Unwrap a bar of Tony’s Chocolonely and you’ll see a crazy patchwork design. Unlike a Hershey’s bar that divides the confection into perfect little s’more-sized squares, Tony’s zigs and zags in a wildly uneven pattern. Break it, and you’ll end up with a mish mash of uneven pieces big and small.
The design is not accidental. Tony’s has built its brand – and its bar – intentionally to highlight the unequal way it says profits from cocoa production are divided along every aspect of the product’s supply chain. The smallest pieces represent what is Tony’s biggest concern: the pittance West African cocoa laborers are paid, effectively reducing them to slaves.
Stopping slavery hasn’t been a motive for many entrepreneurs. But Tony’s wasn’t started by entrepreneurs, especially not those looking to corner a piece of the $100+ billion global chocolate market.
Rather, the company is the brainchild of Teun van de Keuken, a Dutch investigative television reporter who was stunned to learn from a Tulane University study that there are 2.26 million children working on the more than 2.5 million cocoa farms in Ghana and Ivory Coast. These farms produce more than 60% of the world’s cocoa, but do it at such inefficiencies of scale and such gross abuses of human rights that child labor and modern slavery have become “a structural feature of the West African cocoa industry,” Tony’s declares in its annual report. Ninety per cent of the children involved are expected to wield machetes, carry heavy loads, and put in such long hours that attending school is impossible. Van de Keuken thought that was wrong.
At first, he tried to discuss the problem with the large chocolate makers. When those discussions went nowhere, he tried to have himself arrested and prosecuted as a “chocolate criminal” for aiding and abetting slavery by buying so much conventionally produced chocolate. When his case was thrown out of court, he decided to lead by example and make 5,000 slave-free chocolate bars himself.
The popularity of this first venture inspired Teun to create a company that would restore justice to the cocoa supply chain, then use the power of the marketplace to pressure other manufacturers to do likewise. He named the company after himself: Tony is the English equivalent of the Dutch name Teun. Because “The chocolate industry was a lonely place for 100% slave free crusaders,” he added “Chocolonely” to the name.
Thirteen years on, Tony’s is a thriving business that’s quickly going global. It has captured almost 20% of the chocolate market in the Netherlands where it started, and is now sold online and in almost every state in America as well as in Belgium, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.
The company’s 2017 Annual FAIR Report notes that over the past financial year, Tony’s revenue grew by more than 50%. “We have changed the chocolate landscape in the Netherlands forever,” they boast.
“That’s what we’re going for in the US, too,” and their small but active base of operations in Portland, OR is busily trying to make it happen. They describe America as “the land of the chocolate giants,” and like David pursuing Goliath, they’re not backing down. In 2016, they increased their “turnover” in the U.S. by 400% compared to the previous financial year.
Tony’s is not succeeding by avoiding the problems that inspired them to take on the chocolate industry in the first place. In order to realize their singular vision of making 100% slave-free the norm in the chocolate industry, Tony’s starts where the problem starts: in the regions where child labor occurs. “We don’t turn our heads away when we come across child labor. We want to identify instances of child labor; only then can we take action and make an impact.” They’re working with the Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation System (CLIMRS) to advance awareness, prevention, detection and then elimination of child labor. “We want 100% of all farmers and their families that supply cocoa beans to Tony’s (4,318 farmers in 2016/2017) to be in this program.”
They pay the farmers they work with a premium and donate 1% of the company’s annual net revenue to the Chocolonely Foundation, which funds projects that help create the conditions needed to eliminate slavery, increase awareness, and inspire others to take action. Typical grants provide microloans, set up school funds, and create educational programs in the West African communities where they do business.
They’ve also created a company culture designed to keep employees inspired and motivated. Each employee is called a “Tony,” and at weekly Monday Morning Meetings (MMMs) at corporate HQ in Amsterdam, any Tony who wants to can give a presentation or raise an issue with the entire group, including senior managers. Monthly information sessions deal with particular principles or assumptions, like how the company defines slavery or what the living wage of a cocoa farmer actually is. All Tonys are also taught how to make their own chocolate.
