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How to Ensure Cocoa Farmers are Properly Paid

The UK TV series, Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’, broadcasted a damning investigation into Cadbury’s use of child labour in sourcing cocoa from Ghana. It’s very shocking and disturbing. Kids who aren’t even ten years old, wearing just flip flops and t-shirts in sweltering heat are harvesting cocoa with machetes longer than their arms instead of going to school. The whole programme can be found HERE. It’s only 30 minutes, and even though it’s gruesome watching it’s still worth it;  hopefully it’ll persuade you to upgrade to craft chocolate.

Sadly this isn’t new news. Back in the 1990s the BBC broke the story of child slave labour in West African Cocoa. And despite a tonne of follow up TV programmes, media uproar, court cases, the US Congress’ attempt to pass Harkin Engel, and lots of consumer affront, not a lot has changed. Cadbury continues to sell 300 million plus Creme Eggs each year.

Indeed, ever since Cadbury has been sourcing cocoa from West Africa back in the 1880s, slave labour and other abuses on cocoa farms have been prevalent. Over a 100 years ago in 1908 Cadbury suffered an incredibly embarrassing court case versus The Standard (newspaper). But despite this and a massive consumer boycott in the 1920s, it seems that nothing really has changed in the world of commodity chocolate.

So how to fix this. How do we ensure that cocoa farmers are paid enough to live on?

The short answer is to treasure chocolate for its amazing variety of flavours, textures and tastes, and pay the farmers for this. We need to stop cocoa being treated as a ‘commodity ingredient’. We need to switch to craft chocolate that not only tastes better, but is also far better for you, the farmers, and the environment.

There is an incredible irony in the way that cocoa has been commoditised and cheapened. Chocolate literally has more flavour complexity than just about anything on the planet (if you want to experience this, just try THIS box of different bars all crafted from well harvested, fermented and dried Ghanaian cocoa). However, big chocolate has commoditised chocolate, and this has created a doom loop for cocoa farmers, their forests, our planet and our health.

Why are cocoa farmers paid so little?

Economics suggests that as demand increases, prices should rise. So given that demand for chocolate/cocoa has been steadily increasing, why are cocoa prices remaining so low and why are farmers being paid so badly?

Economics also has a concept called monopsony; basically a monopoly where the buyers have the power, effectively dictating prices. This is the position of almost all cocoa grown and purchased in West Africa (which accounts for over two thirds of the world’s production, with Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana by far the largest exporters).

There are a dozen ‘big chocolate’ companies who purchase over 80% of all the commodity cocoa beans grown in West Africa. And as these companies want to make as much money for their shareholders as possible, they seek to pay as little as they can for cocoa (and all the other ingredients) that go into chocolate bars and confectionery. And as part of this cocoa has been commoditized so that all cocoa is interchangeable and all that matters is price.

West Africa has literally millions of small farmers, each with 1-2 hectares, growing 50-200 bags of cocoa a year. These farmers struggle to make enough money. Over 90% of Cocoa Farmers in the Côte d’Ivoire are paid less than half what the World Bank believes is a ‘living income’; to put this into context, men take home $0.78 (US) per day, and women 25¢; and the living income they need is over $2.50 per day. So these farmers are desperate for more income, and cocoa is one of the few cash crops they can grow, so they do everything they can to grow more cocoa, including cutting down the few remaining rainforests to plant more cocoa (this is often cited as one of the major causes of the appalling deforestation, and desertification, in West Africa).

And so even though demand for cocoa is growing, the desperation of the farmers combined with their weak bargaining position and the ability to source more commodity cocoa (including some that is smuggled from neighbouring countries) means that the prices paid for commodity cocoa barely generates enough income for many farmers to survive. And as the C4 Dispatches programme graphically shows, these farmers not only can’t afford to pay to send their children to school, but they are so desperate that they have to put their children to work in harvesting cocoa.

Note: This is NOT a criticism of the Ghanaian government; they don’t want their children to have to work in unsafe conditions and not go to school. They do have laws against this. But they also know that over 90% of their cocoa farmers don’t make the living income benchmark.

So why can’t certification solve this problem?

For the last few decades, some amazing work has been done to help consumers access ‘ethical’ and ‘environmental’ brands where a price premium is paid to the farmers. In many crops it’s worked wonders; for example, Fair Trade bananas.

In the world of craft chocolate, Zotter pioneered organic and fairly traded chocolate in Austria. And here in the UK, even though it’s more ‘mass produced’ than ‘craft’ the work that Divine has done with Fair Trade chocolate and Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana is inspiring.

But unfortunately Fair Trade, along with other certifications and labels, just isn’t enough to break the poverty loop of commodity chocolate. Unlike, for example, speciality coffee, these certification initiatives have failed to break through and change consumer’s attitudes to paying enough for chocolate such that this materially changes the livelihoods of cocoa farmers.

At the risk of vastly over simplifying, here are some of the reasons why ‘certification’ isn’t a panacea in cocoa and chocolate (note: This is NOT to say that choosing a Fair Trade or organic supermarket bar is no different from buying another mass produced bar; rather it’s arguing to do more).

  1. Certification is REALLY hard, expensive and even dangerous to do for cocoa. And when it comes to a commodity crop (aka hard to trace and distinguish), it’s hard to enforce. So it’s perhaps not that surprising that C4’s Dispatches found so many abuses. At the same time it’s a credit to Ghana that Channel 4’s Dispatches were able to make the programme that they did… there are many other places in West Africa where making this programme would have been a lot less safe, and certification even trickier to get right.
  2. A lot of certification and labelling is, to put it mildly, ‘hogwash‘ or at best ‘greenwash‘.  
    • Some labels like “raw” and “ethical” may sound good, but they are utterly meaningless (a bit like the term “Belgian Chocolate”. Read more about reading labels HERE). 
    • Other certifications are really confusing; for example, mass balance fair trade upsets many consumers when they realise that the “fair trade” bar they’ve just bought may well have no fair trade beans in them (see HERE for more).
    • And there are now so many company labels (like Cadbury’s ‘Cocoa Life’) that it’s impossible for most consumers to keep track  and know what really is what.
  3. Consumers just won’t pay enough. Working out how much of a ‘premium’ consumers will pay for ‘Fair Trade’ is notoriously difficult; it varies by product type and also consumer. But even for Fair Trade coffee (one of the highest premiums with the highest acceptance rates), its only about 20%. And whilst this premium is welcome news for any farmer, in the case of a male cocoa farmer earning less than 85¢ a day (or 25¢ a day for a female cocoa farmer), this still means they are less than halfway to securing a minimal living income for West Africa.
  4. Ethical and environmental certifications don’t guarantee quality. Fair trade and organic are about how something is grown and harvested. They aren’t about ‘taste and flavour’. By comparison, ‘specialty coffee’ is in part defined by measuring the quality of the beans on the coffee farm (which may also be organic, fair trade, etc.). But in cocoa it’s very different; even “fine” cocoa is allowed to have up to 3% defects (e.g., mould, under fermentation, etc.) and it’s still certified organic, Fair Trade, etc. (hat yip to Martin Christy here).

Bottom line: These certifications persist in treating cocoa and chocolate like a commodity ingredient, where price and volume are all important and flavour can be synthesised with additives in the factory. And in the case where you’ve few buyers but lots of desperate farmers, this inevitably leads to the awful situation shown in the Cadbury exposé.

