Is our chocolate Fairtrade?

By Cocoa Runners  ·  21st February 2021  ·  The World of Chocolate

One of the questions we most commonly get asked at the end of our virtual tastings is, “Is our chocolate Fairtrade?” That’s a fantastic question – and it’s a great sign that so many people are thinking about ethical consumption. But for chocolate, Fairtrade is a complex issue, and it’s worth exploring some of the complexities of Fairtrade chocolate in more depth.

So below we’ve tried to explain our position. We’ve also highlighted a bunch of fantastic Fairtrade-certified craft chocolate bars for you to savour.

Bottom line: we think it’s important to go BEYOND Fairtrade and break out of seeing chocolate as another commodity ingredient.  We believe that this is the best way to ensure we can savour chocolate bars that taste better, are better for your health, and are better for the environment and for cocoa farmers.

In Praise of Fairtrade

For an international, globally-recognised charity and certification, Fairtrade has done incredible work in increasing customer awareness and promoting ethical, sustainable relationships in the world’s supply chains. It has given rise to cooperatives and partnerships around the world that have truly changed the lives of farmers in some of the world’s poorest countries. And for sheer scale of brand recognition, its impact is unmatched.

Fairtrade has had many successes with chocolate. We distribute a number of makers who actively promote it, such as Zotter, Belvie, and TCHO. Divine has done a great job with its Ghanaian cooperatives, and it’s great to see Fairtrade labels appearing on many supermarket own-brand chocolates.

… but chocolate needs to go beyond Fairtrade

Fairtrade certification was designed for large-scale crops, like bananas and sugar, that grow on large farms or plantations. And it’s done an amazing job for these crops.

But it wasn’t designed for cocoa growing or chocolate manufacturing.

In the manufacture of mass-produced chocolate, significant costs are incurred whenever production lines have to be stopped or changed over. And as many Fairtrade chocolates are made in the same factories as other, non-Fairtrade chocolates, a system called “Mass Balance” has been developed.  This allows makers who buy a certain amount of Fairtrade cocoa beans to label a volume of bars they make as “Fairtrade”, even though those bars may not contain Fairtrade beans.  This is a HUGELY complicated and emotional issue — for more details, see the blog.  But it certainly raises some consumer eyebrows when they are told that the bars labeled Fairtrade may not contain Fairtrade beans (the same happens with coffee, tea and a few other products).

More importantly, the Fairtrade certification process wasn’t designed for millions of small subsistence farmers selling a commodity crop to only a handful of large buyers. For starters, the cost of Fairtrade certification is just too high (more than the annual income of many cocoa farmers).  Though new initiatives that help groups of farmers and cooperatives band together to achieve certification are starting to address this issue, which is great.

The Real Problem

There is a more fundamental issue at play here, however. The Fairtrade premium is a fantastic initiative, and clearly a step in the right direction. But many of the fundamental problems of chocolate come from the way it is treated and traded as a commodity crop, where it’s all about price.

Treating chocolate as a commodity injects huge price pressures and instability. Prices yoyo up and down with the fluctuating world cocoa price – and appear on a long-term decline. For as long as we treat chocolate as a commodity it’s a race to the bottom on price … and this harms us (see below), the farmers, and the rainforest/planet.  

Moreover while the price premium of Fairtrade is great, it’s unfortunately often nowhere near enough.  The average cocoa farmer’s daily income in West Africa is US $0.78 (source Oxfam, Cocoa Barometer).  Oxfam estimates that a farmer needs $2.50 to $3.00 as a bare minimum to survive.  And unfortunately even with the 5-15% fair trade premium farmers are still often not getting a $1 per day for their work.

A fundamental rethink is required. We need to appreciate the amazing flavours of chocolate and the critical work done on the farm, and be willing to pay farmers more.

This is the approach of Craft Chocolate makers. They establish long-term relationships with farms and co-operatives that offer far higher prices (at least two to three times the “spot” price for cocoa, and often five to ten times more).  And they guarantee multi-year contracts.  Hats off and kudos to the likes of Askinosie, Taza, TCHO, Akesson’s, Dandelion, Uncommon Cacao, Kokoa Kamili and many, many more makers and craft chocolate supporters for their work here.

Scoffing vs. Savouring

But even more importantly, Fairtrade doesn’t seek to address the challenges confectionery and most mass-produced chocolate pose to our eating habits. We need to cut down on scoffing and begin to savour.

Whilst the addictive substance in coffee, caffeine, is a natural ingredient in the coffee plant, and ditto for alcohol in wine and beer, it’s different for chocolate and confectionery.  The addictive element in confectionery is SUGAR.  And unfortunately most mass-produced chocolate bars, and sadly many supermarket Fairtrade bars are about consistency, low prices and these “bliss point” sugar-like plays.

Most mass-produced chocolate bars, Fairtrade or not, are about scoffing. Look at the packaging, for example. Try to reseal most mass-produced bars. You just can’t.  They are based on the principle of “once you pop you can’t stop”.  They are designed to be addictive. The enjoyment is upfront, with no balance, length, intensity or complexity.

Craft Chocolate makers celebrate flavour and provenance. They want you to savour. They seek out the best beans they can find to create bars that you’ll want to linger over and dwell on. And these makers understand the need to pay farmers higher prices.

Spend More Wisely

This doesn’t mean that Craft Chocolate costs an arm and a leg.  Indeed Craft Chocolate is  often far cheaper than many luxury craft chocolates, where all the effort is put into marketing and labelling as opposed to growing great beans and crafting them. You can’t expect a Craft Chocolate bar to cost £1.00 any more than you can expect a great cheese or wine to cost £1.00.  But many craft chocolate bars are below £5, and most are below £7.  Compare that to other great foods and drinks when we finally can get back to the pub.

Speciality coffee, fine wine, craft beer and artisan cheese have all shown that consumers are willing to pay more for flavour and provenance (and some great marketing). And this is what Craft Chocolate seeks to do too.

Clearly it’s better to spend a little more on a Fairtrade chocolate bar (even if it’s Mass Balance Fairtrade) than a non-Fairtrade bar.  But even better would be to “trade up”, stop seeing chocolate as a commodity and savour a bar of CRAFT CHOCOLATE.  It’s WAY better for you, and way way better for the cocoa farmers and for the planet.

See below for some great bars that are Fairtrade-certified but also focus on the savouring the provenance and flavour.

As always, thank you for your support and please stay safe and sane

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie, Harmony and James