.

“When we started out about eight or nine years ago with our traceable supply chain, everyone just laughed at us and said it was a ridiculous idea in Ivory Coast and Ghana, but now see that all the major companies have clear sustainability goals in their strategies, the two governments there stepping up, as well as traders such as Barry Callebaut and Cargill really investing in sustainability in their direct supply chains,” adds Paul, who says that such progress has given him genuine cause for optimism that significant change remains possible.

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