Why craft chocolate is the way forward:

As in specialty coffee, artisan cheese, craft beer, premium olive oils, malt whiskies, craft gins, fine wines, and almost every other food and drink, consumers will pay more if a product tastes better (and has more kudos and coolness). And these price premiums are FAR higher than any Fair Trade premium.

Craft chocolate clearly has oodles more flavour complexity, length and depth than can be found in mass produced chocolate which relies on additives, fortifiers and, above all, sugar. (And we think it’s a lot cooler, and far more impressive to serve at your next dinner party).

And craft chocolate makers know that they have to pay the farmers more for the extra work involved in planting, growing, harvesting, fermenting, drying and transporting these speciality beans. The premium paid by craft chocolate, and its long term contracts, really does break through; the premium craft chocolate makers pay for their beans is anywhere from two to over ten times the commodity cocoa prices, and way more than even the highest fair trade premiums.

However, even though these craft chocolate bars cost less than a round of beers in a pub, many consumers recoil at the thought of a £4, £5 or £6 bar of chocolate (or £8-10 Easter egg). And whereas specialty coffee now accounts for over 20% of all coffee spend in the UK, craft chocolate isn’t even 0.02% of the £5b plus spent on chocolate in the UK each year.

In part this is because mass produced chocolate has persuaded consumers that they shouldn’t expect to pay more than £1 for their ‘sugar rush’ of a chocolate bar. And this perpetuates the vicious cycle of commodity cocoa. The only way that a bar of chocolate can cost £1 is, as the Dispatches programme shows, for the ingredients to cost less than 11p (see minute 8). And this is only achievable through ‘commodity cocoa’; paying less than a living income to the cocoa farmers, and by using LOTS of even cheaper sugar (which is also highly addictive).

It’s not easy to break this ingrained habit. Humans are pre-programmed to like sugar, and chocolate is an amazing vector for “sweet delight”. At the same time, humans are unique in delighting in savouring flavour; and craft chocolate has more flavours than just about anything.

So we really believe that if you can break the sugar habit and upgrade to craft chocolate you can help break the vicious cycle of poverty, child labour and deforestation that are all inherent in commodity cocoa and mass produced chocolate.

Conclusion

We need to stop treating chocolate as a commodity where price is all important, where the primary ingredient of a chocolate bar is sugar, and where a mass produced bar’s taste and flavours are created through cheap additives, enhancers, sweeteners and sugar.

And we need to start to read the label. We need to check the ingredients on the reverse of the pack. We need to look for where your bar (or Easter egg) is really made (as opposed to processed and assembled). And we need to look on the label for where your beans really come from (i.e. the farm and co-op, not just the “single origin” country, occasionally listed on the front).

And we need to avoid being distracted, and misled, by a bunch of great sounding, but effectively meaningless, phrases like “Cocoa Life”, “slavery-free”, “ethically sourced” etc. We have to move beyond greenwashing environmental stickers. These distract from the real issue.

Notes:

i) This post is NOT arguing for a boycott of West African chocolate. Ghana, The Ivory Coast, Cameroon, etc. aren’t to blame for the way that ‘big chocolate’ has commoditised cocoa. Nor is it a criticism of Fair Trade. Rather, it’s a plea to upgrade to craft chocolate, and savour the flavour of great beans, and pay a little more to reward farmers for work.

ii) Whenever child slave labour is discussed, we inevitably get asked about Tony’s Chocolonely. Tony’s is a marketing machine, and has done an amazing job of (re)alerting the world to the problems of child labour in cocoa. But we side with Anne Riggs here who has evicted them from her ‘Slave Free Chocolate‘ organisation. Check the Tony’s labels: The primary ingredient is sugar. And try figuring out where their beans really come from, and how, and where, their chocolate is processed. For our ‘two cents’ please, SEE HERE.

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Celebrating Women in Craft Chocolate

There are many amazing women working in craft chocolate, and we’d like to highlight them; to step back and look at the incredible contribution made by women at all levels of the craft chocolate industry; from makers to growers, from authors to competition judges, and from scientists to everyday enthusiasts. At all these levels women are clearly leading craft chocolate. It’s not easy to do exact comparisons to other industries or to ‘big chocolate’. But it’s worth making some anecdotal comparisons as it may offer another perspective, and help explain why the craft chocolate world is so passionate about converting people to delight in chocolate that tastes better, is better for you, and better for the farmers and planet.

Making and Crafting: The Role of Women

We’ve crunched some numbers, looking at the number of women who’ve firstly founded and secondly who lead the crafting of their companies’ bars. And the results are extraordinary. In over 50% of the craft chocolate makers we work with, the founding teams either were all women, or with both men and women. And for almost the same proportion, the actual chocolate ‘crafting’ is also done by women, or shared between men and women. Unsurprisingly there are some geographic differences; in the UK, almost 80% of the founding teams were all women, or men and women together, and in the US it’s almost two thirds. It’s lower in mainland Europe (just below 50%), and around 40% in Asia, Africa, Australia, Latin America and the Caribbean. But it’s moving in the right direction.

And it’s not just ‘a numbers game’. Just sticking with the ‘women only’ founding and making teams, we are spoiled with an amazing choice of bars. Lisi, founder and chief chocolate maker of Shatell, won chocolate maker of the year in 2017. In the Americas, Jenny from Conexión, Luisa Abram, DeAnn of Solstice, Christine of Palette Des Binnes and Ana of Mucho all craft awarding winning bars. In Europe, Agur and Siv of Fjåk (Norway) won “rising new star”. Tomoko-san and Sue of Feitoria do Cacao (Portugal) have also won medals galore. And here in the UK, Isobel of Dormouse, Ama of Lucocoa, Luisa of Luisa’s Vegan Chocolate and Deana from Tosier have similarly won multiple awards and accolades.

Apologies for any oversights; we’ll try to update this list regularly.

And below are some bars, and some boxes, created by these women.

…Comparison to Mass Confectionery

Unfortunately we haven’t found a database that offers an easy comparison or benchmarking to women’s position in mainstream chocolate.  

But there are some useful tools if you want to do more research; for example for the UK you can use https://gender-pay-gap.service.gov.uk/ and see that for e.g., Cadbury, women comprise less than 10% of all the “highest earning jobs”.

And, revealingly, there are, yet again, a number of great ‘promises’ and ‘pledges’ being made by ‘big chocolate’. Just as Callebaut is promising to end child labour in all its chocolate by 2025 (promised almost two decades after the BBC aired it’s first documentary on child slave labour), it’s also pledging to make “more progress in gender balance at senior level … 40% women at director level … 30% women at director level in sales”. Mars, Hershey’s, Olam and Nestlé all have similar pledges … but tellingly they don’t benchmark where they are coming from TODAY in their organisations.

Women on the Farm

The inequities and inequalities of women versus men in big chocolate are even more extreme ‘on the ground’. Over 90% of West African cocoa farmers earn less than the living income benchmark. Or in dollars and cents, the average income for a cocoa farmer in West Africa approximates to US$0.84 per day. And for women working in cocoa farming, it’s even worse; US$0.23. Fixing this inequity is also the the key to fixing everything from deforestation to child slave labour. And fixing this means paying more for cocoa, and paying more for cocoa means seeing it as more than just a commodity.

Craft chocolate is at the vanguard here; to make great craft chocolate you need great beans. And to secure great beans, you have to pay the farmers appropriately (craft chocolate pays a premium of 3-10 times more than commodity cocoa prices and signs long term commitments). Trying to clean up supply chains by “inspecting them”, ”checking that kids are in school”, “highlighting the issue” etc. may make you feel better (and it can make great advertising copy, as Tony’s shows). But to fix the problem, we need to stop treating cocoa as ‘just another commodity’; we need to pay farmers (men and women) for growing great beans.

