Trick-or-Treat, In Reverse

This Halloween, a new breed of activists is coming to your door: They’re costumed, committed, and about four and a half feet tall.
Trick or Treat photo by Patrick

Children are often overlooked when it comes to cultivating social change, but they offer a unique perspective and untapped energy.

Photo by Patrick

If an anime ninja comes knocking at your door this Halloween talking about the plight of cacao farmers in West Africa, it’s probably Emilie Reitz.

Emilie, a seventh-grader from North Bend, Wash., was shocked when her best friend, Rachel Donka, told her that the Hershey bars and other chocolate products she loved came, in part, from the labor of kids in places like Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Indonesia. “Most people don’t know about this,” she reflected later, “so I wanted to understand what went into the things I used. And I wanted other people to start asking questions, too.”

This year both girls are participating in Reverse Trick-or-Treating, an annual tradition initiated four years ago by activists promoting fair wages and treatment for farmers. Instead of just going door to door asking for candy, an anticipated quarter of a million Reverse Trick-or-Treaters are bringing the chocolate to you—fairly traded, bite-sized morsels glued to cards that explain widespread human rights violations occurring on non-fair trade cacao farms around the world. 

Reverse Trick-or-Treating is a project of Global Exchange, a human rights organization that promotes Fair Trade Certification as the best alternative to, well, unfair trade. Other fair trade organizations and businesses partner on the campaign, but the program is more than an opportunity for fair trade businesses to push their own products. It has twin goals: convincing major players in the chocolate industry, like Hershey, to switch to fairly sourced cacao, and teaching children the value of activism before they’ve learned the meaning of cynicism.  It takes “a gimme gimme holiday,” said one participating parent, and turns it “into a giving back holiday.”

Life isn’t fair, we tell our children, and by the time they’re teenagers, many have resigned themselves to this reality. But younger children ignite with fervent idealism: Why isn’t life fair? Why not a fairer world?  Any parent knows the passionate protest of a child who senses the slightest injustice. While they may not fully grasp the complexities of NAFTA or the International Monetary Fund, two things they do understand are chocolate and the concept of fairness.

Injustice in the cacao industry is an issue that children naturally connect to, says Adrienne Fitch-Frankel, fair trade campaign director for Global Exchange.  They make up one of the biggest groups of chocolate consumers, and they get upset when they learn their peers are being exploited. “There are kids who are growing up in cocoa communities that have never tasted chocolate–for a child that’s a basic human rights issue," says Fitch-Frankel. "They grow chocolate but they don’t get to eat it. They don’t even get to play.”

While some key chocolate-producing companies have made moves towards fairly sourced cacao, the organizations behind Reverse Trick-or-Treating are targeting one that, in their view, hasn’t: the Hershey Company, which controls a 40 percent share of the U.S. chocolate market.

In September, Hershey released its very first Corporate Social Responsibility report, devoting two pages to the problem of child labor on cacao farms. Some activist organizations found this insufficient, and soon came back with a retort: a 42-page exposé on the most egregious rights violations in the global cacao sector. 

Younger children ignite with fervent idealism: Why isn’t life fair? Why not a fairer world?

This counter-report, titled “Time To Raise The Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility Report for the Hershey Company,” was authored by the International Labor Rights Forum, Green America, and Oasis USA, along with Global Exchange. It spotlights the troubles faced by cacao farmers who struggle to feed their families on low wages. Many children can’t go to school because their families need them in the fields, supplementing their income. Others without family support systems seek employment on their own, or are trafficked to the fields as slave labor. They face health hazards like overexposure to pesticides, as well as physical and sexual abuse.

In 2001 a group of corporations with interests in cacao, including Hershey, signed on to the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a voluntary, self-policing attempt to eliminate child labor from the growing and manufacturing of cacao. While the initiative is lauded within the industry, critics complain that it does little to rectify the structural problems that propel the involvement of children in cacao production. Fitch-Frankel argues that Hershey has done much within the U.S. to better the lives of children, but has had little impact in the lives of African children who grow their beans.  As signatories to the Harkin-Engel Protocol, the counter-report argues, the company is committed to addressing the root causes of child labor in these areas-–but so far it has no policies in place to safeguard the labor of cacao farmers, and has continually declined to publicize information on its cacao sources.

A change in Hershey’s policies could help shift the entire chocolate industry to fairer practices. When British confectioner Cadbury switched to fair trade cacao for its iconic Dairy Milk Bars (though not the ones sold in the U.S., which are produced by Hershey), it demonstrated that a major company could create a bestselling fair trade candy bar.

boy eating fruit photo by David Dennis
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 The desire to show solidarity with cacao farmers has galvanized fledgling activists like Emilie and Rachel, who at the age of 12 have renounced non-certified fair trade chocolate. Emilie and her mother sell fairly traded products every week after church, and Rachel has convinced the rest of her family to follow her own lead when it comes to chocolate (except for her 15-year-old brother, on whom she is still working).  “The hardest part,” she says, “is when he tells me how delicious a piece of unfair chocolate tastes.”

Rachel is also promoting fair trade chocolate in a production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where she plays the lead, Charlie Bucket. When she passed out fair trade chocolate and information cards to fellow cast members, several friends told her they went home to research on the Internet for themselves.

Promoting fair trade chocolate through exercises like this and Reverse Trick-or-Treating provides kids an entrée into the universe of social activism. Children are too often underestimated and even dismissed when it comes to sparking social change, notes Fitch-Frankel.

For Emilie and Rachel, it starts on the block, backstage, and with their friends and family.  They hope to run their own booth at a local Girl Scouts conference next year:

“We’ll start by educating about chocolate, because that’s what kids my age care about,” says Rachel. “Then maybe coffee … tea … handicrafts … who knows?”




  • How to talk to children about social justice: Find resources, stories, and more at
  • :
    How students can tell big companies like World's Finest Chocolate that they demand an end to abusive child labor practices, and that they want to buy products that are Fair Trade Certified.
  • More information on participating in .
  • :
    9 progressive policies to support our families.
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