For most Westerners, confectionery is something to be enjoyed. Munching on his favourite chocolate bar, Joe Bloggs is unlikely to think too much about precisely what its ingredients are, or how they arrived on his local supermarket’s shelf. But the reality behind some of the foods used in confectionery production is often far from comforting.

In Ivory Coast, where approximately 40% of the world’s cocoa is produced, farmers are blighted by poor pay and dangerous working conditions.

In Turkey, home to approximately 75% of all hazelnut production, illegal child labour and migrant workers are regularly used to harvest crops.

For these farmers, the situation is unsustainable. Yet circumstances will not improve without changes from the companies that buy their products.

An international certification organization, UTZ, has spent the past decade working to improve sustainability in agricultural food production. Crucially, UTZ works with Western countries and farmers in the developing world, trying to build a bridge towards shared sustainability objectives.

In October 2014, UTZ Launched an impact report on cocoa farming in Ivory Coast. It showed that farmers certified against the UTZ code of conduct had higher yields, larger incomes and improved living conditions. While this is certainly a strong step in the right direction, there is still much to be done. Daan de Vries, UTZ’s markets director, takes up the discussion.

Jack Wittels: Can you tell us a little about the work UTZ does?
Daan de Vries:
UTZ was born in Guatamala 12 years ago. Our name looks like an acronym, but it’s not – ‘utz’ actually means good in a Mayan language.

We started off as an initiative linking local farmers with a Dutch coffee company. Today, we’re one of the largest labels for sustainable coffee, cocoa and tea, reaching 500,000 farmers and 400,000 workers in 34 countries. The ‘UTZ Certified’ mark appears on more than 10,000 different product packs in 116 countries worldwide.

What are current cocoa farming practices like in Ivory Coast?
In Ivory Coast, we often see extremely bad returns for farmers, use of child labour and environmental degradation. There are similar problems in some of the other main cocoa-producing countries in West Africa, though it does vary a little from place to place.

How can the situation be improved?
We strongly believe that sustainability has to be holistic; there are economic, social and environmental issues that all need consideration.

On the economic side, we use our standards and programmes to work towards farmers getting a greater quantity and quality of crops from their land at a lower cost, and thereby earning more money.

That doesn’t just mean dumping pesticides and fertilisers on it. It means paying attention to what’s happening, improving pruning practices and replanting with good materials, for example. This type of work is often done by our local partners; we work with the companies that buy the cocoa, local NGOs and government. All these groups are putting actions in place to make sure farmers can get more out of the land and earn a better living.

On top of that, we also believe farmers should be paid a little more for responsibly produced products.

What sort of impact are your initiatives having?
Our latest report from Ivory Coast shows that farmers in the UTZ programme have higher yields, bigger incomes and better living conditions. It surveyed 780 farmers from 97 cooperatives, and 97% of them were satisfied with the UTZ programme and training. Also, 92% reported positive changes from certification.

It’s partly about creating a sense of professionalism. Many farmers simply do things because that’s the way they’ve always been done, so there are lots of improvements to be made in areas like planting, drying and fermenting.

Another area we’re really trying to drive changes in is child labour. Often, the mindset is that child labour should not be allowed, and the government simply abolishes it. But this doesn’t necessarily get rid of the problem. In fact, it can just push it underground.

How can one deal with the issue of child labour?
The approach needs to be based on prevention and remediation. It’s about training people to be aware of the issue and explaining why child labour is not useful. There also need to be liaisons within the community, where better-informed members can speak to their peers. We’re trying to promote these through our standards and programmes.

Are the problems the same for hazelnut farming in Turkey?
In Turkey you also find child labour and a lot of migrant workers. The majority are from the south-east of the country, but there are also people from outside, including refugees from Syria.

They work on a variety of crops such as hazelnuts, apricots and cotton. Often, these migrant labourers bring their children with them to work. That’s fine if it’s just a little and in the school holidays, but often these kids are doing long hours and are there for months on end, so they miss out on an education. It isn’t legal, but it happens.
We’re trying to address the issue. Although we’re only working on hazelnut farms, we want to create an example for other sectors as well.

Another big problem in Turkey is that rural-urban migration has created a lot of absent land-owners. Many people have moved from the Black Sea coast to the cities, but they still own a little plot of land. They might ask someone who’s still back home to take care of it, but often it doesn’t get much attention, so it’s not used effectively.

How powerful is sustainability as a marketing tool for Western food companies?
I think it’s becoming increasingly powerful. It’s gaining ground and attention.
What we’re really seeing is companies starting to use it more effectively. It used to just be labelling, but now there’s storytelling and competitions to visit the country of a product’s origin, for example.

There’s also a trend towards companies adopting sustainability as a corporate commitment while not necessarily marketing it. Before, it was all about whether or not the consumer cared if a firm was sustainable. Now, companies are increasingly asking the question for its own sake. Then, as a second step, they might think about how to market their sustainability initiatives.

In the cocoa industry, Hershey’s, Mars and Ferrero have all committed to buying 100%-certified sustainable cocoa by 2020. Nestlé is also increasing the amount of certified cocoa it purchases.

Are Western consumers’ attitudes towards sustainability changing?
Yes, I think the whole topic has become more pronounced. But whichever market we talk about, the overriding rule is that only a few people are willing to change their buying behaviours to become more sustainable.

However, a lot more people would like to be sustainable – they just want to do it in a way that lets them eat and drink the products they like. We’ve also found that only 10% of people really look closely at the packaging of what they buy, and a shocking 40% of consumers don’t really care about sustainability at all. So, at the moment, if you want change, it has to come from the companies. It’s probably not going to be consumer-driven.

Do you see that changing much over the years to come?
We’re all creatures of habit. There’re an enormous number of people who just buy what they want to buy.

But, at the same time, what’s interesting is the enormous global connection created by social media. We’ve see examples of campaigns where people communicate with the farmers who’ve produced their food products.

At UTZ, we’ve also developed QR codes that let you see the farm that the product has come from.
So there is a growing percentage of consumers that are interested in the source of their food. I definitely see a shift towards more transparency, and interest in food quality and provenance, which I think is a very good thing.

Do you think there are any particular points that need to be stressed?
I think the final point to stress is that there are two sides to this story. You have the farmers’ immediate needs, which are mostly related to financial income, and then you have the Western consumers, who are often more worried about environmental and social issues.

The solution has to include both sides. What we’re trying to do is build a bridge between them.