And yet again, women in craft chocolate are leading many of these initiatives. Kate and Justine are spearheading this at Cacao Latitudes. As is Emily from Uncommon Cacao. And Katrin, Alix and Jeannette from Silva. Plus Marika is trying to do this with Pacha de Cacao, her cocoa pulp fruit drink.

In addition there are a number of initiatives like ‘Femme Du Virunga‘, where women cocoa growers have created women cocoa co-operatives, especially welcome in the Eastern Congo given the dire combination of wars, destitution and violence against women. Luisa (of Luisa’s Vegan Chocolate) is building a similar initiative in Colombia. Please see below for a range of bars crafted from beans grown these initiatives.

Research

Much of the research into what is happening on the ground is also being done by women. Kristy Leissle continues to do great research here (her book ‘Cocoa’ is a must-read on this), and we are delighted to be holding another ‘Craft Chocolate in Conversation’ with her on the 17th May (more details coming soon). Similarly, Amanda Berlan does extraordinary work on child labour and unpacking the claims of big chocolate for its initiatives (see her critique and expose of Nestlé, and please read her insights on how divorce is linked to so many of the income inequalities in West Africa). And Stephanie Barrientos continues to do pioneering work on many gender and cocoa issues in West Africa and India.

Ayn Riggs is leading the charge for slave free chocolate, and huge kudos to her for taking a stand against Tony’s without fear of the blowback.

And in the area of cocoa plant genetics, great work is being done by scientists including Frances Bekele and Sarah Bharath, and for fermentation and farming best practises Zoi Papalexandratou shows what can be done (see bars crafted with the Betulia bars from Colombia she helps grow and ferment here from Taucherli and Krak).

Authors and Books

Many of these researchers have produced insightful books. If you want to read just one recently published book, please try Kristy Leissle’s ‘Cocoa’. And if you want a deep dive into the horrors that Ayn Riggs is fighting against in ‘Slave Free Chocolate’, please try Orla Ryan’s ‘Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa’. Or if you want the definitive history, try Sophie Coe’s unbeatable ‘The True History of Chocolate’. All great books. All authored by women.

A number of other women authors use chocolate to describe other aspects of their interest in food and cooking, such as Jenny Linford and Vanessa Kimble.

And another hat tip to two women involved in the book industry, Kathryn Laverack and Cat Black, for their work in pairing craft chocolate to book clubs.

Bloggers and Journalists

Outside of formal books and long publications on chocolate, there are a number of journalists and bloggers in the world of chocolate. And again, a huge number of these are written by women; and at the risk of offending many, here are a number to follow:

  • Annalisa Barbieri – The Guardian and Observer’s chocolate journalist,
  • Sharon Terenzi – The Chocolate Journalist,
  • Megan Giller – Chocolate Noise,
  • Lauren Heineck – Chocolate in Conversation,
  • Pam Williams – Ecole Chocolat (also great for chocolate making courses and more).

Judges, Fairs and Tasters

Women also played (and continue to play) a crucial role in the judging, and awards, of craft chocolate. The Academy of Chocolate (AoC) was established by the much missed Sarah Jayne Staynes, and her work is being brilliantly continued by Silvija Davidson, Marie-Pierre Moine, Chantal Cody and Sara Jane Evans. Similarly Martin at the International Chocolate Awards (ICA) works with a host of women from the US (George Gensler and Maricel Presilla), Italy (Monica Meschini) and Germany (Michaela Schupp).

And then moving outside the UK, Caroline Lubbers in Amsterdam has done amazing work with the Chocoa Festival (and in promoting the Rokbar with Lisi from Shatell).

And these bodies are also hugely assisted by the amazing palates, and judging support, of numerous women, again from all over the world, again, apologies for those I may be missing, but huge hat tips to Terese Fenger Weiss, Jen Earle, Judith Lewis, Hazel Lee, Cat Black, Lauren Adler, Harmony Marsh and Lizzie Jackson (again, I’m not great with names, so huge apologies for all those I’ve missed.

Scientific Research

Much of the ‘delight’ from chocolate is all about the wonderful complexities, length and varieties of ‘flavour’ that we can enjoy in craft chocolate. And again, much our understanding of flavour can be tracked back to the pioneering work of Linda Buck who won the Nobel prize in 2004 for her work on the mechanics of our olfactory system and receptors. Much still remains to be done, and chocolate is a great tool for flavour experiments. And if you want to read more about this, please try Ann-Sophie Barwich’s ‘Smellosophy’.

Summary

So from our understanding of chocolate’s flavour down to who crafts, makes, writes about, judges and promotes craft chocolate, a huge thanks to all the women leading the ‘Craft Chocolate Revolution’. If you’ve attended any of our tastings you’ll know that craft chocolate tastes better, is better for you, is better for the farmers, and better for the planet; and we’ve another reason to add to this; the pioneering work by women in craft chocolate is an amazing opportunity to celebrate RIGHT NOW  (as opposed to big chocolate’s future promises and pledges).

Finally, a huge thank to our warehouse and customer support team, which is run by the wonderful (women) team of Sarah, Becky, Lucie and Megan. Wishing you all a great weekend, and please celebrate this Tuesday’s International Women’s Day with some craft chocolate crafted, grown, sourced, researched and judged by women.

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Ethics in the Chocolate Industry

Both environmentally and socially, mass produced chocolate has detrimental effects on our world. The ethics of big chocolate are often shady – shrouded behind jargon which is anything but transparent. We rarely know where makers like Cadbury and Nestle really source their beans from, or how the farmers who grow those beans are treated. Cheap chocolate bars come at a price: the exploitation of cocoa growers and the destruction of the environment.

A recently published infographic from the BBC showed that chocolate sourced from the rainforest can actually have a larger carbon footprint than low-impact beef. By placing chocolate alongside a number of other every-day foods, this shows us just how damaging chocolate can really be to the environment.

Fortunately, none of this means you have to give up chocolate. There is an ethical alternative to your favourite supermarket treat: craft chocolate. In this section we will explore the ethical dilemmas posed by the mass produced chocolate industry and, eventually, how the craft chocolate movement can resolve them.

The Dark History of Chocolate

The current problems within the chocolate industry are rooted in a colonialist history. It can be traced back to the Spanish conquistadors who used the ‘encomienda’ system in the American colonies to manage the labour intensive process of picking and processing cacao.

Although the system was intended to be mutually beneficial, the Spaniards ruthlessly exploited native peoples by forcing them into hard labour. Things only got worse by the 17th century when cocoa became a mainstream commodity amongst the European upper classes. This explosion in demand was met by a systematic turn towards slavery.

Even with the gradual abolition of slavery from the 1800s, the exploitation of workers continued – only in different forms. As we say in our full article on the matter; it was slavery in different packaging.

And the problem hasn’t gone away…

Cocoa’s colonial history has had long-term impacts which have yet to be fully resolved. Still, human rights abuses, low pay, and child labour run rampant throughout the chocolate industry. Growers and farmers are rarely treated with the respect they deserve.

Only instead of imperial traders, today we have the ‘Big Five’ of chocolate: Cadbury, Nestlé, Hershey, Mars, Ferrero – all of which have been involved in exposés regarding their use of child labour.

