All's Not Fair in Valentine's Day Trade

Most people do not go to great lengths to be original on Valentine’s Day. Bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolate are the standard purchases, though some people may add a personal touch in the form of a corny poem or handmade card. These gifts are time-honored tokens of love; buying such sweet products is an appropriate tradition for Valentine’s Day. But even if you spring for the usual gifts tomorrow, it is still important to think outside the box—and consider the origins of the chocolate inside.

Though purchases of roses or chocolate hearts are often expressions of sincere love and gratitude, many of the corporations that sell these products neglect to make the sorts of compassionate decisions that befit the holiday. The flowers and chocolate that arrive on your doorstep are the result of a production and trade process often rife with inequity and human suffering.

Seventy percent of the flowers sold in floral shops and supermarkets throughout the United States and the developed world are produced on plantations in Colombia, Ecuador and Kenya. The companies that own these plantations or outsource work to them often deprive workers of rights and proper wages. According to the Center for Research and Advisory Health, a non-profit social medicine organization that has worked in Latin America since 1979, the average floral worker in Colombia makes 58 cents per hour—far below the national poverty line. Job security is also often nonexistent: workers are hired on a short-term contract basis and are subject to dismissal without fair justification.

Furthermore, highly toxic pesticides and fertilizers are often used in order to give the flowers their impeccable appearance that U.S. and European markets demand. Workers handle these chemicals without proper safety equipment or training. According to Corporación Cactus, a non-governmental organization that advocates for flower workers, this exposure leads to health problems for nearly two-thirds of the work force, which is largely female. Miscarriages and birth defects are common consequences. If you would rather buy a bouquet with a less-tainted past, head to Kabloom—it sells organic flowers.

The cocoa that goes into the chocolate consumed in the U.S. is produced in similarly deplorable conditions in West Africa and Central America. The International Labor Organization and the U.S. government have both recognized the existence of the use of child trafficking and forced labor—essentially child slavery—in cocoa production in the Ivory Coast. The State Department has reported that child slaves in West Africa number in the thousands. Many work 12-hour days, and physical beatings are common.


Farmers’ employment of child slaves and family labor is a response to artificially low cocoa prices—production costs have to be cut or their farms won’t be able to compete. Recent market deregulation in West Africa abolished fixed cocoa prices that once protected the region’s farmers. Now, the price is determined on world commodity markets. Small farmers, who produce the bulk of the world’s cocoa, are particularly vulnerable to volatile world prices. The cocoa purchasing system is also skewed in favor of traders and middlemen—farmers generally see little of the increased profit when chocolate prices rise. According to the European Fair Trade Association, farmers typically receive only five percent of the profit from chocolate sales, while traders and manufacturers receive 70 percent.

There are efforts under way to counter these economic injustices. Like the coffee served in Harvard’s dining halls, some cocoa is certified as being “fair trade.” Transfair USA, a non-profit organization, handles this certification process. Farm cooperatives that display satisfactory labor conditions and environmental standards are granted the designation, and receive a fair price (80 cents per pound instead of 50 cents) for the cocoa they produce. Fair trade chocolate is less available than fair trade coffee, but can still be purchased at Bread and Circus and the Harvest Co-op. As awareness and demand grows, the market will develop.

The proper response to this information is not necessarily a boycott. In the current system, exploited workers in foreign countries suffer most when demand for these products falls sharply. Still, you have an excuse tomorrow when your significant other comes looking for the Valentine’s Day gift you forgot to purchase: it was all in the name of conscientious consumption. You can make a date of it. Sit down together with pen and paper and write a few Valentines to the two major cocoa purchasers in the U.S.—M&M/Mars and Hershey’s—asking them to buy fair trade chocolate and put an end to child slavery. If your date is still not satisfied, head to Burdick’s—though the company does not buy fair trade certified, it ensures that its cocoa is not the product of child slavery.

Jordan A.A. Bar Am ’04 is a near eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Dudley House. Kevin P. Connor ’04-’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Dudley House. Mary M. Jirmanus ’05 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. They are members of the Harvard Fair Trade Initiative.