Let me start by confessing that I have become a Halloween curmudgeon. Almost every year I dress up in some sort of costume, plaster on make up, and devour more than my fair share of a candy bar variety pack. There isn't a holiday that tempts me as much to buy, eat, and wear as many things I don't need as I do on Halloween. So what better time to consider where those Halloween goodies came from and who made them? They do, after all, make up a $6.2 billion industry. And even in the midst of a troubling economy, Americans will spend an average of $72.31 on Halloween this year, the highest amount recorded in the last nine years, according to the National Retail Federation. Herewith, the full scoop on pumpkins, candy, costumes, make-up, and fake bling:
Pumpkins: You've likely already touched, seen, or carved a pumpkin of your own. For the most part, these probably were grown on a pumpkin patch not far from your home or within your state. But if you're also planning on eating a pumpkin, in a pie or other such baked form, you're probably buying it canned. The United States produced no less than 1.1 billion pounds of pumpkin in 2010, the lion share of which is sealed in cans and shipped off to grocery aisles. Most canned pumpkins come from central Illinois, around the town of Morton, the self-proclaimed Pumpkin Capital of the World. It is also where Nestle, owner of the pumpkin subsidiary Libby's, operates a pumpkin processing plant, mostly staffed with migrant laborers traveling up from Mexico.
Although there are few labor rights violations reported on pumpkin patches or at the processing plants, Miguel Keberlein, an attorney with the Chicago-based Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project, explains that the fact that migrant labor is used at all raises a flag. "That itself tells you that it's not fantastic work," he says.
Pumpkin cultivation does have some harmful impact on environment. The watchdog group What's On My Food?, which aggregates Department of Agriculture data to monitor pesticide use, lists endosulfan sulfate as a main chemical found on winter squash, which includes pumpkins. Endosulfan sulfates have been known to have toxic and sometimes fatal effects on birds, freshwater fish, insects, and snakes.
Candy: When it comes to chocolate, there's much bad news that we already know. The buckets full of Reese's cups and Hershey's Kisses we'll pass out to trick-or-treaters this week is largely sourced from West Africa. (Some 70 percent of the world's cocoa comes from that region.) Earlier this year, Tulane University published a report (commissioned by the Department of Labor) detailing child labor on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, finding that a total of 532,030 children worked in cocoa farms or cocoa processing in the two countries, with some 113,000 reporting that they were working against their will. In the last year, major candy companies, including Nestlé, Mars, and Kraft, have pledged to purchase certified fair-trade cocoa, according to a September 2011 report by Global Exchange, Green America, and the International Labor Rights Forum. Hershey's has lagged behind in commitments compared with its competitors. Progress has been slow, though, since these companies had already made similar pledges to reduce child labor back in 2001.
You don't have to look too hard to find ethical sweets. GOOD has a bunch of organic and fair-trade recommendations, from chocolates to lollipops. And if you're a die-hard Hershey's fan, good luck with that. Nestlé does sell fair-trade Kit-Kat bars—but only in Europe.