Child Slavery, Chocolate, and the Diversion That Followed

Abigail Elperin, Staff Writer

The world today has no shortage of corrupt, unethical, and deeply flawed corporations. From Nestlé to Disney, virtually every modern company has a plethora of scandals and controversies that have not been resolved yet. But how bad are they really? Is their evil overdramatized or underrepresented? For the world’s top chocolate producing companies like Mars, Nestlé, and Cargill, the sins border on crimes against humanity.

Centered in the West African country of the Côte d’Ivoire (or Ivory Coast), the most recent scandal to rock the cocoa industry involves something despicable and beyond comprehension: child slavery. SCOTUSBlog says that in 2021, “a lawsuit [was] filed by six citizens of Mali, who claimed that as children they were enslaved on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast …. They worked for long hours without pay and with very little food, and if they didn’t work quickly enough, they were beaten with whips and tree branches.” Allegedly, the companies being sued knowingly purchased cocoa beans from plantations that use this method of abuse. The lawsuit was filed and eventually taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the plaintiffs pleading for accountability on the part of companies like Nestlé, Cargill, and Mars, who purchased cocoa from producers that keep workers in such conditions. Non-coincidentally, the Côte d’Ivoire is largely the global epicenter of cocoa production, with AlJazeera reporting that the Ivory Coast (alongside the neighboring country of Ghana), “supply 65 percent of the world’s cocoa.” Cocoa is rather new for the nation, however, with cocoa not even being a native crop of Côte d’Ivoire. Like many other West African staple crops, cocoa was first brought by French colonizers and imposed onto the Ivory Coast through a process of enslavement and exploitation. The Côte d’Ivoire gained independence from France in 1960, but had been left so immeasurably ravaged and resource depleted by their colonizers that they are still dependent upon cocoa to maintain their economy. The Côte d’Ivoire’s general impoverishment after independence also leaves them susceptible to exploitation at the hands of international corporations – like Mars, Nestlé, and Cargill. In his video “The Yassification of Slayyvery”, YouTuber Tirrrb says, “With the fall of imperialism, companies replace governments as oppressive regimes.” Companies who only chase profits also have little reason to care about the wellness of their workers. Junior Julia Wang says, “These people with money are only going to care about money, not about ethics or the people who make the money for them.” Couple that with some deeply rooted government corruption (in Côte d’Ivoire and the U.S.), and you have created a world where companies can get away with nearly everything. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States of America threw out and ignored the aforementioned child slavery lawsuit against the chocolate companies. SCOTUSBlog adds, “The trial court dismissed the lawsuit, reasoning that the activities at the heart of the plaintiffs’ complaint were normal for multinational corporations.” The excusing of this lawsuit by arguably the most powerful court in the world has effectively set a precedent of acceptance for such egregious human rights violations. This is especially important because countries like the Ivory Coast are trapped in an economic position where, without foreign intervention, they may never escape the vicious cycle of child slavery. FoodIsPower says, “Most cocoa farmers (in the Ivory Coast) earn less than $1 per day, an income below the extreme poverty line. As a result, they often resort to the use of child labor to keep their prices competitive.”

While the powerful government leaders that brush human rights under the rug have unfathomable impact on the global course of events, these mega-corporations know that bribing a few congressmen and government officials is not enough to make an issue disappear. The people, comprised of everyday folks, have the power to boycott and seriously hurt your stock if they get the wrong idea about your company. Just look at what happened to chocolate company Milka after they ruled out all redheads and overweight children at an advertisement audition. Freshman Aadya Puri says, “The opinion of common people like us does matter. We can have a lot of impact.” This is why one of the companies at the forefront of the child slavery scandal, Mars, devised a distraction from their atrocities in the form of the green M&M. M&Ms, the colorful, pellet-sized candy you can pick up at any airport, are owned by the Mars company. In 2022, they launched a massive marketing saga, beginning with their original announcement to replace their spokescandy Green’s (a humanoid M&M) “famous” go-go boots with more sensible sneakers. This triggered a small-scale culture war in America, with both liberals and conservatives equally frustrated at the sheer futility of the situation, thus boosting it even further. The story began to climb the headlines, with Fox News’ Walter Kirn stating, “A bowl of rainbow colored candies is as woke as it gets.” Later, a post from the official M&M’s Instagram account said, “We have decided to take an indefinite pause from our spokescandies.” Liberals hailed this as a spineless response to the waves created by conservative news outlets like Fox News. Many view this as nothing more than a marketing strategy, an attempt to go woke gone wrong, intentionally stirring controversy to bring more attention to a product. Many have theorized that the green M&M drama was (at least partially) a public diversion from the child slavery lawsuit that Mars (and many of its cocoa purchasing peers) were entangled in. Sophomore Jieden Fenderson says, “In America’s current political climate, we will fight over anything, even over a green character’s boots or sneakers. The Mars Company knew it would be so stupid that it would distract people.” The timing is extremely suspicious- the lawsuit was first thrown out in June of 2021, and began to collect more awareness in the following months, while the green M&M’s footwear fiasco occurred around January 2022, seemingly out of nowhere. For months, news about the M&M’s spokescandies completely penetrated social media, with many users reporting seeing news about the candies as ‘sponsored content.’ There was not any mainstream outcry about the human rights violations that the same company managed to get away with in the Côte d’Ivoire. This is as much an issue with the repression of news as it is with the general ignorance of those outside the countries where these human rights violations are occurring, who, even if presented with the facts of child slavery abroad in a clear, urgent manner, would still probably prefer to argue over the shoes of an animated character. Fenderson adds, “America is in its own bubble. Many Americans just do not care about global issues because they could never imagine themselves in such horrible conditions.”

To build an ethical world, Mars, Nestlé, Cargill, and the plethora of other chocolate companies need to start purchasing cocoa exclusively from ethical producers, and the issue of child slavery and exploitation needs to be addressed on a systemic level. In addition, corporations need to take active steps to secure the wellbeing of their workers. Senior Max Fleischman says, “Companies need to pay a livable wage, treating workers like human beings and not machines, and recognize that they are nothing without their employees.” It is absolutely essential that every person worldwide is protected by their governments and the companies they work for. If not, it is the duty of every human being to speak out, for the sake of creating justice and compassion in a world that can so often lack it.