channel 4 cocoa dispatches


Channel 4 ran a short documentary in which they exposed children working unhappily in Ghana, at locations identified by Mondelēz Internally as part of their sustainable Cocoa Life programme.

It’s normal for children who help out their families when not at school, and as long as they’re not engaged in a hazardous activity, such as spraying pesticide, this should be understandable. But this wasn’t one of those cases. the children were not going to school and in one case hasn’t seen her family for 5 years. The young girl was sent to help her Uncle on the farm, although she was told she was going to help look after the children.

The problem isn’t with the people working at Cocoa Life, it’s just that if a sustainability organisation isn’t independent from the company they’re supposedly certifying, we can’t trust their claims.

During the last financial year, Mondelēz global profits reached more than £3.3bn. It has a sustainability programme called Cocoa Life, which, if you’re cynically inclined, is a convenient way to control public messaging that might otherwise be awkward about their sustainability practices.

The problem isn’t with the people working at Cocoa Life, it’s just that if a sustainability organisation isn’t independent from the company they’re supposedly certifying, we can’t trust their claims. It’s like a bank owning their own auditor.

In the documentary, none of the executives would accept a meeting with the journalists, so they flew to New York to see if showing up would result in more success. An assistant was dispatched to shoo them away, and I found this part of the program to be one of the most nauseating. Obviously, no one wants to face the cameras at a time like this, but that’s their job, heck, that’s their moral obligation.

If the CEO, Van de Put, had turned up, looked with concern at the images, thanked the crew and said they would take away the evidence, conduct an investigation and then apply what is learned to improve the process, you might give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, they just hid in their plush offices until the crew left. The company sent the journalists a response, that was clearly written by lawyers, and sounded robotic, disingenuous and frankly insulting to the intelligence of those they’re supposed to be convincing.

I wonder if Channel 4 had tried to contact Ertharin Cousin, who I was pleased had joined the Board recently. Cousin has an impressive track record, including working in food, and international roles such as serving as a “Distinguished Fellow of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a global affairs think tank”. I’d like to think, if asked, she would have stepped up to the plate.

If you don’t own a problem, you won’t ever fix it

If, in fact the company cared, they could be doing what the journalist did, but even cheaper, since they wouldn’t need the camera crews. The fact that a small crew was able to pick locations off Mondelēz own Cocoa for Life sustainability map, and walk in to immediately find a raft of issues, points to either a massive failure of the Cocoa for Life programme, Specifically a failure to audit. Or, Cocoa for Life has been auditing, but the bosses at Mondelēz have swept it under the rug.

This raises the question of whether Mondelez actually wants to know the facts? I’m not sure we can accept this is the case, it may be easier to have plausible deniability than to know about the child labour problem, because knowing about it means having to do something. Paying the farmers more is going to change the cost-equation in a way that would either make their chocolate uncompetitive vs competitors, or materially impact the business profits. Profits which drive the majority of the Execs pay packet through bonuses, and share options.

If you don’t own a problem, you won’t ever fix it. I find it bothers me that nobody at Mondelēz was willing to meet the reporters. Say what you will about Cargill, but when Al Jazeera did a similar documentary, they at least had the grit to meet and have it filmed, and came away looking like at least the people in the room cared.

In my, perhaps over-fertile imagination, I played the scene in my head. Van de Put has just crawled out from under his desk after he’s been given assurances the reporters have left. “Why do they always pick on the chocolate companies” he laments.

“We’re not the only industry that uses children – what about electric cars. Do they know about the child labour to mine the Cobalt used in the batteries?” The assistant jerks her head up in case he is actually expecting her to answer. Nobody looks at your Toyota Prius and says “Do you know where your battery comes from – is the supply chain transparent”.

Slumping back in his chair, his eyes drift to the motto on the company letterhead stacked on his desk. ‘Snacking, made, Right”. hmmmm.

Photo from Channel 4 Dispatches


  • Nick Baskett is the editor in Chief at Bartalks. He holds a diploma from the Financial Times as a Non Executive Director and works as a consultant across multiple industries. Nick has owned multiple businesses, including an award-winning restaurant and coffee shop in North Macedonia.

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