The 2018 Cocoa Barometer, a biennial review of the state of sustainability in the cocoa sector, is less than enthusiastic about where things stand in the sector.

“Cocoa growing communities, particularly in West Africa, are facing poverty, child labor and de-forestation that have been made worse by a rapid fall in prices for cocoa,” the report said. “Widely touted efforts in the cocoa industry to improve the lives of farmers, communities and the environment made in the past decade are having little impact. In fact, the modest scope of the proposed solutions does not even come close to addressing the scale of the problem.”

Specifically, the report said:

  • An average cocoa farmer in Côte d’Ivoire earns only a third of what he or she should to earn a living income.
  • More than ninety percent of West Africa’s original forests are gone.
  • Child labor remains at very high levels in the cocoa sector, with an estimated 2.1 million children working in cocoa fields in the Ivory Coast and Ghana alone.
  • A “broken” market in which farmers have no real influence. 

“As long as poverty, child labor and deforestation are rife in the cocoa sector, chocolate remains a guilty pleasure,” said Antonie Fountain, co-author of the Barometer. “Current approaches will not solve the problem at scale. Companies and governments need to acknowledge the urgency, and make a change. Efforts that cover less than 50 percent cannot be called ‘solutions’.”

But there is hope. The report offers some action steps, including:

  • Make net income the key metric for all sustainability projects.
  • Commit to a sector-wide goal of achieving a living income.
  • Commit to a global moratorium on deforestation; focus on agroforestry and reforestation as environmental solutions.
  • Move from voluntary to mandatory requirements, on human rights as well as on transparency and accountability.
  • Develop sector-wide approaches at scale that address root causes to child labor.
  • Increase urgency and ambition to reflect the scale of the problems, and implement changes that also address issues around power and political economy, not just at technical levels. 

As long as poverty, child labor and deforestation are rife in the cocoa sector, chocolate remains a guilty pleasure. Current approaches will not solve the problem at scale. Companies and governments need to acknowledge the urgency, and make a change. Efforts that cover less than 50 percent cannot be called ‘solutions’.

– Antonie Fountain, co-author of the Barometer

And indeed the industry seems to be working to make these changes.

For example, Mars recently revamped its original 2009 goals, which included purchasing its entire cocoa supply from certified sustainable sources by 2020. In a September 2018 press release, the company said, “Mars aims to have 100 percent of its cocoa from the Responsible Cocoa program responsibly sourced globally and traceable by 2025.”

“Mars’ new approach to cocoa goes beyond the current level of certification standards and practices and is a step change from the initial commitment Mars made in 2009,” the company said. 

“Despite significant progress, farmers haven’t experienced improvements in their incomes or living conditions at an adequate pace,” Mars adds. “Children continue to labor in hazardous conditions and deforestation continues with farming occurring in protected forest areas. Mars believes a step change is needed where business, civil society and government must think and act differently, and take a new approach that creates a pathway for cocoa farmers, their families, and communities to thrive.”

As part of the announcement the company launched a new plan for overhauling its cocoa supply chain called Cocoa for Generations. The plan places the interest of the smallholder farmer at its center, helps to safeguard children and forests, and creates a pathway for cocoa farmers and cocoa-growing communities to thrive.  Cocoa for Generations is backed by an investment of $1 billion over 10 years and is incremental to the Sustainable in a Generation Plan investment Mars announced last year.

The company said that while this new approach is implemented, “Mars will maintain its current certified cocoa levels with the Rainforest Alliance and with Fairtrade and work with both organizations as they continue to strengthen implementation to raise the bar across the cocoa sector.”

Meanwhile, the Barry Callebaut Group launched the Forever Chocolate initiative in late 2016 with the goals of lifting more than 500,000 cocoa farmers from poverty, eradicating child labor from its supply chain, becoming carbon and forest positive and using 100 percent sustainable ingredients — by 2025.

Specifically, the chocolate makers said, by 2025 that they will:

Eradicate child labor from our supply chain

Lift more than 500,000 cocoa farmers out of poverty

Become carbon and forest positive

Have 100 percent sustainable ingredients in all of our products

“These targets are daunting and we might not have all the answers on how to achieve them,” Barry Callebaut admitted. “But we are confident that we will reach them, working together with all those who have chocolate close to their hearts.”

And Mondelēz International is still making progress with signature sustainable sourcing program, Cocoa Life.

“By the end of 2017, the program reached 120,500 farmers (up 31 percent compared to 2016) in 1,085 communities (up 26 percent),” the company said.  Through Cocoa Life, the company also increased its sourcing of sustainable cocoa to 35 percent, up 14 percentage points from 2016.”

And cocoa sustainably sourced through Cocoa Life was expanded to more products, including the full Cadbury Dairy Milk line in the U.K. and Ireland, as well as Oreo cookies in Europe.

The program indeed seems to be having a real impact on the people who matter most — the farmers.

“Cocoa Life has truly changed our farms by giving us training so that we can protect the environment and have sustainable cocoa production,” said Ohena Boafo, cocoa farmer and Union President of West Akyem Co-operative Cocoa Farmers & Marketing Union Ltd. “Before Cocoa Life, my farm had old and diseased trees that were not able to bear enough fruit. I harvested about 20 bags for the whole year. Since joining this program, I have replanted my farm and now produce more than 100 bags a year. With this additional income, I can take good care of my wife and my children.”

But the company also seems to understand that sustainable cocoa is not an easy fix, and it offers vaguer timelines than it had in the past.

“Cocoa Life aims to create empowered and thriving cocoa farming communities by reaching more than 200,000 farmers across six countries and benefiting more than a million people by 2022. Mondelēz International’s ultimate goal is to sustainably source all the company’s cocoa supply, mainly via Cocoa Life. By working in partnership with farmers, NGOs, suppliers and government institutions, Cocoa Life is part of Mondelēz International’s Impact For Growth – a commitment to driving business growth with positive change in the world,” the company said.

Olam Cocoa is progressing towards the goal of 100 percent traceable and sustainable cocoa volumes from its direct origination supply chain by 2020. Building on this, it is also looking to 2025 with it AtSource program, which it describes as, “a comprehensive sustainable sourcing solution in the agri B2B marketplace that can seamlessly connect you directly to the source of your supply, across the entire journey from field to processing, country of origin to destination market.”

But the task is daunting for even the best chocolate makers, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.