Most people don’t know that chocolate has a princess. Her name is Shelley Wallace and she is the owner of Hagensborg Chocolate Limited. Based in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, Hagensborg is a chocolate company that prides itself on making “Clean, Slave Free and Wild Chocolate” and is leading the way to ethical and sustainable chocolate. Almost all modern chocolate is sourced fr\nom countries in Africa using slave labor as documented by journalists and the UN [1,2,3,4]. Despite running a small business, this company run by a princess turned chocolate Joan of Arc are leading the charge to change the unethical landscape of chocolate.
Chocolate has had a troubled history since its inception. A product of the cacao bean, chocolate is found in tropical areas in Central and South America, Africa and Asia. Originally, the Aztec, Mayans and Olmec cultures cultivated cacao beans from the Cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) in Mesoamerica, which make up modern day Central America and Mexico . It was only introduced to Europeans as a drinkable liquid by Spanish colonizers in the 1500s. Its immense popularity in European high society reached a new height when, in 1828, Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch scientist, patented the method for making liquid chocolate into a solid form . From that time, the chocolate industry took off and has grown in popularity continuously across the globe since then .
Currently, 73% of the world’s chocolate is produced in Western African countries such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast . Most of these suppliers sell their product to global chocolate conglomerates. In 2012, 60% of the Ivory Coast’s export revenue was derived from cocoa [1,8]. Alongside the growth of the chocolate industry there has been a growth in demand for cheap cocoa. One report found that cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast earn less than 2 dollars per day . Often, these corporations use child slave labor to keep the cost of cacao competitive in global markets [2,3,4].
Why is child slave labor prevalent in this industry?
Children are most commonly trafficked from Burkina Faso and Mali, the two poorest countries in Africa. These children are surrounded by extreme poverty, and many begin to look for work to support their families at a very young age. While some children end up on the cocoa farms because they need to find work and fulfill the expectations of their families, others are sold to cocoa farms by family members or relatives. Presumably, many family members are under the belief that the work will pay well, be safe, and even provide an education. In addition, traffickers also abduct children and send them to the farms through an organized trafficking network [2,4].
Once they are on the farm, the days are long and intensive, often up to 12 or 13 hours. Aly Diabate, a former chocolate slave who escaped said, “Some of the bags were taller than me. It took two people to put the bag on my head. And when you didn’t hurry, you were beaten”. Other reports indicate that children were forced to use machetes to open cocoa pods and, due to their inexperience, they would often injure themselves or others. Lastly, many of these farms use fertilizers and pesticides and provide no protective clothing for their workers, which puts them at risk of exposure . These working conditions are in direct opposition to the UN declaration on the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. This declaration states that:
The term the worst forms of child labour comprises of:
“ all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour”
“ work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children” 
When Shelley started her business, she, like many happy chocolate consumers, didn’t know about child slavery in the chocolate industry. She started her company because she wanted her kids to be proud of her and her vocation. Truffle Pig Chocolate, the most popular chocolate at Hagensborg grew in popularity. In 2004, the Atkins diet became a popular trend that questioned the ingredients in every day food. Specifically, in the chocolate industry it resulted in the “clean chocolate” trend targeted at removing saturated fats in chocolates. This is when Shelley noticed began questioning the ingredients in her chocolate, and specifically whether saturated fat and soy lecithin were necessary.
As part of her 10-year anniversary as the head of the company, she decided that she wanted to know where everything in her chocolate came from. She was inspired by Level Ground Coffee, which trades fairly and directly with small-scale farmers in developing countries, and wondered whether that business model could apply to chocolate. 3 years later, she came across Tony’s Chocolonely, a slave free chocolate maker. After observing the slave free chocolate sticker on the bar she started digging again and found that her own supply chain was reportedly involved in child slave labour. When she asked her supplier, they were unable to confirm that they did not use slave labor chocolate, and for Shelley that was confirmation enough.
