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"Falling in love is a crazy thing to do," observes a character in the recent movie, Her. "It's like a socially acceptable form of insanity." Love's transformative, torturous madness prompts many a besotted romantic to purchase chocolate and roses for their beloved. These gifts are meant to symbolize love and affection, but lovers take note: the trail to your paramour's heart often starts from misery in the world's cacao fields and rose farms. The good news is that companies are paying closer attention.
Love's dark underbelly
These love tokens are a brisk business. Industry groups estimate that 2014 chocolate sales for Valentine's Day will exceed $750 million. Feb. 14 is florists' busiest day of the year, and 233 million roses are harvested just for this one commercially sanctioned love holiday. It all seems very romantic, but if you follow the money, the global trade in chocolate and roses can exact a terrible toll on children and laborers half a world away.
Roughly 1.5 million farmers in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana harvest more than half of the world's cacao, the raw ingredient of all that gooey, chocolaty goodness. Child labor is rampant in cacao fields, and some of those children are the victims of trafficking and downright slavery.
More and more advocacy groups are drawing attention to this situation. A recently founded non-profit, p.h. balanced films, seeks to educate consumers about these problems. Take a look at their short but powerful treatment of chocolate here. Two recent documentaries take a hard look at the human cost of cacao too: "Chocolate's Child Slaves" and "The Dark Side of Chocolate" won't make you feel so warm and fuzzy about scarfing down those truffles.
Slavery might sound like media hyperbole, but even major chocolate companies have publicly acknowledged that it's a real problem. In 2012, Nestlé (NASDAQOTH: NSRGY ) launched an ambitious plan to eventually eradicate child labor and forced labor from its production cycle, after a Fair Labor Association investigation into Nestlé's supply chain uncovered numerous problems. Mars and Ferrero announced plans to end slavery in their supply chains, but the problem is so entrenched that their target date is 2020.
No parade of roses
Chocolate is not alone in this regard. The closer you look at roses, the sharper get the thorns. Roses are one of Kenya's major exports, and women there are disproportionately employed as unskilled greenhouse laborers. Large-scale rose operations often use a toxic cocktail of pesticides, fungicides, and fumigants to grow the perfect, blemish-free roses we seek out as a symbol of our flawless love. The women working in those greenhouses bear the brunt of the health effects.
More than 70% of Colombia's 80,000 cut-flower workers are women, and they work under pitiable conditions. They typically earn less than $1 a day, and endure exploitative working conditions. These women earn less than their male counterparts, and bear the constant insecurity of short-term fixed contracts of just three to six months, which are not renewed if they get sick or pregnant, or if they attempt to form a union.
There are alternatives
Now that I've thoroughly ruined your holiday, buck up: there are ways to shower the people you love with love, minus the human misery. Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ: WFM ) carries Veriflora-certified flowers, which certifies fair-labor standards. Whole Foods also stocks Divine Chocolate, which is 45% cacao-farmer owned and guarantees farmers better returns and a stronger voice in the industry.
The supply of fair-labor certifications and brands is growing. For example, look for these when you shop for your sweetie:
As an investor, you can get involved too. Most publicly traded companies involved in the chocolate and flower supply chain aren't doing nearly enough to address these issues. There are two primary ways you can respond to that. You can choose not to invest in companies with poor labor rights records, or you can invest and employ your shares as change agents. More and more, activist groups are using shareholder resolutions to push companies to improve in these areas, so all investors should make sure to vote their proxies.
This year, if you really want to put the love in Valentine's Day, take a few minutes to consider the long reach of your consumption and investment choices. Then the only guilt you'll feel is when you tally up the calories you've eaten.
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