The problem with mass produced chocolate

Mass produced chocolates poses a host of ethical problems, contributing to climate change as well as the exploitation of the people who grow their beans.

By attempting to mass produce cocoa beans, big chocolate companies have exacerbated pre-existing problems of deforestation and water-shortages in rainforests everywhere.

Furthermore, big chocolate companies have so far been unsuccessful in ending their harmful practices. Callebaut didn’t partner with Cocoa Horizons Foundation until 2015 and since then has admitted to being unsuccessful in ending their use of child labour.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to assess whether or not big chocolate companies are using ethical practices. They’re tuning in to consumer demands for more ethical production and subsequently adapting their brand message to appeal to our societal conscience. Because many terms like “bean to bar” and “organic” aren’t patented, they can get away with selling bars as more ethical than they actually are.

However, we’ve tried to uncover at least some of what big chocolate doesn’t want you to see.

Child Labour

Whilst the chocolate industry earns around $100 billion in annual profits, the farmers see hardly a tiny fraction of this staggering figure. Farmers are left with so little money that they have no choice but to get help from their families – including their children.

Some children simply help on their family’s farm, but others face more dire circumstances as they are sold into slavery by their families or trafficked.

Since signing the 2001 Harkin Engel Protocol, big chocolate companies have made nothing but empty promises, failing to meet targets on reducing their exploitation of child labour.

The conversation about child labour in craft chocolate…

Some anthropologists have argued that the current conversations about child labour in the chocolate industry aren’t as helpful or altruistic as we think they are.

Of course, it definitely is in everyone’s best interest to actively campaign against the enslavement and trafficking of children within the cocoa industry. However, the broader conversations around child labour on family cocoa farms may require more nuance.

For example, the childcare available to most parents in West Africa is expensive and not readily available. Many parents are faced with the choice of leaving children unattended at the village are taking them with them to the farm.

As Amanda Berlan argued, ‘In the context of cocoa, child labor is not a violation of labor rights occurring in a social vacuum; it is symptomatic of a much wider set of issues relating to child welfare which, problematically, are not receiving the attention they deserve.’ (October 2021). For the full article see here.

Unpacking “Fairtrade”

We are frequently asked whether or not our chocolate is Fairtrade. This is a complicated question in the context of the cocoa industry.

Truthfully, Fairtrade have done incredible work in raising global awareness around ethical, sustainable relationships across the world’s supply chain. But it was designed for large-scale crops like sugar or bananas which grow on large farms and plantations.

Cocoa, on the other hand, is not grown under the same conditions and is therefore less suited to the Fairtrade label. Because so long as it’s treated as a mass produced commodity, the longer malpractices in the cocoa industry will be able to continue.

Beyond Fairtrade…

So we believe that, whilst Fairtrade certainly has its merits, the long-term solution for making the chocolate industry more ethical is to look beyond Fairtrade.

With this in mind, we wrote a series of some of our makers and how their practices go above and beyond the Fairtrade standards.

You can read about:

What makes craft chocolate an “ethical alternative”

By supporting craft chocolate makers like the ones listed above, you are supporting the farmers who grow their cacao in sustainable and ethical ways. Craft chocolate makers often handpick the farmers themselves, so they can rely upon the quality of these beans as well as their low carbon footprint.

Craft chocolate makers also generally pay cocoa growers more for their beans; Marc, Belvie‘s co-founder, says they pay four to five times the global market price for their cocoa beans. This means the growers can afford to live comfortably whilst continuing to grow high quality beans which will be turned into the craft chocolate you get to eventually enjoy!

What can we do to make the chocolate industry more ethical?

To upturn such a deeply ingrained system, it will take a broader shift in mindset to make the chocolate industry more ethical.

First, think about what sort of chocolate we are buying, and where the chocolate bar sources its cacao from. Read the label on the back; does it say something about the beans’ origin and where the bar was made? Is the bar only made up of ingredients that your grandmother would know?

Savour our chocolate; it’s not a commodity! Avoid the supermarket offers and pay that little bit extra for better chocolate (because you know that extra is being spent on ensuring growers are paid fairly and to reduce the bars carbon footprint).

Trust in the craft chocolate makers to provide higher quality chocolate than what the big companies could offer (this should be the easiest part).

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Our Two Cents on Tony’s

Tony’s Chocolonely burst onto the chocolate scene in 2005 with promises of slave free, Fairtrade chocolate and a desire to draw attention to the numerous social injustices within the chocolate industry. The intentions of Tony’s founder, Teun van de Keuken, are powerful and persuasive.

And with their characteristically bold packaging, they have brought the issue of slave labour in the cocoa industry right to the supermarket shelves – putting the issue quite literally before our very eyes.

In our virtual and face to face tastings, and at all of our fairs, one of the most frequently asked questions is: “what about Tony’s”? 

And it’s a very good question… and there have been an increasing number of critical articles about Tony’s.  So we’ve done a little digging, diving into their story, their claims – and the claims made against them.

We’ve come out very impressed by their marketing skills. They’ve done a great job at building their unique brand whilst simultaneously raising awareness of the problems of child slave labour in West Africa.

But this brand-oriented emphasis comes at the expense of even more important issues like the root causes of child labour and poverty in West Africa, the terrible deforestation that accompanies mass produced cocoa and the obesity and sugar-addiction epidemics exacerbated by cheap confectionery.

The History of Tony’s Chocolonely

To reiterate: Tony’s was founded with the best intentions. A Dutch journalist named Teun van de Keuken (AKA Tony himself) was shocked when he read about illegal child labour and slavery on cocoa farms in West Africa. He launched an investigation into it using his consumer watchdog show, ‘Keuringsdienst Van Waarde’ in 2003. The team discovered that there were 2.1 million children working illegally on cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and 30,000 instances of human trafficking and slavery. 

Rather theatrically, Teun ate a pile of chocolate bars on television and turned himself in to the Dutch Authorities as a ‘chocolate criminal’. Teun was not prosecuted, so (on the advice of a lawyer) he found 4 boys who had worked as slaves on a cocoa farm in Ivory Coast to give statements about what they had endured. He was still not prosecuted, but having given the world tangible evidence of the horrors behind their favourite chocolate brands, he was able to successfully launch Tony’s Chocolonely. 

Whilst the messaging behind Tony’s brand is great for raising awareness around the prevalence of child labour on cocoa farms, Tony’s actions as a company have been challenged and criticsed.

In fact, at the beginning 2021 Tony’s were removed from the Slave Free Chocolate List due to their involvement with Barry Callebaut; a company which has admitted that its own supply chain is not free of child labour or slavery

And a decade earlier in 2010, it wasn’t until they got called out by Dutch TV show, Een Vandaag, that Tony’s stopped using child labor to harvest their hazelnuts sourced from Turkey… 

Brand over bar… 

Teun truly brought in the marketing heavyweights when it came to the presentation of his new ‘slave-free’ chocolate idea. The bright bold messaging of Tony’s was actually brought to you by the same people who marketed the delightful Innocent smoothies brand we’re so familiar with today. 

In an interview with Sonder & Tell, Tony’s marketing manager, Nichola Matthews, described the company as ‘an impact company that makes chocolate, not a chocolate company that makes impact.’ It’s possible that, by placing so much emphasis on the message (or ‘impact’), Tony’s are missing the point: that they must actively pay more for farmers to live, and to not cut down rainforest – both of which are made possible by craft chocolate.  

The 150+ craft chocolate makers that we work with are incredibly attentive to every step of the chocolate-making process (quite literally from bean to bar). And the result of this is not only a positive impact on the world, but it’s also what enables them to craft great chocolate bars with unique flavour profiles.