She decided then to become a “Farm to Bar” chocolate maker. This means that each step of the process, from the cultivation of the cacao beans to their roasting and production is transparent and easy to trace. At that point Shelley had a set of requirements for her next supplier:
- She wanted a high quality bean
- She wanted to go the farm to ensure that no one is getting hurt.
- She wanted to confirm that the chocolate has no additives and that contains simple ingredients
- She wanted the chocolate to be cost-effective within reason
Fortunately, Shelley found a supplier in Nicaragua that fit all of her requirements. From there, the focus shifted to locally farmed sustainable chocolate sourced from micro-farms and which would support farmers with payments above fair-trade pricing. Shelley was certain that the kind of wild, locally sourced chocolate that she sought would not use slave labour. The wisdom in her choice was confirmed in 2011 when 8 major chocolate conglomerates signed a new treaty to establish a 2-million-dollar project that would help eliminate child slave labour. By then, a full 10 years had passed since the establishment of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, otherwise known as the “Cocoa Protocol,” which aimed to reduce the worst forms of child labour , meaning that the problem was real, recognized, and actionable, but requiring real action.
Making Sustainable Chocolate
Based on Shelley’s knowledge, Nicaragua has one of the highest quality cocoas in the world. Indeed, since cocoa is indigenous, it grows everywhere, and on the farms it just grows wild. Comparatively, the beans from Africa are grafted onto a producing bean. There are three types of beans. While the African beans consist solely of a mass-producing bean, in Nicaragua there is a wild variety of indigenous beans throughout the country.
The first sustainable benefit to switching to Nicaraguan micro-farms is that the focus on quality instead of quantity requires that less land be converted for use. Considering that 25% of the world’s land mass is already utilized by agricultural industries , this immediately lessens the carbon footprint of the chocolate. In addition, on Shelley’s Nicaraguan farms, they don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, both of which not only leave a heavy carbon footprint but also severely damage the environment . Instead, her farmers actively learn integrative farming land management practices that work to increase cacoa yield. For example, instead of using fertilizers, they plant banana trees which increase shade and help the cocao tree grow.
The cocoa beans are collected and they are fermented (yes, fermented like cheese, wine, and kimchi, etc.) for one week. Once fermented, they are dried by the sun on drying mats raised above the ground to reduce any mould that could occur if the mats were on the ground. This process has been shown to have no energetic inputs except heat energy from the sun, which again reduces the carbon footprint compared to other more conventional methods of drying  and then made into chocolate in Nicaragua and Honduras. From there, they are shipped to Vancouver.
Lastly, Shelley has drastically reduced the distance of her shipping routes. Most chocolate is transported via sea shipping containers for two reasons. The first is that specialized shipping containers refrigerate at cool temperatures to prevent melting and bacterial growth. Second, sea shipping makes transportation more cost effective than other forms of transport .
As a point of comparison, the International Cocoa Organization reports that most of the world’s chocolate is exported to Europe . This means that most of the chocolate we eat in Vancouver is manufactured in Europe and then shipped to the Western Coast of North America via the Panama Canal. I used marinetraffic.com, a website that uses real data to track shipping routes around the globe, to do some of my own digging. Assuming that the chocolate would not be shipped to Europe first, the journey from Ghana to Vancouver was approximately 9,000 nautical miles, or 16,700 km.
Using the same tool, the shipping route for Hagensborg Chocolates which were sourced from Nicaragua and Honduras, was approximately 3500 nautical miles (6500 km) which is cuts the carbon emission from shipping by almost two thirds! The importance of the reduction of shipping routes and emissions is often overlooked, as despite being the most carbon efficient way of transporting goods, ocean shipping traffic still contributes to 14 percent of the ocean’s acidification problem. This in turn results in coral bleaching, a term that describes a mass die-off of corals .
