As a nation, Brits munch their way through more than 200 million boxes of chocolate over the Christmas period. But would they eat their choccies so freely if they thought the brands they know and love were potentially tainted ethically?

Criticism has again been levied at some of the UK’s biggest and longest-standing chocolate names. A recent report from Ethical Consumer found only 17 of 82 confectionery brands it investigated use chocolate from suppliers that ensure farmers are paid enough to live on.

MarsNestlé, Mondelez and Ferrero were all rated “poor” by the not-for-profit campaign group. All four manufacturers countered the ruling and highlighted their ESG targets and achievements. 

Mars pointed to its ambition that “100% of our cocoa is responsibly sourced globally and is traceable by 2025”.

Nestlé advised it ran an “income accelerator programme” with 10,000 farm families in Ivory Coast, allowing them to earn up to €500 extra a year for two years, which aims to reach 160,000 families by 2030.

Mondelez cited its ambition to source all of its chocolate through its Cocoa Life programme by 2025 and increase the number of farmers in the programme to 300,000 by 2030.

Read more:

Ferrero remained “committed to its cocoa sustainability programme to achieve a positive and lasting impact on the cocoa value chain”.

Concerns around the low income of cocoa farmers and child labour in the supply chain have been well documented in recent years. So the Ethical Consumer report is not raising a new criticism.

Reports have highlighted chocolates containing hazelnuts that have been picked using child labour; children carrying out illegal work on cocoa farms; and a lack of transparency around production. These are just a handful of the headlines levelled in recent years at the chocolate giants operating in the UK.

The dominant chocolate brands

But the findings and headlines have done little to impact sales – and arguably consumer sentiment – of the big chocolate manufacturers’ brands, which continue to dominate the confectionery aisles.

Nine of the 10 top-selling chocolate brands in the UK (with the exception being Lindt Lindor) are owned by Mars, Nestlé, Mondelez or Ferrero, pointing to shoppers’ ignorance (wilful or otherwise) of ethical concerns [NIQ 52 w/e 5 August 2023].

When the smaller brands make statements about ethics in chocolate, consumers don’t seem to grasp the sentiment. This was substantiated, to a certain extent, by the social media backlash Tony’s Chocolonely faced in 2021 when it left one of its Advent calendar windows empty with the aim of highlighting inequality in the industry.

Tony’s attempted to make up for the missing treat in the 2021 Advent calendar by including two chocolates in the very next window, yet it was bombarded with complaints from outraged parents and, ultimately, forced to apologise.

Rather than bowing to pressure to change its Advent calendars, Tony’s has stuck to its guns, reproducing the calendar with missing chocolates in 2022 and 2023. But the initial reaction from shoppers showed how tricky it can be for so-called ethical chocolate brands to communicate their point of difference without causing upset. After all, child labour isn’t very Christmassy.

Divine, which along with Tony’s is among the recommended brands in the Ethical Consumer’s report, has also been attempting to ramp up its ethical messaging. As such, it relaunched in 2021 with “new messaging and a bolder tone of voice” aimed at fighting exploitation.

Continue opening up supply chains to scrutiny

This Christmas, Divine took what appeared to be a non-controversial approach to communicating its principles. Behind each window of its dark and milk chocolate 2023 Advent calendars lies a chocolate heart, accompanied by a fact about chocolate, Fairtrade, or the brand.

Yet it was still criticised by one Christian shopper, who on X (formerly Twitter) pointed out “the Christmas story is conspicuously absent from your Advent calendar this year”.

The upshot? People don’t like to be surprised by their favourite brands – particularly not at Christmas, when the comfort afforded by tradition (and chocolate) is particularly important to shoppers.

Big brands have lessons to learn from challengers like Tony’s and Divine, in terms of improving traceability and commanding higher price points for their products to ensure all farmers in their vast supply chains are paid fairly, even as increasing costs heap additional pressures on the big makers.

Communicating ethical missions clearly on pack, and not just when they’re caught up in controversy, is another key tool used by the likes of Tony’s and Divine.

At the same time, ethical chocolate brands should be careful not to be too preachy – or bash their bigger rivals. As Maximilian Marquart, CEO of food tech company Planet A Foods points out: “Chocolate is a beloved treat for many, and finger-pointing has never been an effective way to change behaviour.”