To raise awareness of the existence of labor abuses in the chocolate sector, the company is organizing an exhibition called BITTER to feature stories about children from Burkina Faso who work on cocoa farms. To go viral, they’re building an online community of Serious Friends Forever (SFFs, a take-off on BFFs, get it?). Teun van de Keuken and his colleagues also star in a feature-length documentary film about the chocolate industry that’s being shown around the world, including at the Dutch embassy in Washington, DC. Their efforts are paying off. “On average,” they report, “23% of Dutch adults over 18 bought Tony’s this year, compared to 19% in May the previous year.” Consumers named them the most inspiring organization in the Netherlands.
On the sustainability front, Tony’s has three top priorities: work with parties that are trying to find a structural solution for climate change; reduce their own carbon footprint; and source sustainably. Cocoa farmers in West Africa are already suffering the consequences of a warming globe, so the survival of Tony’s Chocolonely is literally tied to reducing this threat. Deforestation, soil erosion, and extreme heat are common in Ghana and Ivory Coast, where both heavy rain and prolonged droughts damage cocoa saplings. Tony’s is working with JustDiggIt to “regreen” dry regions and help reverse some of climate change’s worst impacts.
They’re also in cahoots with the Good Shipping Program, which is persuading the shipping industry to switch to sustainable biofuels. Their packaging materials are produced locally from recycled material. And, they’re on the hunt for a sustainable alternative to aluminum foil. Employees are expected to do their part, too, by using mass transit, cycling to appointments, and cleaning with biodegradable products. Coffee grounds from the office pot are composted and used to grow the oyster mushrooms Tonys snack on on Fridays.
Plus, they’ve calculated the carbon emissions produced by the manufacture of a single bar of milk chocolate “from bean to bar” and are using those numbers to project Tony’s carbon footprint over the coming financial year. Ultimately their goal is to sell a “carbon positive bar of deliciousness.”
The company does buy some organic cacao beans from a certified organic cooperative in Ghana. But because “organic farming doesn’t necessarily deliver a better income for farmers in West Africa,” that particular link in their supply chain is not a corporate driver. “Organic farming is a skill. To be good at it, farmers have to be professional. They have to have a great deal of knowledge and they also have to be able to invest in their farms. This is far from the reality for most cocoa farmers,” Tony’s acknowledges in its annual report. “We support several organic initiatives, but unfortunately it seems that organic farming does not guarantee a positive social impact. So for the moment we’re not seeking to make our entire supply chain organic. That’s why it doesn’t say ‘organic’ on our wrappers. For us, social impact comes first.”
Tony’s values other certification systems, like Fairtrade, UTZ Certified, and Rainforest Alliance. However, they believe that “certification is simply a starting point” and that’s it’s necessary to do more to create a fair supply chain that eradicates slavery, too. To help farmers invest in the future and improve quality and productivity, they’ve developed five sourcing principles that include being able to trace where cacao beans come from, paying farmers a higher price, and guaranteeing farmers at least five years of sales at that higher price.
From the original milk chocolate bar, Tony’s now sells extra dark chocolate, dark almond sea salt, dark milk pretzel toffee, milk caramel sea salt, and dark pecan coconut. In its second decade of operation, the company remains committed to its mantra:
Crazy About Chocolate, Serious About People.
And making 100% slave free the norm in chocolate.
Participate in Sustainable Brands’ annual flagship event, SB’18 Vancouver, this June 4-7, to learn how and why companies around the world are embedding “The Good Life” principles like transparency and purpose into their brands to grow their businesses in this new economy, and gain the tools to do the same for your brand.
By Diane MacEachern
Creator, Writers on a Mission and Founder & CEO, Big Green Purse
May 21, 2018