Small Choices, Big Impacts
Shelley’s focus on ethical and sustainable business practices extends beyond her product. Once she switched her chocolate source, her focus shifted to making Hagensborg more energy and waste efficient. She made the executive decision to stop garbage pick-up at the Hagensborg offices. At the time, it was a cost-reduction measure, but now she has observed that everyone in the office makes more of an effort to sort through the waste that is produced before she takes it to the recycle depot. She acknowledges that major corporations are not likely to do this, however, she is happy to “make every little bit count.”
Subsequently, Shelley realized that her chocolate wrappers were being shipped from China which is not only known for its unethical practices in its workshops, but which also has a large carbon footprint to ship. So, she switched her supplier from China to a local manufacturer in BC. One of her current goals is to change the wrapper from a metalized silver wrapper to a completely compostable alternative to lessen impact on the environment.
Ethical Chocolate Charts a Bumpy Course
As successful as Shelley has been in becoming an ethical and sustainable brand, it hasn’t always been easy. She has relied heavily on experts who knew what chocolate would be better for the environment and where to get it. On top of that, she has encountered some resistance from her retailers. Like Tony’s Chocoloney, Shelley now has “Slave Free” on her chocolate bar wrappers. This prompted one of her retailers to ask to remove the label or they said they wouldn’t sell it. She refused to remove it and unfortunately lost their business.
The general public’s reaction has been mixed as well. She greatly appreciates her informed consumers, but has found them to be both few and far between. There simply hasn’t been much public education about corruption in one of the world’s sweetest industries, and Shelley has taken it upon herself to be one of the industry’s first public educators. Many consumers come to Shelley with nonchalance about the slavery conducted in far-off places or with skepticism about her intentions. Despite being a small individual, when confronted by the world’s wrongs Shelley can be “as tall as a mountain”. She approaches skeptics by saying, “Let’s start a conversation” and makes a concerted effort to win them over. One customer complained that the label was just a “marketing gimmick”. That comment was particularly upsetting because it is completely ignorant of the company’s extensive work to make chocolate they can be truly proud of.
It’s not very often that you see a company make such active strides to become a better organization. Shelley’s dream is to create “guilt free chocolate” and based on her trajectory it seems like she is on the way to accomplishing her goal. Her next big move? A Sugar-Free chocolate bar! Shelley wants to create a chocolate without any added sugar though she wants to use alternatives to Stevia and maltitol. Shelley thinks that we have a growing population that need sugarless chocolate.
So, in today’s modern world, the chocolate industry is slowly being revealed to be less ethical than it is perceived to be. What can the average consumer do about it? There are organic and sustainable certifications available, however, in some cases, slavery and unsustainable agriculture have been reported despite the provided certification. However, consumers are supported in their quest for ethical chocolate by the Food Empowerment Project. They are a registered non-profit that have created a list of chocolate companies which highlight companies that use slave labour when producing chocolate. This list can be found online or on a downloaded app. But even if the company you are looking at is not on that list, just do a little research and see if you can find out who their supplier is and where they get their cocoa beans.
Ultimately, Shelley believes that to make great change, “you need to go in small pieces.” She is hoping that as more people become aware of the plight of chocolate farm workers, there will be more pressure on chocolate conglomerates to maintain ethical means of sourcing chocolate. After all, if you know that the chocolate you are eating was made from slave labor, it probably won’t taste as sweet.
NB: Now that Shelley has switched to more ethical and sustainable chocolate, her imperialist title Princess of Chocolate, no longer feels applicable. Instead, she has now taken the more egalitarian title of Chief Porker.
Hagensborg chocolate is located at 3686 Bonneville Pl, Burnaby, BC V3N 4T6 and open from 10 AM to 5 PM. You can also find them at Choices, Nester’s Market, Pomme Natural and Whole Foods. They can also be found seasonally at Shopper’s Drug mart.
Full Disclosure: This was not a paid interview. However, I did get to try some delicious chocolate. Oink Oink!
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*** If any information is incorrect, please let me know. Science is about learning from past mistakes and learning from them!***