Empty Promises: The Failure of Voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives to Improve Farmer Incomes in the Ivorian Cocoa Sector

July 2019

Between October 2018 and March 2019, Corporate Accountability Lab (CAL) staff interviewed farmers, tribal leaders in cocoa-growing villages, cocoa cooperatives and local and international NGOs to assess the impact of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts in the industry, and to identify the root causes of the serious and ongoing problems in the cocoa sector: child labor, trafficking and deforestation.

What we saw was appalling: CSR efforts have had a nearly imperceptible impact on the lives of cocoa farmers and their communities. The sustainability claims of major chocolate brands and agribusiness companies not only mislead consumers, they obfuscate a system that relies on child labor, forced labor, and debt peonage to survive.

We identify four major obstacles to meaningful progress in the sector:

1. Unliveable Income: The government-set “farm gate” price for cocoa is roughly one-third the amount needed for farmers or workers to earn a living wage;

2. Reliance on “CSR” over responsible business conduct: Companies rarely mention their business and human rights obligations, and instead have relied on ineffective certification schemes while failing to comply with their voluntary commitments, despite nearly 20 years of CSR activity in the sector;

3. Superficial analysis of root causes: The excessive focus on the symptoms of poverty (child labor, forced labor, trafficking, etc.) over the root cause of poverty (dramatically skewed value distribution in the supply chain) have distracted from identifying the role of multinational companies in generating abuses;

4. Lack of involvement of farmers, farmer groups, and civil society in the ongoing conversations and initiatives around the issues in the sector: Farmers lack access to information and participation, local groups working with farmers and communities have limited support, and international groups either have insufficient access to local partners or take an engagement approach that allows companies to whitewash their actions.

We make one primary recommendation: companies should increase the price they pay for cocoa, industry-wide. This price increase can, and should, be part of a broader “sustainability” effort. The government has a critical role to play, too, but companies must not wait for governments in both producing and buying countries to act in order to fulfill their own responsibilities. Companies have benefited for years from an unsustainably low price, and it is time for accountability for creating the conditions that have led to extreme poverty, deforestation, child labor and trafficking across the sector. Without meaningfully addressing this root cause, their CSR activities are little more than window dressing.