Thursday, October 4, 2012

Let me begin this post by giving you a gleaning into my true self: I hate holidays. All of them. Except labor day. I'm cool with that one. The rest of them, however, really just translate into more work for my otherwise busy self, and often involve a moral dilemma of some sort for yours truly. It's hard for me to get over the waste produced by a stream of paper Valentine's Day cards, all of which are printed using toxic inks and are emblazoned with commercial cartoon characters. Add to that the copious amount of sugar disseminated in said crappy cards and, well, it's a tough thing for me to fully embrace. Christmas? Aside from the fact that we are Buddhist, which means we are really just celebrating American consumerism so our kids don't get ostracized by their peers, it is a holiday that also involves millions of tons of trash, reckless spending on the part of a credit loving nation and the destruction of trees. Easter is less of an issue, since it nicely coincides with the Buddhist celebration called Hanamatsuri, but suffice it to say that we are not dyeing any eggs in my vegan home. I could go on, but I'm trying to get to the real point of this post without too many diatribes.

Halloween is upon us. I didn't always hate Halloween. Once, when I was a kid, I dressed up in my Wonder Woman undies and a bunch of construction paper, and went door-to-door looking for candy. The police were called - probably because it was June. Still, though, I loved it. That's probably why I make a genuine effort for my own kids. We make caramel apples for the neighborhood tykes, bob for apples in the backyard before heading out to jack a bunch of adults for candy, make our way through corn mazes and haunted fun houses. I'm even busying myself paper mache-ing a pit for my daughter's avocado costume. True story.

Time, effort and pit-making aside, my real issue with Halloween is the candy. Not just the amount of it, or the fact that kids eat way too much of it without the holiday as further excuse, or the wasteful nature of all the mini wrappers and whatever.... But the fact that it was made by slaves.  That's right. Much of the Halloween chocolates sold this year will come at the expense of slave labor. In fact, more than 40% of chocolate sold in the US are tainted with slavery.

Slave traders in Africa, where most cocoa is harvested, seek out young boys ranging from the age of 6 to 16 and are sell them to cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire. They work on farms throughout the country, harvesting the cocoa beans day and night, under inhumane conditions. Most of the boys come from neighbouring Mali, where agents hang around bus stations looking for children that are alone or are begging for food. They lure the kids into traveling with them, under the guise of headmasters and teachers looking to provide the boys with food and an education, and then the traffickers sell the children to farmers in need of cheap labour. The Ivory Coast is the top supplier of the world’s cocoa, and the center of chocolate slavery. These children are forced to work long hours without any pay. They must carry backbreaking sacks of cocoa; they are often starved, beaten and locked up at night without toilet facilities. They are held against their will, bound and tortured and, in many cases, killed.

Hershey, Mars, Nestle and the US division of Cadbury have all been implicated as profiting from chocolate harvested with slave labor. While industry representatives and company spokespersons have claimed that they "are doing their part" to buy slave-free chocolate, independent human rights organizations and third party watch groups disagree. It's outrageous and disgusting.

What's most shocking, however, is the New York Times report on the exploitation of workers right here, in America, by Hershey. Yes, for real: These people came to the U.S. as Ph.D. candidates and were forced to work “physically arduous” jobs at $8 per hour with “steep deductions from their paychecks for housing, transportation and insurance.” They were kept isolated and poor, and the program’s sponsor ignored the students’ requests for help for months. Horrifying.

So, what does one do? If you are going to ply your trick or treaters with chocolate, buy Fair Trade Certified. These suppliers do not use cocoa harvested by child slaves:

  • Sjaaks makes some awesome chocolates, with some vegan options. All are Organic and Fair Trade...and tasty! They are well-priced, too. A 1.5lb tub of their individually wrapped peanut butter bites will set you back a mere $30 or so, and that should take care of about 100 rings of the doorbell.
  • Divine Chocolates is another personal favorite. A half pound tub with about 50 pieces of 70% dark chocolate costs $14.99. More importantly, though, the chocolate is really good. "The cocoa is grown in the shade of the tropical rainforest, and slowly fermented and dried in the sun by the farmers, who take great pride in the chocolate company they co-own."
  • Endangered Species sells bags of Fair Trade Milk and Dark chocolate mixes at retailers like Whole Foods and Vitamin Cottage. If you want to forgo the milk and purchase just the vegan varieties, you can do that through their online store. They also sell in larger quantities than the bags, for those who live in areas where the doorbell rings all night long. Not only is this chocolate Fair Trade, but the farmers also co-own their product, and the company adheres to strict environmental standards. A portion of proceeds from the sale of their chocolates are donated to organizations that work to preserve natural habitats for endangered animals.
Of course, there are plenty of non-chocolate treats, too...just make sure that you are not buying candy from the parent companies that support the use of slave labor. (Kraft, anyone?)

Or, you can skip the candy altogether. We've taken to that approach in recent years. My husband did have a conniption the year I tried handing out mini boxes of raisins, insisting that our home would be egged by morning if I continued with the execution of my plan...but we've had good success doling out glow in the dark bracelets and necklaces, boxes of crayons, bubbles, mini paint and brush sets, or healthier food items like individual packages of organic animal crackers, pretzels, trail mix packages and granola bars.

Like it’s not enough to make the crappy chocolates from corn syrup and cow’s milk...the major candy companies force foreign engineering students and little kids to make the crappy chocolates, too, and terrorize them in the process. Hershey’s, you are the worst. Fair Trade, you guys. It costs more because it isn’t made by slaves.

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