Companies that do good: Tony’s Chocolonely from the Netherlands is on a mission to make chocolate slave-free

The bitter truth about chocolate

Believe it or not, the chocolate industry is a mega-factory fuelled by child labour, slavery and human trafficking, and Tony’s Chocolonely wants to make things right. Ynzo van Zanten, its chief evangelist since 2016, tells us more

by : Hannah Choo

I wasn’t aware of the situation until I saw Rotten, an investigative documentary series that unmasks the truth within the global food supply chain. It was when I stumbled across episode five of season two, did I realise that most of the world’s chocolate is no more than just a sweet face. Like an even more twisted Willy Wonka factory, the chocolate industry is a mega-factory fuelled by child labour, slavery and human trafficking, which comes mostly from West Africa.

Which brings us to Tony’s Chocolonely, founded in the Netherlands in 2005 by three journalists from the Dutch TV programme, Keuringdienst van Waarde. They had discovered how the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers were buying cocoa from slave-driven plantations, and with that, Tony’s was born as a way to lead by example, and to raise awareness and eradicate such inequality. Since then, other big companies (also known as Mission Allies) have joined the mission to build direct, equal relationships throughout the entire cocoa ecosystem, and to make slave-free chocolate a norm. Tony’s is also now the largest chocolate brand in the Netherlands, and is available in other markets such as the USA, Germany, Belgium and even Singapore (Little Farms carries it).

Ynzo van Zanten, chief evangelist of Tony’s Chocolonely since 2016, tells us more.

What makes the eradication of child labour such a daunting task? What complications have risen since trying to undo this systemic abuse?

Ynzo van Zanten (YVZ): What makes it such a daunting task is that it’s such a widespread systemic problem. It’s something that’s been ingrained for decades, maybe even centuries in that system of farmers being exploited in the beginning of the value chain... of big companies making huge, huge profits on the other side of the chain. That inequality is so humongous that it doesn’t give these farmers any opportunity to step up and fix the problem themselves. For them, it’s either earning too little or nothing, and that’s very unequal, I would say. So the daunting task is to completely change an industry that's really old-fashioned with a very systemic problem ingrained in its roots. It’s also to make sure a big number of parties work together – the consumers, cocoa farmers, retailers, governments and target producers. It’s a big daunting task for a tiny company like ours. That’s why we always say it’s not about us, it’s about all of us working together towards that mission.

Can you tell me more about Tony’s Open Chain?

YVZ: This is really for us to show that initially, as a small company with a journalistic approach, we had this idea of changing the industry, to get 100 per cent market share to make change. It’s a bit of a big dream, but over the course of time, we’ve come to realise that we’d probably reach that mission sooner if it’s not about us getting 100 per cent market share, but 100 per cent of the market starting to do what we’re doing. So we want to be open source with the knowledge that we have built up over the last 15 years and spread that knowledge around. We believe that it has to do with paying a Living Income Reference Price to the farmers, and if we establish that price together and pay them the same fair price, we create this level-playing field from which we can still differentiate based on taste, packaging and marketing .

Chocolate is a magical product, and if you combine that with a strong mission of doing something right and a strong commercial entrepreneurial approach, that’s the magical combination.

How fair is the Fairtrade certification? Does it really indicate ethical production, or is that a myth?

YVZ: Every now and then, there are reports coming out from journalists that say, “certifications have changed nothing on the ground.” I would beg to differ. I think certifications are good, because they establish at least a minimum threshold that people will have to abide by. But it’s sometimes mistaken as an endpoint. It should be a starting point of change, instead of being done with responsibility. I sometimes compare it with getting your driver’s license. Legally, you’re allowed on the road, but you’re not a proper driver yet. You don’t stop learning. We have always been a loyal partner of the Fairtrade certification and we will probably remain that forever, because they are doing good. Again, it’s good, but it’s not good enough.

Besides West Africa and the cocoa industry, where else will we find child labour?

YVZ: There’s a lot of child labour involved in shipping, fashion and entertainment. When it comes to specifically the cocoa industry, the two major cocoa-producing countries in the world are Ghana and Ivory Coast, and they are also the countries where the amount of illegal child labour is the biggest.

Are there any programmes that rescue and rehabilitate these children who have been sold to cocoa farms?

YVZ: We have in place a system called the CLMRS (Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation System), through which we track the social impact that we make. We have locals going around interviewing people, kids and farmers, asking them about the work situations and they log any incidents. We try to remediate these incidents and last year, we did so for over 500 incidents. There are a lot of forms of remediation, including making sure the kids have birth certificates, building canteens in schools and ensuring that there are wheelbarrows for people to work with.

How positive are you about chocolate ever becoming slave-free?

YVZ: Very positive. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing this. Of course, it’s taking a longer time than we want it to, and that’s sometimes frustrating. But at the same time, you see change. You see consumers wanting to be a part of this movement of changing the cocoa industry.Our growth towards being a market leader in the Netherlands shows that people want this and that is really inspiring to see.

What is it about Tony’s Chocolonely that you love so much, besides its mission?

YVZ: It’s the magical combination of having an everyday product that makes everyone happy, whether you give it away, get it or eat it. Unfortunately, in that value chain, not everybody is happy. But chocolate is a magical product, and if you combine that with a strong mission of doing something right and a strong commercial entrepreneurial approach, for me, that’s the magical combination.

What does tomorrow mean for you?

YVZ: Yet another day full of opportunities for change. That will be tomorrow for me.

Tony’s Chocolonely