Moving beyond the social enterprise: with Tony’s Chocolonely

A conversation with Ynzo van Zanten of Tony’s Chocolonely

Elizabeth Sensky
Moments of Impact


Tony’s Chocolonely is a giant on the Dutch sustainability scene. With its distinctive bright packaging, creative flavors and strong stance against child and forced labor, the chocolate company has made a name for itself across the Netherlands—and increasingly, around the world—for both its chocolate and its mission. Tony’s’ origins go back to 2003 when a Dutch journalist, Teun van de Keuken, discovered the dark side of how chocolate is made and tried to prosecute himself for eating a couple of chocolate bars, eventually going on to make a better bar himself. 15 years later, these provocative and unconventional roots are still hallmarks of the company, driving them to push the boundaries in the name of transforming the way chocolate is made.

We caught up with Tony’s “choco evangelist”, Tony van Zanten, to hear more about how the company is thinking about and measuring their impact. We also talked about what role he thinks business should play in society today and why he thinks the term “social enterprise” needs to be retired altogether.

Ynzo van Zanten, Tony’s chief “choco evangelist”

Tony’s was founded in 2005 with a very clear mission of making all chocolate worldwide 100% slave-free. Can you talk about the progress made since then — what’s changed and what still hasn’t?

The opinions differ. Overall demand for cocoa has increased and that has had an influence on the absolute numbers of child labor in cocoa. Even though progress has been made, by us, and also other initiatives, unfortunately, part of that is offset by this increase in demand. But in the end, if it concerns the kids and people on the ground, it doesn’t matter if it’s relative. It’s about the absolute figures that now there are more kids working in horrible circumstances. This means we need to work even harder to make the change we want to make.

If you look at Tony’s specifically, we now work with more than 8,457 farmers in Ghana and the Ivory Coast who are receiving an additional premium. We monitor and remediate child labor through The Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation System (CLMRS) that we’ve implemented together with our partner cooperatives. Through that, we can measure incidents of child labor on the ground. We have found cases of illegal child labor but not any cases of modern slavery. Even so, we are still careful to never say that our chocolate is 100% slave-free because we know that this problem is deeply ingrained in the cocoa system, and perhaps, somewhere on the cooperatives or farms we work with, there still might be a case. We’d rather work really hard to find those cases and remediate them while also working to change the entire cocoa industry. So while we’ve measured a difference from where we started until now, we’re still just a drop in the ocean — there’s so much more that needs to be done.

Tony’s is known for its bright packaging and innovative flavors, like caramel sea salt.

Have you noticed any changes in the big chocolate companies and the chocolate industry overall?

You see chocolate makers with several schemes that are good, and we applaud many initiatives that work towards improving the livelihoods of the farmers in West Africa, but we need a holistic approach that covers whole supply chains, not just fragments or certain aspects. For example, I believe at the moment 38% of all chocolate on the shelves in the Netherlands is certified, whether that’s Fairtrade or UTZ or Rainforest Alliance, but we definitely don’t see enough impact on the ground in West Africa yet. That’s why we believe that chocolate producers need to take a lot more responsibility, and at the same time, governments should have laws in place for chocolate producers.

Where do you think the majority of the responsibility lies? How much of it is on consumers? How much on business? How much on governments?

I don’t think I can put a percentage on that, but there are billions of chocolate consumers while there are only about 10–12 chocolate producers that produce 90 to 95% of all chocolate. It’s easy to see that change can be made more easily by these 10–12 companies instead of billions of consumers changing their consumption patterns. Having said that though, at Tony’s, we approach it both ways. We have a bottom-up approach, which is about creating awareness among chocolate consumers about the reality of how chocolate is made today and the power they have to make a positive impact by changing their consumption patterns. At the same time, we also try to put pressure on organizations, by criticizing them openly, but also, by inspiring them to do things differently. We want to lead by example and be the proof that different business practices are not just possible but also effective.

What do you think the role of business is in society today?

I think businesses tend to underestimate the role that they play or should play in society. I am personally convinced that the only forces strong enough to get us out of the shit pile we’re in are the same forces that got us here: commercial forces. However, with the current situation we find ourselves in — in the midst of a global pandemic — I started to change my perspective slightly, because I believe that governments, now more than ever, have a huge role to play too. If you look at the number of bailout packages that governments are putting in place alone, this moment can be seen as a catalyst for change. Still, the only future is an inclusive one where companies realize that they can be very financially successful while also fulfilling their moral obligation to society. I think the combination of those two holds so much potential. People often underestimate the fact that Tony’s is commercial as hell. Our success comes not from being one or the other but in combining financial success with creating a social impact.

I guess you could say that there’s a false dichotomy that’s been perpetuated for a long time — that you’re either a social or for-profit company.

Exactly. I think the moment you let go of the idea that that’s a paradox, you can create a system where they actually reinforce each other. I never call Tony’s a social enterprise anymore. This is about realizing that the companies that don’t take responsibility should be called “anti-social enterprises” so that we then position ourselves as the new mainstream.

“Companies need to realize that they can be financially successful while also fulfilling their moral obligation to society. Our success comes not from being one or the other but in combining financial success with creating a social impact.”

Cocoa farmers Tony’s works with in Ghana.

Let’s talk about how Tony’s measures impact. There’s a lot that you do: each year you publish detailed impact reports, you’re a B Corp, you’re Fairtrade certified, you have PwC conduct an annual audit. I’m curious about how you make sense of it all and know exactly what to measure to ensure you’re on the right track.

