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Biophile Magazine -- » Toxic Valentine?

"One of the greatest surprises you'll experience, is when you discover that you can do what you were afraid you couldn't do.
Your obstacles will melt away, if instead of cowering before them, you make up your mind to walk boldly through them." Daily Guru

Toxic Valentine?

by Staff

FILED IN: Ethical Consumerism · Issue 8


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When you buy a gift for a loved one you don’t expect that it might come with a dose of harmful chemicals. But if you are buying certain perfumes this Valentine’s day that’s exactly what you’ll get.


When you buy a gift for a loved one you don’t expect that it might come with a dose of harmful chemicals. But if you are buying certain perfumes this Valentine’s day that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Greenpeace tested 36 well know brands of perfumes for two potentially hazardous man-made chemical groups: phthalate esters and synthetic musks. Both these types of chemicals can enter the body and may cause unwanted health impacts. They are also harmful when released into the environment.
Virtually all the perfumes tested contained these chemicals with high levels being found in brands like:

Calvin Klein’s ‘Eternity for Women’
The Body Shop’s ‘White Musk’
Jean Paul Gaultier’s ‘Le Mâle.’

Other brands contained low levels of these harmful chemicals. Puma’s ‘Jamaica Man’ had one of the lowest levels of the musks tested and Gloria Vanderbilt’s ‘Vanderbilt’ contained no detectable phthalates. The different levels of chemicals shows there is room for discussing the phasing-out of these chemicals with perfume manufactures.

While better chemical control should be welcomed by all, it is under attack from predictable quarters. The chemical industry has been scare -mongering with exaggerated claims of job losses and declining profits. It has also recruited dirty industry’s best friend, the Bush Administration, to threaten Europe with a World Trade Organisation lawsuit if it dares to try and cut toxic pollution.
Greenpeace is countering the negative industry lobbying by pressuring companies to demonstrate that they can do without toxic chemicals in products. The list of companies setting a good example by substituting hazardous chemicals for safer alternatives is growing – Ikea, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Nokia, Samsung and Puma are leading the way. Adidas, Unilever and Sony are heading in the right direction.

Why Buy Organic Flowers?
Whenever you touch or inhale the scent of your non-organic flowers, you are likely touching or inhaling poisonous chemicals. When you buy organic flowers, you will not have to worry about chemicals on your flower bouquets being toxic to your loved one or yourself.

The main goal of organic agriculture is to farm in ways that do not harm the environment, while there is no such motive for most non-organic farms.

Buying organic flowers helps support local organic farming communities and organizations, which often have charitable, philanthropic motives for selling their flowers.
On a spiritual, holistic level, organic flowers have been farmed in such ways that they retain the essence of flowers, as Mother Nature intended them to have.

Organic flowers are a natural part of a healthy, natural lifestyle.
Pesticides and other toxic chemicals used on flowers affect the health of farm workers and florists. The toxic chemicals spread onto the clothes and into the bodies of farm workers and their children. Florists who handle non-organic flowers have been known to develop dermatitis on their hands.

Studies have shown that 50 % of workers in the Costa Rica flower industry have symptoms of pesticide poisoning. Areas surrounding flower farms there have higher miscarriage and birth defect rates than do other areas.

The toxic chemicals used on flower farms poison groundwater and the soil. These chemicals also become part of the food chain, as animals such as birds will eat the sprayed plants. In the course of their seasonal migrations, these birds will spread these chemicals globally.

Through evaporation, toxic pesticides and fertilizers that are sprayed on flower farms end up in the atmosphere. They then travel to other global areas to fall as rain or snow.
Every flower counts: Increasing sales of certified organic flowers gives the market notice that more organic flowers need to be grown, which makes more flower farms convert to using organic agricultural methods.

Bittersweet chocolate
The chances are very good that child workers — some of whom are, quite literally, slaves — helped produce your valentine chocolate. The chocolate industry has promised to get kids out of the cocoa trade. But profits still come before progress.
Although most people who buy those chocolates will do so without knowing the sinister history of their purchases, others, like the chocolate makers themselves, know very well that cocoa beans imported from West Africa — used to make nearly half the world’s chocolate — are harvested in large part by children, some as young as nine, and many of whom are considered slaves, trafficked from desperately poor countries like Mali and Burkina Faso.

The most recent survey of conditions on West African cocoa farms estimated that nearly 300,000 children work in dangerous conditions on cocoa farms in the four countries surveyed: Ivory Coast (the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans), Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon. Of the 300,000 children, more than half (64%) are under 14 years old. Twelve thousand had no connection to the family on whose cocoa farm they toiled, but only 5,100 of them were paid for their work. Almost 6,000 were described as “unpaid workers with no family ties,” provoking advocates to refer to them as “slaves.” The rest work on their families’ farms, kept home from school to do punishing work during the all-important harvest seasons.

The existence, and the plight, of these children was publicly acknowledged by chocolate companies in 2001 after high-profile stories in the media exposed the horrific details of the children’s lives, and their connection to the chocolate consumed, often by unknowing consumers, in this country.

And yet, despite committing themselves 16 months ago to a highly publicized four-year plan to abolish child slaves and laborers from the cocoa farms with whom they do business, the chocolate industry, worth billions a year in US revenue alone, has managed to continue making and selling products without demonstrating any discernible progress in solving the child labour problem.


The chocolate companies say their efforts so far have been defeated by the chaos of civil war and the stubborn traditions of an agriculturally based society. But those who monitor child slavery around the world, and others who scrutinize the business practices of American companies with factories abroad, insist that chocolate companies have failed to take serious steps to end the abhorrent labour practices.

