Saturday, March 24, 2012

Et Tu, Clif Bar?

Company’s chocolate may support child slavery – tell them to come clean now

Oompa loompa doompa dee do
I’ve got another trouble for you
Oompa loompa doompa da dee
No choc'late for child slavery

No, the Oompa Loompas didn’t sing those lyrics after any of the snotty, bratty little Golden Ticket winners got their just desserts on their tour of Willy Wonka’s famous fictional chocolate factory. But the melodically/morally-inclined OLs might change their tune if they worked for Clif Bar and Company, which refuses to tell their customers what country the cocoa for their chocolate comes from. This information is important because 75% of the world’s cocoa is supplied by two West African countries, Ghana and the Ivory Coast — where the use of child labor, and even child slavery, is widespread on cocoa plantations.

Now, by child slavery, I mean actual slavery: children from 12 to 16 years old (and some as young as 7) sold by their parents to cocoa growers, never seeing their families again, held against their will and forced to work on cocoa plantations. I mean overseers savagely beating and whipping kids who don’t work fast enough or get caught trying to escape. By child labor, I mean children deprived of education (in violation of International Labor Organization laws) using sharp, heavy machetes to cut cocoa pods from treetops. I mean kids being sprayed with toxic agricultural chemicals sans protective gear. Learn more here.

Over the past year, the Food Empowerment Project (FEP) has asked dozens of companies to disclose what countries they get their cocoa from to determine whether they subsidize child slavery. FEP doesn’t ask these companies to reveal any sensitive information that could potentially jeopardize their market share (like details about their supply chain or growers’ names). They just want to know what country they get their raw cocoa from. But rather than answer this very simple question, Clif Bar is pulling a Wonka. They say they must keep this information secret to protect their business against espionage by the protein bar industry’s equivalent of Slugworth Chocolates, Inc. 

When I emailed Clif Bar about my concerns and asked why they refused to grant FEP’s simple request, a guy named Bobby responded. He seems like a perfectly nice fellow whose job entails placating pesky pain-in-the-ass meddlers like myself with soothing platitudes that tow the company line. I say this because he absolutely refused, after multiple emails, to answer a very simple, straightforward, crystal-clear question: 
what country does Clif Bar’s cocoa come from? Corresponding with him was like listening to a skipping CD. 

That is, no matter how earnestly I expressed my concerns, he just kept evasively stating that his employer “is committed to socially responsible sourcing practices,” “creating a sustainable supply chain,” and sourcing 100% of their cocoa from Rainforest Alliance Certified (RAC) farms by 2013. It quickly became painfully obvious that he was just pasting in a standard company-approved response over and over, no matter what I wrote. Poor guy: he must've been hearing from a lot of other disgruntled customers besides me recently. 

But on the surface at least, Clif Bar's explanation sounds reasonable, right? Well, not according to FEP: they claim that RAC’s human rights standards are very weak, and that it’s the very same certification Hershey plans to begin using soon for their ironically-branded “Bliss” chocolate line.

I expect dissembling and denials from chocolate industry giants like Hershey, Nestlé and Mars, who clearly don’t give a crap that their products support child slavery, and only care about getting the cheapest possible ingredients so they can make the most profit. But I naïvely thought Clif Bar was different. It’s one of those rare companies I felt a personal connection with because: 
1) I’ve been buying and enjoying their products for years, especially the chocolate peanut butter Builder’s Bar, and 2) I was inspired by founder Greg Erickson’s personal story and self-proclaimed commitment to socially responsible business practices. 

But now, with Clif Bar disingenuously refusing to disclose what country they get their cocoa from, I can’t help but feel that Mr. Erickson and company have thrown their own values under the bus. I mean, making specious excuses that insult their customers' intelligence and trying to hide their horrific business practices from us is not cool. To say Clif Bar has personally disappointed me is an understatement: I feel betrayed.

So I call shenanigans on Clif Bar. I don’t buy their “proprietary” explanation, and won’t buy their products anymore because I strongly suspect they are tied to child slavery. Just because a food is vegan doesn’t mean it's humane: the way it’s made may still harm others and violate our ethics. And you dont need to be vegan to know that child slavery is wrong: you just need a heart. That’s why we must hold Clif Bar accountable to our principles  and their own.

- Use FEP’s Action Alert to let Clif Bar know that actively opposing child slavery is more important to you than any food will ever be, and that you won’t buy their products until they disclose what country their cocoa comes from

- See FEP’s Chocolate List for companies that source their cocoa ethically and therefore deserve your business