Let it be known that we are never sure of anything. It would be pretentious to say that we know the path to glory, but hopefully, we’re walking it. In terms of how we measure, I think you’ve already ticked all the boxes. We also measure impact through the CLMRS. That shows the social impact we make on the ground. Another way is through our Beantracker, which is a software system we built to ensure the traceability of our cocoa beans as we strongly believe that full traceability is at the core of taking responsibility. This allows us to measure the complete logistics chain of the beans that we source and build long-term relationships with farmers at the beginning of the value chain. A third one that you mentioned are the non-financial KPIs that we share next to the financial KPIs, which are audited by PwC. Companies have to audit the financial KPIs, but we require ourselves to audit the non-financial as well. These include the number of households that participate in the CLMRS, the cases of illegal child labor found, the amount of Serious Friends we gather, the number of farmers that benefit from Tony’s premium, etc.

“We strongly believe that full traceability is at the core of taking responsibility.”

How has how you measured impact changed? What did you start with?

We started with nothing. We started by purchasing beans directly and losing the container in the process. I will never forget when the head of operations at Tony’s came back from the Ivory Coast and we were talking about what he had learned. He said, “I always come back with more questions than answers.” It’s very complex. By now though, I think our value chain process and the measurements we have in place are good. Even so, it’s still always a learning process.

Tony’s has said that certification schemes are good starts, but that they’re not enough. Last year, you also launched Tony’s Open Chain to help create a clear industry standard for sourcing principles. Can you talk about your goal with Tony’s Open Chain and what role you think certifications will play in the future?

Tony’s road map for change.

When we started Tony’s, we initially thought we needed to get to 100% market share to realize the change we wanted to make within the cocoa industry. Now we understand that that’s a bit of a utopia, which is why we’ve moved towards making sure that 100% of the market does what we do. This is the third step of our strategy. The first is creating awareness, the second is leading by example and the third is to inspire other organizations to take responsibility as well. That means inviting them to blatantly copy our business model, and hopefully, even improve upon it. Tony’s Open Chain was put in place specifically for that reason — to make sure there’s a platform that retailers, manufacturers, chocolate brands and other stakeholders can join so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We’ve been working on this for a long time and ran into so many issues that other people don’t need repeat to make the same changes. On Tony’s Open chain, we share our five sourcing principles which we believe are the best way to make positive changes for the farmers of West Africa and create a fair cocoa industry.

Tony’s Open Chain Sourcing Principles

To your point about certifications, they are great for a broad perspective of change, but they are not enough. From day one, we’ve worked with Fairtrade — and we’re a loyal partner — yet we are also the first to criticize them sometimes for a lack of speed or impact. While certifications have proven that they aren’t enough to ensure full traceability or to eradicate forced child labor, they are a good starting point. The problem is that many organizations see them as an endpoint. Within your industry, there are other issues which require you to take a higher level of responsibility.

In your recent Tony’s Chocolate Manifesto Film, the focus is on selling the social mission of Tony’s, rather than the chocolate itself. That begs the question: how many people are buying Tony’s for its mission and how many simply because they appreciate the quality of the chocolate? Is that something you measure?

Yes, we measure this. In the Netherlands, I believe now on a weekly basis. The answer as to why people buy Tony’s is typically divided almost equally between three reasons. One is our portfolio of chocolate — simply the chocolate we make that people love. The second is our marketing and communication. The third is our mission. From my perspective, even if people just buy Tony’s because they like our chocolate and don’t give a damn about what we do, that’s fine because it still helps us reach our mission. We obviously want to educate people about the issue through our chocolate as well — so if people buy my chocolate and don’t really care, hopefully, along the way, we will make them care.

In a talk held at the Tony’s HQ, I heard that the primary focus at Tony’s is to make a positive social impact and that the other facets of sustainability come second. What makes it particularly challenging to focus on more than one facet of impact at the same time?

Let me make it very clear that focusing on the social side of sustainability definitely doesn’t mean we are copping-out on the ecological side. This is demonstrated by the fact that for the third year in a row we’ve been named the most sustainable brand by Dutch consumers. The first year we earned that title, I personally saw it as a celebration of our focus on the social side of sustainability, which is often overlooked. But of course, you could argue that there’s no reason to be social if your planet is dead, which is why Tony’s takes its environmental responsibility very seriously as well. For example, we produce our cocoa butter locally, thereby reducing the CO2 impact of shipping our cocoa beans by 50%. We are climate-neutral now, but, for me, that isn’t that impressive as anybody can become neutral if they off-set. It’s also about the packaging we use, where we source our milk powder from, etc. When communicating about our brand though, I think our success has come from our focus. We talk about illegal or forced child labor and talk about that consistently. So, if you hear somebody from Tony’s saying that the social side has our focus, that doesn’t mean we don’t do the other stuff, but rather, that it’s the focus of our communications. Otherwise, we would confuse the consumer.

“When communicating about our brand, I think our success has come from our focus.”

Do you think Tony’s will reach its goal of slave-free chocolate in your lifetime?

You are speaking to one of the oldest guys at Tony’s (laughs), the average Tony’s employee has about 20 extra years on me. Even so, I’d say yes. Now the question is: is that 100% incident-free, right? That is the ultimate end goal for us. Yet this becoming the mainstream, is, I hope, even achievable within five to 10 years. I won’t put a specific date on it, but I would have never imagined being at the point we are today five years ago so thinking that this would not be possible is unimaginable for me. I’m optimistic, but it’s also realistic looking at the growth path we’re on. And then seeing the complete industry change within my life span? I’ll try to stay fit and make that happen.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Elizabeth Sensky
Moments of Impact

Elizabeth Sensky is a writer based in Luxembourg focused on sustainability, personal development and culture. She also writes poetry at