“You have potentially conflicting interests here,” says Alec Fyfe, senior advisor for child labor at UNICEF. On the one hand, Fyfe says, there’s “an industry trying to protect itself from adverse publicity and [from] consumers walking away from their product.” On the other, “a group interested in protecting children’s interests. Where’s the overlap?”

Hershey’s and M&M/Mars control two-thirds of the U.S. chocolate market, which generated $13 billion from retail sales of 3.1 billion pounds of chocolate in 2001. Both companies, along with other major producers like Nestlé, Archer Daniels Midland, Cadbury, Guittard and Bernard Callebaut, import cocoa beans from the Ivory Coast.

Caught in the glare of negative publicity, representatives of the chocolate industry admitted the problem existed, but insisted they should not to be held responsible since chocolate companies didn’t actually own the farms.

But this argument didn’t deflect continuing criticism, and the issue was taken up by two congressmen, Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Eliot Engel who added a rider to an agricultural bill that was up for a vote in the House of Representatives which proposed a federal system to certify — and label — qualified chocolate and cocoa products as “slave free.” The bill passed, and created a potentially significant problem for Hershey’s, Nestlé, M&M/Mars and the other major companies that wouldn’t qualify for the “slave free” label.
But, before the bill could reach the Senate, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents the major American chocolate makers, hired former senators George Mitchell and Bob Dole to lobby against it. With possible consumer boycotts and punishing federal regulation looming, chocolate companies found a way to deal with the issue — and dodge the labeling bullet.

According to a source on Capitol Hill who was involved in the talks between the industry and a handful of congressmen, Mitchell and Dole urged the chocolate companies to make a deal, saying, “Too many reporters are willing to go to Africa and get kids on record that they’re slaves.”

Fair trade chocolate
There are some cocoa farmers, outside the Ivory Coast, who are guaranteed a minimum price for their cocoa—they belong to Fair Trade Certified producer groups, or collectives made up of democratically managed farms. There are 20 collectives in eight countries — Ghana, Cameroon, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Belize — that represent more than 42,000 farmers and their families.

Importers and chocolate makers who buy Fair Trade cocoa produced by these farmers sign a contract with the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), based in Bonn, Germany, promising to document that they pay the co-op’s farmers the Fair Trade price: the world market price plus a premium that guarantees a living wage and extra money to go back into the co-op community.

But how much of the economic benefit of that fairly traded ethical purchase went to the country where the products were grown? According to a small group of British chocolate bar makers, pitifully little. Probably only about 5p of the £1.70p cost (less than 0.005%) of an average fairly traded 100g bar of chocolate goes to Africa or a poor country, says Malagasy foods, a small company that has started making chocolate in Madagascar to keep the added value there.

The other £1.65p, says Malagasy’s marketing director Neil Kelsall, all goes to benefit British food processors, lorry drivers, designers, packagers, photographers, marketing staff, advertisers, shopkeepers, and the taxman. “Everyone, including the Treasury, seems to do very nicely out of that bar of chocolate, except the country that provides the raw material,” Kelsall says.
Kelsall says he is not attacking fair trade, which he fully supports, but argues that it will never eradicate world poverty. He says: “We all believe in the ethos of fair trade, but a poor nation’s share of the income from one average bar of fairly traded chocolate – or most other fair trade goods – is often almost nothing. Fair trade can actually be a way of continuing poverty. There has to be another way.

Fairtrade and equitrade represent two very different – and, on the surface, competing – economic models of helping the poor. Equitrade, says Kelsall, tries to improve the quality of life of the majority of people in a poor country by increasing the money in the economy. Fairtrade, on the other hand, concentrates on helping a small group of marginalised people – the growers. One intervenes in the market with a premium price; the other is essentially benign free trade.

More than 5 million people, including farmers, workers and their families across 49 developing countries, now benefit from the fair trade system, but this does not impress Kelsall. “Adding a few per cent to the price of cocoa, fruit, or whatever, is not going to have a big impact on ending poverty,” he argues. “It is just keeping the poor nation poor. We need more companies to add value in poor countries. That way the benefits are shared more widely and more tax can be collected. Fair trade is just not sharing the benefits very widely. It’s good for the commodity side of the country, but I do not think it is sustainable.”

Both models have advantages and disadvantages. Fairtrade demonstrably helps the groups of people whom it targets, and works through cooperatives that guarantee environmental and social standards and that demand democratic decision making over how the extra money earned is distributed. Equitrade stimulates the wider economy, but is less accountable and assumes that the manufacturer treats the cocoa bean growers or other farmers and suppliers fairly.

Have you ever seen a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate labelled “Fair Trade” or “Equitrade”? What about Nestlé or Beacon chocolate?
In much the same way that a food product which is not labelled “GMO Free” does not mean that the foodstuff contains genetically engineered ingredients, the lack of a “Fair Trade” or similar label does not mean that the chocolate is the product of child slave labour or is made from beans bought for a criminally low price… but, surely, if the cocoa beans used to make the chocolate were purchased at a fair price and were the product of well-paid, adult workers, these large chocolate companies would have their bars and slabs proudly proclaiming the fact?

We’d rather err on the side of caution: if it doesn’t say otherwise, assume that the slab of chocolate in the corner shop is the product of child slave labour, purchased at an unfair price by a large international company interested only in its bottom line.
Your local health shop, organic food outlet or box-scheme should stock fairtrade or equitrade organic chocloate (“Rapunzel” is a name to look out for, among others).

If not, ask them to!

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