This post was written by Etelle Higonnet, Yale Law School graduate and current Senior Advisor at the National Wildlife Federation. Etelle previously worked as Mighty Earth Campaigns Director, where she focused on ending deforestation in commodity agriculture, as well as posts with Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Human Rights Law Institute. 

Halloween. It’s the time of year when we dress up, celebrate, and buy copious amounts of chocolate.

The world’s average chocolate consumption amounts to an estimated 0.9 kilogrammes per capita per year. In the US, people consume close to three billion pounds of chocolate. Meanwhile in Europe, the average per-capita chocolate consumption reached 5 kilograms in 2018, with the European chocolate market valued at an estimated €53 billion in 2019. For the small number of giant companies that dominate the world market, a major chunk of annual chocolate sales centre around Halloween. This holiday matters a lot for companies’ bottom lines.

This is why it is vital, for those who can, to seek out more ethical and sustainable options with a strong message: this holiday, we’re buying from the heart. No longer will we accept the zombie of deforestation; a dark reality that companies keep promising to end, but continues to cause destruction around the world. No longer will consumers tolerate their holiday treats driving the destruction of habitats for critical species like chimpanzees in Côte d’Ivoire, gorillas in Nigeria, or jaguars in the Amazon. We will not buy or eat chocolate made with the labour of an estimated 1.3 million children working on cocoa farms, many of whom are getting a rotten trick and no treats from an industry that robs them of their education, future, and hope.

So how do we figure out the solutions, as consumers? What are our choices and where does our power lie?

To answer that, let’s take a walk together down the road of chocolate, tracing how this treat winds up in our hands.

Chocolate comes from pods that grow on cocoa trees. These are small, somewhat shrubby trees that only grow in tropical countries with abundant rain and lots of heat. We now know that in nearly every origin country where it’s produced, cocoa has driven deforestation. Basically, ancient rainforests have been cut down to make way for cocoa monocultures.

What used to be forested feasting grounds for wildlife are often reduced to biodiversity deserts, where almost no wildlife can thrive. The top two cocoa-producing countries of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana have respectively lost approximately 94% and 80% of their forests in the last sixty years. About 1/3 of that destruction has been for cocoa. Indeed, Côte d’Ivoire (or Ivory Coast) was named after the tusks of thousands of elephants who once roamed there. Due to rampant deforestation, and compounding factors like the ivory trade, now only a few hundred elephants survive, chimpanzee and other primate populations have plummeted, and many other species are also at risk.

Forests aren’t just home to abundant, vibrant wildlife, they’re also rain machines. When you cut down forests, rainfall systems are disrupted, devastating many species – especially amphibians or mammals like pygmy hippos who depend on water. That’s what’s happening to Ivorian and Ghanaian rainfall — it’s diminished and heading for further desertification, which will, in turn, endanger more wildlife and upend life for millions of vulnerable farmers whose livelihoods depend on rains. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Every bite we eat, every bar we buy, can make things better for forests. 

Cocoa can be grown without deforestation. And more than that, cocoa can be grown in earth-loving ways that promote biodiversity and restore rainfall. The best cocoa comes from shade-grown agroforestry systems. Agroforestry is a method of planting cocoa among many other trees and bushes. Environmental benefits include carbon sequestration, soil health, nitrogen fixation, water regulation, erosion control, microclimate control, and most important of all: a major boost for biodiversity, especially when it comes to birds, bats, and bugs.

We can also eat our way to helping farmers. Just like cocoa can be better for the planet when grown a certain way, it can also be better for people.

The key is to ensure cocoa gives farmers a ‘living income.’ Most cocoa farmers make less than a dollar a day, with female cocoa farmers earning around 30 cents daily, because the price of cocoa has fallen so low. This pushes farmers into poverty, in part explaining why so many children end up working on farms. Even supermodel Georgie Badiel, who was crowned Miss Africa, worked in cocoa as a child, recounting her experiences in Teen Vogue. Human trafficking and bonded labour are also rife in these conditions, as children can be sold as slaves to work on cocoa farms in West Africa.

It should not be this way. Cocoa farmers can and should earn a living income, without exploitation of labour or the planet. Many small ethical companies already guarantee this. Moreover, the companies that care about eradicating child labour have been rolling out a new initiative that has been proving successful: ‘Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation Systems.

The good news is consumers have the power to push this change even further. Here are two high-impact ways to make a difference that don’t take much time:

  • Spend five minutes going online and signing petitions to make chocolate more sustainable and ethical. Petitions can have an enormous impact on companies and governments, who are pushed to act when consumers advocate for sustainable change. Choose your favourite petitions to sign! Hundreds of cocoa petitions are collected in a one-stop shop you can check out here.
  • Change what chocolate you buy this holiday season. Make sure your chocolate is organic – this ensures at a minimum that your cocoa didn’t poison the earth or workers. We know children being exposed to toxic chemicals is a problem for the industry, so going organic does make a difference. Also look for labels such as “single origin”, “bean to bar,” or anything on the packaging indicating that the company knows exactly where the cocoa came from. The more traceable cocoa is, the easier it is to guarantee it’s free of child labour or deforestation. You can also look at this chocolate scorecard co-created by several NGOs, including Be Slavery Free, Green America, Inkota, Mighty Earth, and National Wildlife Federation, to rank and grade 83% of the world’s chocolate. 

If you want to make your voice heard further, you can also advocate through contacting/highlighting on social media:

  • If you’re in the EU to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission in the EU, asking for a strong deforestation-free EU law, as the newly leaked draft law is not strong enough.
  • If you’re in the UK to DEFRA, asking for the Environmental Bill’s approach to deforestation to be strengthened to include cocoa.

By infusing chocolate purchases with love, care for wildlife, and solidarity with farmers, we can help make a difference with each small bite.