Chocolate Frogs, bearing the Harry Potter brand name and based on a popular candy in the wizarding world. (Courtesy of Flickr user allnightavenue)
“We are a Dumbledore’s Army for our world,” says Andrew Slack, co-founder of The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), a fan activist group that uses J.K. Rowling’s books as the basis of social justice campaigns. “Dumbledore told us that there would be a time when we’d have to choose between what is right and what is easy. And at that time, we should choose what is right.”
“Dumbledore’s Army,” as Slack calls it, is engaging in a multiyear campaign against Warner Bros., the distributor of the eight Harry Potter films. The campaign’s focus is on the possibility that child slaves are being forced to harvest the cocoa contained in chocolate frogs bearing the Harry Potter brand name. The chocolate, which is based on a popular candy in the wizard world, is produced by a Warner Bros. licensee and sold at Universal Orlando’s Harry Potter theme park and online.
Remote farms in West Africa produce most of the cocoa that winds up in the world’s chocolate. Many of those farms use child slaves to harvest their crops as chronicled by CNN in their 2012 documentary Chocolate’s Child Slaves. Through a network of middlemen the cocoa is sold to chocolate companies, making enforcement of labor standards difficult.
“The biggest problem is that much of the cocoa is grown on small, dispersed, family-run farms which are far from major towns and never monitored,” says Debra Rosen, movement director at Walk Free, a 3.7 million-member global anti-slavery campaign.
The result is that the chocolate carrying Harry Potter’s name is likely produced with slave labor. In the Harry Potter universe, chocolate holds a special place says Slack: “Chocolate carries incredible magical properties in the wizarding world. After a Dementor attack, chocolate is what can make a person return to their senses. We believe very firmly that the magic in the wizarding world is grounded in intentions and origins. So if the chocolate were made through exploitation or slavery of children, it would be removed of all magical properties and be worthless in the wake of a Dementor attack.”
Slack also cites heroine Hermione Granger’s founding of an “organization to free house-elves” and her advocacy for “fair wages to Muggle-borns, werewolves, and half-giants” as a further connection between the Harry Potter stories and his group’s activism.
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It would be easy to dismiss the 34-year-old Slack as an adult living in a Comic-Con-like fantasy world if it weren’t for his earnest nature and his organization’s record of success. The Harry Potter Alliance has approximately 140 chapters around the world, and more than 100,000 activists who identify with the group. “We don’t have the time to have fantasy just for the sake of fantasy. Fantasy is not just an escape from the world, it’s a way to go deeper into it,” declares Slack.
Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the organization raised $123,000 in two weeks, funding five cargo planes of aid to the country.
HPA’s work has gained the affection of J.K. Rowling, a former Amnesty International employee, who has said the organization “really does exemplify the values for which Dumbledore’s Army fought in the books.”
Just before Halloween in 2010, Slack wrote Rowling, informing the author of his plans to campaign against Warner Bros. He did not ask for her endorsement—he simply asked her to reply if she had a problem with the campaign. She did not.
“For us, J.K. Rowling is our Dumbledore,” says Slack. “We don’t often talk with her but look to her as someone with tremendous wisdom.”
In the fall of 2010, prior to the release of the final Harry Potter film the following summer, the organization launched “Not in Harry’s Name,” demanding that “products made using Harry Potter’s name are consistent with the moral character” of Rowling’s books. “Fans wanted to believe in the company that produced the Harry Potter films,” says Slack.
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In November 2010 the Harry Potter Alliance asked Free2Work, an organization that researches products tied to slavery, to investigate Behr’s Chocolate, a small Orlando, Florida, firm that makes the chocolate frogs. Behr’s failure to answer questions about its supply chain resulted in the chocolate manufacturer receiving grade of F.
Initially, Warner Bros appeared sympathetic. Its own guidelines prohibit child labor and involuntary labor, and then-CEO Barry Meyer assured Slack that Warner Bros.’s ethical sourcing rules applied contractually to the company’s licensees. He also applauded the Harry Potter Alliance’s “commitment to social responsibility and support of those in need.”
Slack flagged Free2Work’s report for Meyer at Warner Bros., but after initial conversations, communication from the studio became infrequent. In September 2011, Slack again heard from Warner Bros. and was told the company performed an internal review of the matter.
According to a spokesperson for Warner Brothers Consumer Products, “We take these matters seriously and, based on the HPA’s initial inquiry, we asked our licensee, Universal Orlando Resort, to look into the matter with their vendor. Based on that review, we were satisfied, and remain satisfied, that Harry Potter chocolates are being produced in accordance with our ethical sourcing standards.”
Warner Bros. has refused to share its review with the Harry Potter Alliance, and Slack is critical of the lack of transparency. “Dumbledore’s Army is not going to let the Ministry of Magic, in the form of Warner Bros., be complicit with child slavery without some direct sunlight,” he says.
Observers may question why the Harry Potter Alliance is targeting a film company that neither produces chocolate nor employs child slaves. Slack says it’s not because the alliance hates Warner Bros., “it’s because we love Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore and the values in J.K. Rowling’s masterful work.”
Slack says he and the Harry Potter Alliance don’t view the film company as an opponent. “We don’t see WB as the enemy. The enemy is the existence of child slavery,” he says. Yet Warner Bros. own sourcing standards implicitly acknowledge the company’s responsibility for the labor practices of its licensees and subcontractors.
For that reason, the Harry Potter Alliance launched ShowUsTheReport.com, demanding Warner Bros. release its report publicly. While 16,000 activists signed the original petition in fall 2010, 61,000 signed onto this call for transparency. Additionally, Walk Free began a separate campaign, which, according to Slack, has been joined by an additional 115,000 activists, demanding Harry Potter chocolates be produced without slave labor.
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The Harry Potter Alliance’s campaign against Warner Bros. represents a new paradigm in activism. Previously, fan subcultures were primarily known for attending conventions, wearing costumes, and providing income to mostly forgotten actors. The most organized fan campaigns of the past often centered on preventing a favorite television show from being canceled. Slack says the Harry Potter Alliance demonstrates that fans can use their creativity to pursue greater causes.
The Harry Potter Alliance presents a new conundrum for the entertainment industry. The organization represents the most fervent fans of a hugely profitable franchise—one that Warner Bros. has no plans in halting. The company recently announced plans to release a new film tied to the Harry Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The question is, will Warner Bros. and other entertainment companies sure to face similar activism from HPA like organizations, deliver the transparency that a twenty-first-century fan community demands?
Andrew Slack puts it in the context he loves most. “We’re not just here for the Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and the Quidditch,” he says. “We are here to fight and defeat Voldemort in the form of child slavery.”