Ayn Riggs is the director of Slave Free Chocolate. A non-profit platform designed to inform and advise consumers on how to make ethical chocolate purchases that pay cocoa farmers a fair wage that does not involve slavery.
The questions how, when and why I started Slave Free Chocolate are often asked and I cannot answer without pausing as I need to use the word ‘random’. So, have I been working on something I randomly started for 12+ years? Seemingly.
2007 is 12 years ago and sadly 2.3 million children are still at risk for falling under the Worst Forms of Child Labor, including trafficking. Secondly, 2007 was a tough year for me. I was going through a difficult divorce, I had 2 teenagers in the house, and I was in the midst of starting a small business, which offered me the flexibility to keep tabs on my two girls I was basically raising alone. Although I believe in the value of service, my plate was full, to say the least. I wasn’t even remotely looking for a project, in fact, I had sadly just put down my sculpture artwork to make more time for garnishing more income.
In 2007, I randomly met Humphrey Hawksley of the BBC at an airport bar. The only thing I can remember about our typical bar conversation was that he had recently finished the second or so program on the problem of child slavery in the cocoa industry in West Africa. I had never heard about the issue and I kept up with current affairs, but this was totally new to me. We exchanged contact info and I returned home.
Curious about this new information on cocoa, I thought I’d do some research to find out more about what was going on in the industry. I figured Nestlé was up to no good. Perhaps there was a movement I could join or at least donate to. What did Big Cocoa have to say about all of this? Who was working on this? Well, Big Cocoa had nothing to report at all. They hadn’t even started to use the word “sustainable” yet. There seemed to be conversations going on in Europe and the UK, of course, but here in the US, there was next to nothing. One chocolatier was brave enough to put a page at the back of his website outlining a protocol that Big Cocoa had signed promising they would have this mess cleaned up by 2005. His site also led me to a report written by a watchdog the US Department of Labor had hired. Other than that, it was chirp, chirp, chirp.
Not doing anything felt like I was ignoring a lost child sitting on a curb crying in a place no one else was around. So I arbitrarily started Slave Free Chocolate with the mission to see that these children are able to live better lives. And to get Big Cocoa to step up and fulfil their promises.
Obviously, I was naïve. I didn’t work in the food industry or an NGO. I really thought and still do believe that this should be the low hanging fruit of wins when it comes to abolishing a sector of modern-day slavery. For instance, in the world of sex trafficking, the traffickers operate underground and on the dark web. But in this situation, Big Cocoa had admitted culpability and promised remediation. They knew farmers hadn’t received a price increase for their beans in 30 years resulting in abject poverty which led to slave labor. Big Cocoa wasn’t doing anything because they didn’t have to. Consumers didn’t know.
Even with my meagre resources, I thought this would be a two-year project at best. Once a fire was properly lit under Big Cocoa, they would actually take care of this. I could then move onto another arbitrary life decision.
When I reached out to friends and family, I realized this was going to be one long and lonely road. Most of my friends flat out wouldn’t believe me, and if they did it was by waving a DVD from the BBC in front of their face. They were mad at me for making them feel bad about chocolate. Those making chocolate or in the food industry, in general, were even worse. This topic is almost lethal. Watch people’s eyes glaze over as they exit the conversation with you.
It’s 12 years on now. The crying child is still sitting on the curb, but now there are lots of people trying to get to her/him.
It’s a complicated issue. To solve this, it is going to take all of Big Cocoa and the chocolate buying consumer to be in agreement at the same time to fix this. The consumers will have to stand behind Big Cocoa. When this, hopefully, happens, Big Cocoa will have to eat into their profits more than their shareholders are going to want to stomach. The price of chocolate will go up as well.
We can win this one because the ingredients are all there. This is the low hanging fruit in the eradication of modern-day slavery. It will be a win that involves millions of people from across the globe. We will all be the hero and the power we take away with this win can go directly to another sector that needs our care.
You can learn more about Slave Free Chocolate and how to make better decisions when purchasing chocolate at slavefreechocolate.org