Whereas the vast majority of dark, milk, inclusion and white craft chocolate bars are low in sugar and high in flavour, Tony’s is quite the opposite. The average amount of sugar (per 100g) in a Tony’s milk chocolate bar works out at 48.4g, whereas in Pump Street Chocolate’s milk bars it’s 29.2g – that’s a huge difference.

The high volumes of sugar in most mass produced chocolate (including Tony’s) induce the bliss point – something which triggers us to keep eating beyond the point of satiation. And it’s this sugar, salt and fat combination that makes ultra processed chocolate so addictive. 

Bottom line is: you, or your mates and kids, are far more likely to scoff a Tony’s bar than you are a craft chocolate bar. What’s more: they’ve put these ingredients in their chocolate knowing that there is an obesity epidemic sweeping Europe and the U.S. 

Craft v. Mass Produced Chocolate

Craft chocolate makers are all about coaxing the unique flavour out of their cocoa bean. To that end, they are incredibly focused on not just the quality of the beans but also how the beans are fermented, dried, roasted, ground and conched.  And they are happy to pay a premium of 3-10 times commodity cacao (ie US $5-15k a tonne versus $1.5-2k per tonne to the farmers). And where there is sugar in craft chocolate, it’s used as a flavour enhancer.

By contrast, mass produced chocolate is about consistency, cheapness and scoffing. And to this end a completely different manufacturing process is used.  Instead of roasting a whole bean, the bean is “skinned” with steam, removing the shell. This increases the efficiency of roasting by 2-5%. 

This efficiency comes at a price. Nib roasting further limits the flavour potential of mass produced cocoa that is already hampered by the way that they are grown, fermented and dried en masse and as cheaply as possible. So, mass produced bars, including Tony’s rely on additives, inclusions and sugar for their flavour and taste. Their making processes are aimed at reducing price – and they use additives, inclusions and sugar to cover up the lack of flavour from the chocolate.

This partly explains the prevalence of inclusions in Tony’s range of chocolate bars. They add wafers, honey, nougat, caramel, in order to create variety – whereas craft chocolate makers can generate variety in their bars just by sourcing and handling their beans differently. If you don’t believe us, come to one of our taste and flavour virtual tastings to learn more about how craft chocolate acquires its unique flavour profiles. . 

The other reason why Tony’s lean so heavily on  inclusions is to avoid what is technically called “sensory specific satiety”. To elaborate: if you are given five scoops of the same ice cream, you are (quite) likely to get bored and not scoff them all. If, however, you are offered five different flavours, you are far more likely to scoff them all. Again, for more on this, come to a taste and flavour virtual tastings.

To summarise: Tony’s bars use the same manufacturing approaches and facilities as any other ultra processed chocolate. Tony’s goal is consistent flavour, texture and taste for the lowest price. This is achieved through additives, sugar and other inclusions – not by carefully sourcing and crafting cocoa. 

Next time you’re in the supermarket, look at the ingredients on the back of a Tony’s bar and see if you can tell them apart from any other confectionery, mass produced bar. And then also try to figure out where the beans come from and the bar is actually made – because you really can judge a bar by its label (and we can show you how). 

All their eggs in one basket…

Whilst slave labor is abhorrent and is definitely an issue which requires urgent attention within the chocolate industry, by focusing their brand solely on this issue Tony’s are missing a whole host of other issues within the cocoa industry like the environmental impact of their company. There is no discussion of deforestation – a very urgent issue – on their website.

There are also suggestions that Tony’s plan to open their own theme park – an equivalent to Cadbury World. And critics are suggesting that whilst the intention to educate people about the rampant exploitation in the cocoa industry is admirable, but asking whether a theme park is the most sustainable way to go about delivering that message? 

This chart from the BBC demonstrates just how damaging chocolate can be to the environment! It’s an issue that often slips under the radar when people discuss ethics in the cocoa industry (probably because there’s such a huge pile of problems for it to get lost under). 

But, as you can see here, chocolate also has the potential to have a very low impact on the environment – and these will be in the cases of craft chocolate. Makers like Original Beans and Moka actively strive to preserve the rainforests; each maker plants a tree for every bar they sell.

Beyond slave labour

Child slave labour is appalling.  And it’s a tragedy that after 20+ years the Haarken Engel protocol still hasn’t been enacted.

But again, it’s worth digging a little deeper and looking at some of the other horrors and structural issues.  

Studies suggest that in West Africa 90% of cocoa farmers are paid less than a living wage – and for women working on farms it’s even worse. In fact, the systematic injustices faced by many women in West Africa is a huge contributing factor to child labour. For women who are divorced, or widowed, there is little choice but to take their offspring to the farm with them. They can’t afford to send them to school, nor can they risk leaving them alone in the village. For more on the underlying causes of child labour in the cocoa industry see here.

 

From a branding perspective, there are obvious advantages for Tony’s to limit their ‘mission’ to one issue; it enables a cohesive brand identity with a message that’s easy to follow. However, a written-off vehicle can’t be repaired by simply replacing a tire; the whole thing demands attention. And the chocolate industry, as it stands, is quite the car wreck. 

So, are Tony’s “Good Guys” or “Bad Guys”?

The answer isn’t that they are simply good or bad. It’s much more complex than that. 

The fact that they source their beans from Callebaut – one of the companies still being challenged in numerous court cases on child slave labour – has aroused scepticism and outright hostility.  Whilst they’ve argued they do this to prove that traceability is possible on a large scale, Callebaut’s transparency reports remain pretty opaque (despite their best efforts to appear otherwise) and are open to huge criticism.  Ditto their actions on deforestation, and even child slave and child labour.

So, whilst their messaging and commitment to raising awareness is great, it’s worth reading the label and unwrapping the bar. Their chocolate does not necessarily live up to the ethical sourcing they preach, nor is it anywhere near as sustainable (or tasty) as real craft chocolate bars.

On the positive side, they are affordable and at least addressing the issue of child slave labour far more obviously than many other mass produced makers.

But they are still designed to be made as cheaply as possible. They are still designed to be scoffed. They really are “just” confectionery. They aren’t changing chocolate to taste better, be better for you, be better for the planet or even be that much better for the farmers. 

And, as ever, the best advice is to read the label! 

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Five of the Most Ethical Makers In The World

Here at Cocoa Runners we’ve done the hard work for you when it comes to ethical chocolate obsession. We’ve tasted in excess of 2000 chocolate bars, yet exclusively stock just 250 bars from the makers that best reflect our values – meaning our delicious chocolate really is good for the soul.

You can be sure that our brave and rebellious chocolate makers are using innovative solutions to help repair some of the damage done to this industry worldwide – one small and important step at a time.

To celebrate their gallant efforts, we’ve compiled a list of 5 of the most ethical chocolate bars. So when you’re enjoying the delicious taste of your next bite, you can transport yourself to the very origin of the cocoa – and know that you’ve done your part.

Enjoy our top 5 tales of victory in the world of chocolate production…

1. Original Beans – The story of Gorilla warfare

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Image Credit: Flickr User: Noel Reynolds

The lush rainforest canopy is essential to the flavour and intensity of the cacao beans used in Original Beans chocolate, thus for every bar of chocolate sold, a tree is planted* in the Virunga national park rainforest where this sustainable cacao is developed.

Not only does this scheme help conserve the beautiful rainforest, it is also essential to providing a habitat for the last remaining 800 mountain gorillas in the world, who happen to reside in this forest.

