This post is from staff writer Sarah Gilbert.

Halloween is a big expense for many Americans, with national average estimates for 2011 topping $70 per person for costumes, decorations, and candy, up about $6 from last year to over $6.8 billion nationally. For a family of five like mine, that means $350 (though I doubt my husband in Kuwait for the Army will spend any money, Halloween is also the beginning of care package season for soldiers stationed overseas). Still, it’s a lot of money, and if you consider yourself an average spender, setting aside $20 or $30 of that budget for trick-or-treating candy doesn’t seem out-of-bounds.

That $20 would buy a lot of bags of Hershey’s bars, Almond Joy, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, three of my family’s long-time faves — enough for a couple hundred trick-or-treaters! But we won’t be buying anything like that this year, and it’s not just because I don’t consider myself an average spender. (If you count the jack-o-lantern pumpkins — many of which we end up eating later — we’ll probably spend $40 or $50 as a family on Halloween this year. I’m an aficionado of homemade costumes, and let’s just say my fabric inventory is overstocked.)

Forced child labor is one reason
Why are we changing our chocolate habits? Because of forced child labor, and many other problems associated with so-called “conventional” production of chocolate, sugar cane, and other tropical crops that go into American Halloween candy. After watching just five minutes of this recent BBC report on how many African children are sold, or “loaned,” by their relatives to harvest cocoa beans, I was ready to tell everyone I could (as Kristen Howerton writes) “to break up with commercial chocolate.”

It’s not just this one example of child labor that has me avoiding the big candy makers’ products. It’s a long history of ill treatment of the people and fertile land in the tropical regions where these crops (and others, like bananas and coconut and coffee) grow, bad treatment that was orchestrated by U.S. and European companies and supported by corrupt governments. A combination of environmental destruction and exploitation lead to famine, more poverty, and even more corruption as the only entities with money were the first-world companies and the people and government officials who catered to their need for cheap chocolate, sugar, bananas, coconuts, coffee, etc.

It’s bananas like bananas
Bananas are a great example of this; many say the conditions of sugar plantations are the worst, although not a lot of mainstream investigative work has been done on sugar growing. Peter Chapman’s book Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World made the rounds a few years ago on public TV, radio, and talk shows. A review in the New York Times encapsulated the message like this:

United Fruit defined the modern multinational corporation at its most effective — and, as it turned out, its most pernicious. At home, it cultivated clubby ties with those in power and helped pioneer the modern arts of public relations and marketing… Abroad, it coddled dictators while using a mix of paternalism and violence to control its workers. “As for repressive regimes, they were United Fruit’s best friends, with coups d’état among its specialties,” Chapman writes. “United Fruit had possibly launched more exercises in ‘regime change’ on the banana’s behalf than had even been carried out in the name of oil.”

Tropical crops from bananas to chocolate to coffee are grown most cheaply when the rainforest is stripped, water is diverted to feed the crops, and petroleum-based fertilizers are trucked in. Everyone knows by now that these methods increase short-term yields cheaply at the cost of long-term environmental stability. But not everyone has gotten comfortable with how badly this may impact chocolate in the future; and is, in fact, already causing shortages and price hikes for cocoa.

But much like bananas, many of us are too cozy with their chocolate to give it up unless there is a clear example of how destructive it is. Could child slave labor be the impetus for us to re-think our Halloween (and year-round) spending on this commodity, or luxury, depending on your perspective?

How much giving it up costs
I started spending more for fair-trade and organic chocolate several years ago when I started doing research into sugar and coffee production. At the time, I was focused on the conditions in Western tropics like the Caribbean and Central American coffee growers — my sister has lived in Panama for more than a decade, and I couldn’t help focus on that region as central to my concerns. As chocolate and coffee have very similar cultivation and love similar climates, I extrapolated and decided to stop buying Hershey’s and Mars and start buying Equal Exchange, Endangered Species, and a Pacific Northwest company called Theo Chocolate. (My favorite of all of these is an Equal Exchange bar from Panama, appropriately!)

It’s not going to surprise you to hear that it’s far more expensive to buy fair trade, “child labor-free” chocolate than the stuff you can get in the supermarket or drugstore in the Halloween aisle. A 3.5-ounce bar, even on sale, will cost $3 or $4. I buy chocolate in bulk when it’s on sale, or through a buying club, so I spend about $40 a month for chocolate enough for me and my boys (two of them will happily eat dark chocolate; the third prefers milk chocolate, so I buy a few bars of that for him a month and they disappear fast).

How about Halloween?
Those big 3.5-ounce bars don’t really translate to trick-or-treat handouts. I called Theo Chocolate, as that’s the brand my kids like best, and they told me that as a small company with limited machinery and packaging options, small bars weren’t in their immediate future (they’re working on solutions for Halloween 2012 or 2013). But Equal Exchange is another matter, with dark chocolate minibars that go for 19 to 30 cents apiece, depending on how much you buy (roughly similar to the cost of a “fun size” Three Musketeers). They have an organization package called “reverse trick or treat,” where you can get large quantities to hand back to neighbors with a flier on fair trade chocolate.

I’m not much of a door-to-door evangelist. I prefer to write my beliefs! So I’d rather buy the minibars for trick-or-treaters, or another option like Sunspire’s Fair Trade Chocolate Earth Balls or Yummy Earth lollipops and drops. Again, the per-unit cost is between 19 and 30 cents each; making it about the same as commercial options and something I can feel way, way better about.

I don’t spend much at Halloween, but when I do spend, I want how I spend my money to be in line with the way I believe the world should work. I believe childhood should be a time of fun and learning — not hard labor. I believe that, when you grow crops sustainably, they’re not just better for the long-term health of their neighborhood and their planet, but they taste better (that Panama chocolate bar is the stuff of dreams). And I believe a little more cost per unit will keep me from overeating — I can’t afford it! — and I like my body this way.

In the end, in my opinion, there’s every reason to buy more expensive chocolate for Halloween, and the rest of the year, too.

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