This documentary about a group of maverick Dutch journalists investigating the possibility of ethically produced chocolate manages to be educational, depressing, and very funny all at the same time. The beginning half depicts the efforts of the core member of the group, Teun van de Keuken, to get himself imprisoned for the crime of consciously eating chocolate while knowing that its production has involved child slavery. Towards the end, the film shifts its focus to Teun’s (‘Tony’s’, as his name is commonly wrangled by anglophones) quest to create their own, 100% slave-free brand of chocolate, called Tony Chocolonely. As it turns out, there are massive obstacles on the way to achieving that goal.
The first half of the film introduces this group of investigative journalists with Teun at its core. They do a TV programme of calling up telephone numbers on food packaging and asking them hard-hitting questions about the gap between marketing and reality of the products (such as “why is there so much turkey in chicken nuggets?”). This amusing yet eye-opening exercise takes a more serious turn as the group takes a deeper look at the chocolate industry, which turns out to be riddled by child slavery and exploitation of poor workers primarily in the Ivory Coast. The large chocolate companies are on the defensive when contacted by Teun’s group, reacting with ignorance and hostility. They deny the facts and refuse to pursue alternative practices. International treaties signed by these companies also mean nothing to them in reality; Fair Trade and other labels can also mask issues such as unpaid labour.
Teun decides to pursue a court case against himself for purchasing and consuming chocolate he now knows has been produced by child slaves; this eccentric strategy provides a framework for his travels to Africa to speak to actual victims of child slavery. Hearing their recollections of the abuse they went through is the most sobering part of the film. One of the former child slaves eventually goes to Amsterdam to testify against Teun in court, provoking public discussion about the issue; but all this eventually leads nowhere. The conclusion drawn by Teun’s group is that the structural problems in the industry are so massive that the whole system is rotten to the core. Their attempts to speak to industry representatives lead nowhere. This prompts Teun to set up his own chocolate company, as there seems to be no other way to provide slavery-free chocolate.
I found the first half of the film more engaging than the second, as it is more focused on the actual issues on hand; during the second half, the focus shifts to telling the story of the chocolate company and its methods of operation. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see exactly what kind of efforts it takes to seek complete transparency and ethical practices in cacao production. Tony’s have placed emphasis on building good relations with the cacao farmers in their villages and really knowing where their chocolate comes from. As it turns out, the task of keeping up to date with a complicated structure of many different villages and small producers is not easy, and occasionally cases of child labour being employed still occur. The Tony group finds it prudent to change the labelling on their chocolate from ‘100% slave free’ to ‘on the way towards 100% slave free’, which is impressive in its honesty.
Overall, the message of the film is that although Tony’s group is only a minor player in a big industry, they can still be a good example and show the way to other companies who might want to do things the right way. An inspiring tidbit mentioned in the documentary is that in its native Netherlands, Tony’s has now become the biggest chocolate company on the market, surpassing more ruthless giants like Nestlé.
In the Q&A session following the screening, writer/journalist Maurice Dekkers answered some questions about the film and the issues it depicts.
— Has Tony Chocolonely had a real influence on the industry?
— I think we have managed to do a lot in the past eleven years — by finding small corporations in Ivory Coast and Ghana, and having our own guy permanently there, or going there 15 times a year, to build a close relationship with those farmers. There is a lot of work to do. The whole system needs to change, including big corporations like Nestlé. Now, we have also become quite big, so we can talk with the big corporations and be taken seriously. We are a serious competitor now, since we’re also taking their market shares. In the Netherlands, we have already beaten Nestle in sales. It’s the power of the people. They have chosen something else, and now Nestle is losing and we are winning.
— What about your own company, is it hard to maintain your ethical standards even as you expand?
— No, I don’t think so. Because we’ve created our own system, we’ve had to change everything and we started from nothing. Us becoming part of a chocolate industry has also changed things, because now the other companies have to accept our way as an alternative, we have proved that it is possible to do things in a non-exploitative way. In a way it means an admission of guilt from the other companies.
— Is the Fair Trade certificate actually credible at all, if it can mask such serious issues?
— The problem is that solely relying on a label is not good. People trust labels on packaging too much. Max Havelaar started Fair Trade in the Netherlands, but even they were initially unaware of the issues in cocoa production in the origin countries. I think that Fair Trade labelling is good in a way, but people shouldn’t trust it too much, they should think for themselves. It’s not easy to change the whole system. A lot of these labels like Fair Trade wanted to expand, so they lowered their standards. Fair Trade should be 100%, but when you buy a product labelled with it, it might actually be just 60% or 40% Fair Trade. The existence of these monitoring organisations is good, but I wouldn’t trust them 100% as a consumer.
— Organic business is another example of this. It used to be a big mess, although it is getting better now. For example, I remember Chinese peanuts being sold as ‘organic’. We then found out that this was because the Chinese farmers were simply too poor to afford pesticides. But for the monitoring organisation, this meant they could certify the product as ‘organic’ and take a higher price for it on the market. Food is a money-driven business, so labels shouldn’t be trusted blindly.
After an audience comment criticises Dekkers for being too negative about Fair Trade, he concedes:
— Yes, I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy something because it is Fair Trade, but you also shouldn’t make the decision to buy it just because of the label. You should investigate and see for yourself. I also think these labels have evolved and made progress. There are many obstacles in the way, such as lack of infrastructure and widespread corruption in the producing countries. These problems are too hard for a label to change.
(On a related note, the Fairtrade Fortnight 2017 is on from the 27th of February onwards, and there will be events in Scotland where you can talk to representatives of different Fair Trade certified companies and investigate yourself whether they are up to your standards of ethical practice.)
Written by: Kaisa Saarinen