Park rangers and Gorilla caretakers fight everyday to fend off cruel military militia and money-hungry oil companies who are desperate to poach the resources of this incredible area. See the link below to watch an exclusive trailer of “Virunga – The movie”, a documentary demonstrating these issues.

Virunga – Official Trailer 2014 from Grain Media on Vimeo.
*Use the code on the back of your pack to track the exact whereabouts of your tree.
 

Shop the latest bars from Original Beans today >>

2. Pacari – Santiago’s little helpers

Image Credit: Flickr User Ben Cumming (givingkittensaway)

This company has absolutely flawless ethics when producing its award-winning chocolate. Every fine detail of production is planned with a deep consideration for the communities and individuals farming cacao for Pacari in Equador, and the company pays a significant premium over market prices to ensure that their small-scale farmers are fairly compensated for their products.

Santiago, the founder of Pacari, recalls an anecdote about a farmer who had been recently producing far less cacao than usual, and who after some enquiry admitted he had suffered a back injury when carrying the beans across the mountains. Santiago gave the farmer a donkey (which would have cost the equivalent of a year of the farmer’s wage), which allowed the man to improve his income above and beyond his pre-injury level. This practice became commonplace for the farmers.

Check out the Pacari range today >>

 3. The Grenada Chocolate Company – Pirates of the Caribbean

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This exquisitely eco-friendly company use sailboats to ship their chocolate bars across the ocean by wind, making the journey completely carbon neutral.

But the goodness doesn’t stop there, as the Grenada factory is solar powered entirely by the beautiful Caribbean sunshine.

Mott Green, the late founder of Grenada (pictured above), was the first to break the government monopoly that controlled the sale of cocoa in the Caribbean. For the very first time, farmers were able to sell their beans directly to chocolate makers without being harshly exploited by middlemen.

Try a bar from The Greneda Chocolate Company today >>

 4. Menakao – Fair Trade gone platinum

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At Menakao, cocoa is bought at 5 times over that of standard Fair Trade price. The company decided not to ask for the official Fair Trade agreement, as this is extremely costly. Instead, they have invested in the well-being of their employees.

The production of chocolate onsite brings 4 more times local income to the community, therefore Menakao built a chocolaterie maintained by 20 full time and 15 temporary workers. Transportation is arranged for the employees to and from the chocolaterie, and things we take for granted such as air-conditioning and hot showers are great compensations for their hard work. They have free lunch every working day, and social security and retirement plans are provided with their contract.

Every worker has an average of 3.5 persons dependent on his or her salary – so the profit raised from Menakao chocolate sales indirectly benefits many in the wider community.

See the full range of Menakao bars today >>

5. Askinose – The Chocolate University

Askinose

This Missouri based company source cacao beans from many different regions across the world. The company is committed to building long-term relationships with their farmers, and providing a sustainable source of income for members of the community – particularly the women. In fact, Askinose have recently begun working with a new female-led Tanzanian farmer group, led by local Mama Rahabu.

Askinose are also actively concerned with educating others about the communities that farm their cacao. They set up Missouri’s very own chocolate university, which organises trips for students at the local Missouri high school to volunteer in places like Mwaya in Tanzania. In past years, the chocolate university has funded the first textbooks at the local school, and a deep-water well for the village – which provides clean water to the 2000 residents who live in Mwaya.

Check out bars from Askinose today >>

 

 

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What big chocolate doesn’t want you to see…

Chocolate is big business. We’re eating more chocolate than ever, but we often forget where this wonderful food comes from: the beans. But the supply chain for the beans is causing more harm to the world than ever before; to both nature and people. This is an overview on the detrimental effects of commercial cacao production.

The Environment

The commoditisation of chocolate is ravaging rainforests everywhere. Between 1990 and 2015, forest cover in the Ivory Coast, one of the largest producers of cacao beans, has gone from over 25% to under 4%.

We were talking to Marc, co-founder of Belvie chocolate. He says that cacao is not that profitable a crop, especially when selling to the big companies like Callebaut and Nestle.

Growing cacao in bulk, such as is the case with the CCN51 varietal, will only cause more deforestation. Trees are being cut down to make way for the cocoa plantations which supply big chocolate. Even then, cacao does not grow in bulk very well, it takes years before a tree bears the fruit.

But we’re entering a vicious cycle here: one chocolate bar takes 1500-2000 litres of water to make; around the water used if you have a bath every single day for a month.

When trees are cut down, water previously held within the soil and roots and trunks are gone, stopping the water cycle in its tracks. Soon there won’t be any water left for cacao to grow.

Cocoa pods need high humidity and rainfall to grow. We are leading ourselves into a cacao and water shortage here. Cacao is not the only killer in commercial bars; there are also the additives. Soy farmers are devastating the Amazon to feed animals; especially cattle; and indirectly supply the soy lecithin and milk powder found in commodity chocolate.

The People

Cacao growing has long had a problematic history. Despite Cadbury’s Bournville model village for their factory workers, their cocoa beans were sourced from Sao Tome, a small and fertile island where slaves harvested the cocoa right into the beginning of the 20th century.

The problems still haven’t gone away. Only recently has commercial chocolate decided to get their act together.

It’s only been since 2015 that Callebaut has partnered with the Cocoa Horizons Foundation to try to eliminate child labour or slavery in their supply chains. But even they admit that children still work in the cacao plantations in hazardous environments.

An estimated 1.56 million children work in cocoa production in Ghana and Ivory Coast, the largest cocoa producers in the world, according to research from 2018-19.

You might say that programmes like Fairtrade are changing the farmers’ lives for the better. In fact, Fairtrade is not all that beneficial for the farmers.

To qualify for Fairtrade and Organic labels, the farmers need to pay for that certification. However, more often than not, the farmers simply cannot afford it.

The global market price for cacao simply isn’t high enough. Fairtrade only works when raw products are bought in bulk; think how cheap and how plentiful Fairtrade bananas are. But because cacao farmers tend to have small plantations, they are not profiting from Fairtrade certification. Not only are cacao farmers hindered by Fairtrade, but coffee farmers too!

To make the living income, farmers are encouraged to produce bulk cacao to be sold at the global market price. They need to have bigger yields to make up for the costs despite their small plantations. So, farmers will mix their good and their bad beans together and craft chocolate suffers. Even then, the global prices for cacao fluctuate, and when they fall, the farmers suffer the economic hardships.

If the farmers are unable to balance the books with cacao, they end up cutting down their cacao trees and abandoning the crop for cash produce, like pomelo in Vietnam, or pineapples in Costa Rica.

How is craft chocolate fixing this?

By supporting craft chocolate makers, you are supporting the farmers who are growing cacao in eco-friendly and sustainable ways. Makers will choose cacao farmers themselves, whom they can trust to make high-quality cacao beans.

Craft chocolate makers will pay these farmers higher prices for better beans. Marc says that Belvie pays their cacao farmers four to five times the global market price for cocoa beans.

You also support those who don’t grow cocoa. Some craft chocolate makers, like Belvie in particular, will look for farmers who will supply them with cane sugar, and they only look for the best!

As we’ve said before, organic and Fairtrade labels potentially deceive the customers. The direct trade model of craft chocolate is far more beneficial than Fairtrade for the farmers.

Farmers are benefiting from the higher price: They can afford their daily living income and continue to grow cocoa beans for better quality craft chocolate, which you can then enjoy!

What can we do?

