Interviews · 15min read

Interview with Joke Aerts from Tony's Chocolonely

Get exciting insights into how this pioneering impact brand is uprooting the chocolate industry by working to rid the cocoa supply chain of illegal child labour and modern slavery! 

About Tony’s Chocolonely 

The Amsterdam-based global impact brand Tony’s Chocolonely is on a mission to make 100% slave free the norm in chocolate. Tony’s invites fellow chocolate brands to transform their cocoa supply chains using Tony’s Open Chain’s pioneering 5 Sourcing Principles.

About Joke Aerts

In her role as Tony’s Chocolonely’s Inspire to Actress, Joke Aerts is driving change in the chocolate industry by leading Tony’s Open Chain. In 2017, she founded Aerts Consulting in Amsterdam, where she works as a Project Manager and Technical Specialist in sustainability and agroecology with a focus on tropical commodities. Prior to that, Aerts gained over a decade of experience in coordinating sustainable agriculture projects and building sustainable supply chains at Rainforest Alliance and Preferred by Nature. 




What three key challenges are you tackling in the chocolate industry as an impact company?

Tony’s Chocolonely’s mission—which is the same as Tony’s Open Chain’s mission—is to make chocolate 100% slave-free. And not just our chocolate, but all chocolate worldwide. The biggest thing we’re trying to do is get more beans flowing through our purchasing model. My team is actively approaching other companies to join and source their cocoa via Tony’s Open Chain. So I’d say the biggest challenge there is getting the volumes up. 

The second challenge is a systemic issue—cocoa prices are way too low. This year in Côte d'Ivoire the farmgate price is $1.45 per kilo. A few years ago, we came up with a Living Income Reference Price (LIRP) model with Fairtrade. A more correct price, a price that enables a living income, is $2 per kilo. We see that the gap is massive. And if cocoa farmers are living in poverty, which they currently are, then leads to other issues that we hear about in cocoa, namely deforestation and child labour. But poverty really is the root cause of it all. 

The third challenge is an industry one. A lot of the big chocolate companies do have sustainability programs. While some of them are quite good, there is little to no transparency around what percentage of their supply they are covering. They are buying enormous volumes of cocoa beans and running sustainability programs for fractions of them. There is still a lot of anonymity in the cocoa supply chain, i.e. lots of beans where nobody knows where they are coming from or under what circumstances or living conditions the people growing them are subjected to. And that anonymity is something we want to see eradicated from the cocoa supply chain.

Tony’s Open Chain goes beyond certification. In what ways are Tony’s 5 Sourcing Principles helping the entire industry raise the bar?

We’re actually built on certification. We have a long history with Fairtrade, and we’ve worked with them since the very beginning. Both Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade audit our supply chain, and valuable information always comes out of those audits. So certification is very much a part of what we do. But we indeed want to see a world where you take on more responsibility rather than relying on certification bodies to shoulder the responsibility for your supply chain.

With Tony’s 5 Sourcing Principles, the ways we buy cocoa—a higher price, longer terms, traceability, productivity and quality, and strong farmers—allow us to have a more direct relationship with our farmers. So that’s one of the main differences. The other is that by knowing who we are buying from, we can monitor child labour in all cocoa households and remediate any cases we find. By knowing who we’re buying from and working with them directly, we can make long-term commitments to pay a higher price, enabling whole communities to invest more in their communities’ growth and development.

As part of this exciting industry-wide initiative, you’ve joined forces with a string of fellow chocolate brands (aka competitors) and formed a unique network of Mission Allies. Tell us more about these partnerships! 

We call the companies that join us in Tony’s Open Chain ‘Mission Allies’ because they are allies in our mission to change the chocolate industry. They commit to the same sourcing principles we do. They commit to buying directly from the nine cooperatives we work within Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana in the long-term, i.e. for the next five years. 

Mission Allies are paying a much higher price for their cocoa—a price that enables a living income for farmers and covers some management fees for the framework. Our Mission Allies are taking responsibility in their cocoa supply chains. What’s really powerful about this message is that, at Tony’s, we believe our sustainability approach should not be a USP in the supply chain. We know we can make a lot more impact if we do it together. So Tony’s Open Chain is an invitation to other brands—even competitors—to join us and make sustainability a factor we all have in common.