It will take a shift in mindset. First, think about what sort of chocolate we are buying, and where the chocolate bar sources its cacao from.

Read the label on the back; does it say something about the beans’ origin and where the bar was made? Is the bar only made up of ingredients that your grandmother would know?

Savour our chocolate; it’s not a commodity! Avoid the supermarket offers and pay that little bit extra for better chocolate.

Trust in the craft chocolate makers to provide a better chocolate that what the big companies could offer.

We the consumers can control what sort of chocolate we want. The benefits to you, the farmers, and the environment are well worth that little bit extra on the wallet.

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Children in Your Chocolate

Sugar, milk, chocolate, cocoa butter, a sprinkling of additives, and… child labour?

That’s the hidden ingredient in mass-produced, commodity chocolate they don’t tell you about. That’s the secret to cheap chocolate.

Around 70% of the world’s supply of cocoa comes from two nations in West Africa: Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Whole communities in these regions are dedicated to growing this commodity crop for their livelihood: 60% of Cote d’Ivoire’s revenue comes from cocoa exports.

The cocoa here is sold to a majority of chocolate companies, including the ‘Big Five’ (Cadbury, Ferrero, Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé) that dominate the production of chocolate. As the chocolate industry grew over the years, companies raced to source cocoa for the lowest possible prices, trapping the inhabitants in a vicious cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.

Child Labour on Farms

The chocolate industry earns around $100 billion in annual profits, yet the majority of farmers don’t even see a tiny fraction of this figure.

The inequality in the supply chain is staggering; according to the Fairtrade Foundation, farmers that grow the crops only receive about 6% of the revenue, compared to 44% for retailers and 35% for manufacturers.

The average daily income per farm is approximately $2.70, an amount that has to be divided amongst all the workers. To keep their prices competitive, farmers often turn to using child labour.

Low prices in the cocoa industry have left smallholder farmers with low incomes and with no choice but to take their children out of school and have them help on the farm.

For other children, the situation is much dire.

They are kidnapped, sold into enslavement by their families, or trafficked from poorer regions like Mali and Burkina Faso. Traffickers take advantage of the poverty and economic desperation of families, enticing them with false promises of great opportunities.

A bus from Burkina Faso carrying passengers and trafficked children to Cote d’Ivoire to work on cocoa farms (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post).

These children are exploited by farmers, who force them to perform long, dangerous labour, sometimes beating and threatening those who attempt to escape.

Sweet Nothings from Big Chocolate

Back in September 2001, eight big brands including Nestlé, Mars, and Hershey signed the ‘Harkin Engel Protocol’ to eliminate the worst forms of child labour in cocoa growing.

They agreed to eradicate 70% of the worst forms of child labour by 2020; a deadline they have missed.

They also missed interim targets in 2005, 2010 and 2015, yet the large chocolate companies insist they condemn child labour, pointing to their various programs to improve the conditions of cocoa production.

Campaigners, however, say these programs have made little impact, and that it’s too little, too late.

Young children on plantations use sharp machetes to cut down plants and split cacao pods (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post).

Research from NORC (National Opinion Research Centre) at the University of Chicago in 2020 reported that 43% of all children aged between 5 and 17 in these two countries work on cocoa farms. Instead of reducing, the overall proportion of children working on farms has actually increased by 14% in the last decade.

In total, an estimated 1.56 million children are involved in hazardous work: using sharp machetes to hack open pods, carrying heavy loads, undertaking land clearing, and being exposed to agrochemical products.

Two decades after child workers became an international issue, it seems far from being solved.

Recently, the US Supreme Court ruled that Nestlé and Cargill can’t be sued for child slavery on African farms from where they buy their cocoa. Six Malian men alleged that they were trafficked to cacao farms in Cote d’Ivoire and forced to work for 12-14 a day, with no pay beyond basic food.

The court ruled 8-1 that the companies were not legally liable for what had happened because the abuse happened outside of the U.S.

‘Big Chocolate’ continues to avoid corporate accountability, perpetuating institutionalised poverty in these nations.

Raise the Bar!

What is a sweet treat for us is a bitter reality for millions of children labouring to provide these products at low prices.

For change to happen, we, as consumers, need to hold companies accountable.

We need to stop buying from companies that continue to exploit their workers.

To create great craft chocolate, makers have to work directly with farmers over the long term. They realise, and seek to persuade us consumers, that farmers need to be encouraged to grow fine beans; not just as many beans as possible for as low a price as possible.

At Cocoa Runners, we seek transparency and always tell you both about the maker and the farmer for all our bars.

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Not So Sweet: The Dark History of Chocolate

historical photograph of cocoa plantation workers

Chocolate has established itself as a staple commodity in our lives; transforming from an inaccessible, handmade luxury to an overabundant result of mass production. The worldwide commodification of chocolate and our quest for the cheapest price, however, perpetuate the problems that persist from chocolate’s colonial history over the last 500 years.

Colonial Commodities

As the process of picking and processing cacao was (and is) labour intensive, the Spanish who first ‘discovered’ chocolate used the ‘encomienda’ system in the American colonies to keep up the supply. In this system, a Spanish conquistador was granted legal rights to native labour; the labourers were protected from warring tribes and were taught Catholicism in exchange for their work.

Although the system was intended to be a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship, it was ruthlessly exploited by the Spaniards who treated the natives cruelly and forced them into hard labour.

On top of that, masses of native populations were decimated by the diseases the Europeans brought from the Old World: It is thought that up to 90% of the people’s living in Central America were killed by this route.

The Transatlanic

However, the rise of chocolate’s status to a highly coveted drink by the elite across European society in the mid-to-late 17th century led to an explosion in demand for cacao, and colonial powers dealt with the shortage of native-labour by turning to a system of slavery.

While the production of chocolate remained in Central America, the labour shifted to enslaved Africans who were brought over to America in vast numbers to work on plantations. The transatlantic trade also spread cacao from Mesoamerica throughout the New Worlds, Southeast Asia, and West and Central Africa in the 17th century as European powers sought to increase the supply of chocolate by spreading cacao plantations to their colonies.

Industrial innovations like the cocoa press and the conching machine in the 1800s made the mass production of chocolate possible. It was no longer an expensive luxury reserved for the elite, but an inexpensive drink or a bar to be consumed by everyone. Brands were built promising “affordable” luxury for everyone, and as demand rose, cacao became established as a ‘commodity crop’.

Yet, at the same time in the early 1800s, the abolition of slavery was slowly and gradually taking place. As this occurred, European powers worked to increase cacao production by moving production to places that had a similar climate to Mesoamerica with cheap labour sources.

The Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe; nicknamed the ‘Chocolate Islands’; became the biggest producer of cacao in the world during the early 1900s. Between 20,000-40,000 labourers worked on about 230 plantations on São Tomé and 3,000 on 50 plantations on Príncipe. Although slavery had been abolished, the exploitative practice of ‘indentured servitude’ continued. Workers were technically free to return to their homes at the end of their contracts, but very few were able to. The death rate was an estimated 20% per year, and wages were often held back.

It was slavery in a different packaging.

The Cadbury chocolate company, one of Britain’s main chocolate providers, was caught up in a scandal when it was discovered that they were importing about 55% of their cocoa from these islands. While presenting themselves as a company committed to Quaker principles of equality in labour and ending slavery in any form, over half of the chocolate made in their factories was made from cocoa grown in plantations using slave labour.