And why these particular Mission Allies?

Albert Heijn, a big retailer in the Netherlands, was our first Mission Ally. Tony’s was already on their shelf, so we had already established a long-term relationship of doing business together. They were the first to take the plunge and adopt this new way of working together. Since then, my team has taken talking to lots of other chocolate companies in the market and seeing who responds.

We spoke to German celebrity Joko Winterscheid who owns JOKOLADE, for example. He felt very inspired because he recognised the opportunity to improve things in the industry actively. We’ve also been talking to a lot of retailers, and ALDI recently joined our program. We’re also talking to larger vocal brands as well as some smaller, up-and-coming brands that want to do the right thing but don’t necessarily have the resources (yet). And we’re even looking at non-chocolate brands, which is why Vly (they make chocolate milk, not chocolate bars) recently joined us. 

We say yes to whoever wants to join because we want to create this tsunami of change and get more beans rolling through the system.

These days, transparency is on everyone’s lips: How do you guarantee full bean-to-bar traceability?

You’ll see a lot of commitments being made—like the German Initiative for Sustainable Cocoa (GISCO); in the Netherlands, it's called DISCO; in Belgium, it’s called Beyond Chocolate. You have the Modern Slavery Act that is coming up in the UK. You have all these legislations or commitments in the pipeline. They get signed, but people don’t always know how to fulfil them.

The 5 Sourcing Principles and Tony’s Open Chain are a future-proofed way of working. For example, everything in our supply chain is GPS-polygon mapped, so we can check for deforestation and co-ops can get a better idea of the yields they can expect.  All the households which are supplying Tony’s Open Chain are participating in a Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation System (CLMRS). Our higher prices address the living wages and living income issues. The idea is that if you don’t quite know how to get to the commitments that you signed on to, you can always join Tony’s Open Chain and you’ll be set. Even though we’re asking companies to take a lot of responsibility, it’s essentially plug and play.

We physically track everything via a digital system called the Bean Tracker. We can see individual farmers’ deliveries arrive at the co-op and then track the beans as they move through the supply chain. When they arrive at the processing facility, we trigger an invoice for their LIRP premiums. And we have PWC audit the entire process every year. This means we have financial traceability, physical traceability and digital traceability. They go hand-in-hand. Plus, everything is segregated [from other companies’ beans] so we don’t have any anonymous beans coming into our system.

Social traceability is important too. What are our farmers' households like? Are their children going to school? Are they at risk of child labour? If they are engaged in child labour, we do not take a punitive approach but a collaborative approach. What can we do to help? Why is your child being sent to work? How can we get your child back into school? We follow up with a series of visits, so the traceability aspect is quite intense.

Why is finding cases of child labour in your supply chain a good thing?

We were in the news recently with the headline ‘Tony Chocolonely reports 17,000 cases of child labour in their supply chain’. That number was astronomically higher than what we had reported the previous year, which was something in the 300s. This was because we had two new partner co-ops join us. It was their first year working with us, and they hadn’t been working on CLMRS for years. As a result, our numbers sky-rocketed. Those two co-ops each had about a 50% child labour prevalence rate, which is around the industry average in cocoa. For the other seven co-ops that we work with, the child labour prevalence rate was 3.6%. That juxtaposition of those two numbers is enormous. It shows that the system works. 

We know that child labour is rampant in cocoa. So if your system is not finding those cases, then it is a failed system. If we don’t find cases, at this point, we would be concerned. Because you can’t remediate child labour without finding it. 

Of course, we want to move towards a future where we don’t file anymore cases. A future where it’s outside the norm in cocoa-growing communities. But we’re not there yet. In the meantime, we want to find all the cases we possibly can.

Learn more on and | Connect with Joke Aerts on LinkedIn

Imagery: (1), (2), (3), (4), (5) & (7) Tony's Chocolonely; (6) JOKOLADE

Magazine Highlights

Stay up-to-date on new products, prices, and industry insights.