As a result of this, cacao cultivation for most chocolate companies shifted onto the Gold Coast (what would later become Ghana and Ivory Coast) as it was determined to have better labour conditions and higher quality cocoa.

Slavery is Still Here

Cocoa’s colonial history and commodification have had a long-lasting economic, environmental, and cultural impact on the world.

At least 70% of the world’s cacao is produced in West and Central Africa, where it makes up over half of some nations’ GDP. Even today, exploitation in the cacao industry runs rampant, with human rights abuses, structural poverty, low pay, and child labour.

In the place of imperial traders, it’s a small number of chocolate companies (The ‘Big Five’- Cadbury, Ferrero, Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé) that dominate the production of chocolate. Recent journalistic exposés have resulted in these companies acknowledging their use of child slaves, yet there is a long way to go: the U.S Supreme Court recently blocked a child slavery lawsuit against Big Chocolate.

The Case for Direct Trade and Craft Chocolate

There have been a number of initiatives and certification schemes (e.g. Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified, IMO Fair For Life) to address these issues systematically, but this only accounts for a tiny fraction of the chocolate we consume. The core issue lies in our view of chocolate as a cheap, commodity product. 

At Cocoa Runners, we want you to value your craft chocolate. We don’t want you to think about chocolate as a commodity ingredient. We want you to savour craft bars.  And we want you to think about the farmers and rainforests where the chocolate comes from.

There are a number of potential positive impacts of the craft chocolate movement that emerging research suggests. Farmers are paid fair wages for high-quality cacao that has been carefully harvested, fermented, and dried.

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Is Craft Chocolate Organic?

During our Virtual Tastings we’re often asked, “What about organic chocolate?”. It’s a great question, but answering it is complicated at best. Here’s why:

  • Craft Chocolate is all about bars that taste better, are better for you, and better for farmers and for the planet. 
  • Organic food and farming have the same aspirations. Organic certification is all about avoiding artificial chemicals and environmentally destructive practises.
  • Yet most craft chocolate isn’t organic.

As I said, it’s complicated! But let me explain, and I’ll also recommend some Craft Chocolate: some are organically certified, others are effectively organic, but all are great.

The Best Beans through Transparent Trade

You can only make the best craft chocolate when the cocoa beans are grown naturally, in the rainforests, without the harmful practices of mass production. This is where the Transparent Trade model comes in.

Original Beans’ price premiums compared to the world prices and Fairtrade and Organic premiums.

The maker works as closely as possible with the farmers and cooperatives growing their beans. They pay a premium for a long-term relationship that avoids damaging agricultural practices and harmful, artificial chemicals.

At Cocoa Runners, we only sell bars when we know both the way the bar is crafted and the source of its beans. 

We have met, mainly in person and at a minimum through video, all 100+ makers we directly purchase from. We have visited and spoken to many of the 70+ farmers and cooperatives where most of our makers source their beans. 

Indeed, we often find new craft chocolate makers thanks to many of these growers, who recommend to us other makers buying their beans.

Organic and Craft Chocolate

However, overall sales of organic chocolate is still incredibly niche — less than 0.5% of total chocolate sales and even less of world cocoa harvested. Meanwhile, organic fruit and vegetable sales in the US account for around 5% of total sales.

Almost all organic chocolate is “mass produced” to have a bland, uniform taste. It will often have added artificial flavourings like vanillin, and makers will use couverture (pre-processed chocolate) rather than making directly from the bean. 

In contrast, craft chocolate is all about coaxing different flavours out of different beans, terroirs, vintages, fermentations and working directly with the farmers.

Some of our makers are certified Organic: some of these only sell organic bars (like Original Beans and Taza) while others sell both organic and non-organic bars (like Conexion and Georgia Ramon). 

Even then, most craft chocolate makers and heirloom cocoa growers are not organic certified. The cost of organic certification is often too expensive for smaller producers, and there are many other prohibiting factors.

On the Farm…

Organic certification was originally developed for products that could be grown large-scale like bananas. But whereas bananas are largely farmed on big plantations at scale, cocoa – especially heirloom cocoa – is usually grown by farmers with less than 5 hectares of cocoa trees. 

These cocoa farmers usually lack the budget and economics to afford certification. The potential cost of organic certification is literally more than their annual income.

Some innovative ways have been found to overcome this problem of affordability and scale. In Peru, the indigenous Asháninka people have secured funding for organic certification for a large swathe of cocoa farms via the Kemito Ene and Rainforest UK NGOs. 

There are also cocoa farmers who are effectively organic, but just without the certification. The folks at Askinosie ask all the cocoa farmers they work with to sign a contract promising to adhere to “organic-like” practices, and they regularly visits the farms to oversee this. 

But they don’t force the farmers to pay for organic certification. So, while the farmers may be following organic-like practices, they are not technically certified as organic farmers.

In the Supermarkets…

Countries like Germany and Denmark (the biggest European markets for organic goods) have dedicated organic stores where customers readily support organic products. Organic certification has business benefits for local makers like Georgia Ramon and Original Beans – there are already consumers willing to buy organic chocolate. 

Organic sales in the UK still lag, however. There are few organic retailers, and the organic message is clouded by many supermarkets having their own certification schemes. The marketing strategies of big brands and retailers train consumers to expect an offer on chocolate bars, or to grab a quick snack from checkout aisles, endcaps, and vending machines.

It’s a vicious cycle for organic craft chocolate. Customers can’t find craft chocolate in the vast majority of UK organic retailers. 

Even if you do visit the organic supermarkets, you won’t find an Original Beans chocolate bar – £3.95 is “too expensive” despite winning ‘Organic Chocolate Maker of the Year’ multiple years in a row.

You can’t easily pick up and try a craft chocolate bar while shopping, and so you think that chocolate is all about added flavours and simple percentages. Customers carry on seeing chocolate as a cheap, mass-produced snack.

How can we fix this?

Craft chocolate has an ethos and set of objectives that have much in common with the organic movement.  Both strive to grow and offer products that taste better, are better for you, better for farmers and better for the planet.

But in many cases craft chocolate makers and craft chocolate farmers aren’t at a scale to afford organic certification. And the answer isn’t to try and simply “scale up”.  Nor is it to focus on yet another certification or label.

The packaging for bars already has all you need to know. Just read the label.

We need to stop regarding chocolate bars as a commodity snack where it’s all about paying the lowest price. Then we can stay true to, but also go beyond, simple organic certification. We have to go beyond the “2 for £2” offer for bars (even if they are “organic”). And if you do pay £3.95 or more for a GREAT craft chocolate bar, you really can taste the difference. More importantly, the bar will be better for you and better for the farmers and the planet.

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Chocolate’s Dark History – and the importance of Transparent, Direct Trade

Craft Chocolate provides an amazing insight into flavour and is truly one of the most “affordable” luxuries to savour.  At the same time there is a darker history to chocolate’s affordability that shouldn’t be ignored, least of all in today’s troubling times. 

By treating chocolate as a mere commodity and by buying chocolate snacks primarily off price, we are perpetuating the problems created by chocolate’s colonial and culinary history over the last 500 years. 

It’s our responsibility NOW to move away from commodity cocoa, stop focusing on paying the lowest possible price, start to pay attention to farmers’ working conditions (including child labour) and wake up to the the damage being done to the environment by “slash and burn” cocoa farming.
 
Chocolate needs to be enjoyed for the extraordinary variety of flavours, tastes and textures it can create.  We need to think of it as on a par with fine wines, speciality coffee and other artisanal products.  That way we can start to justify (marginally) higher prices for our “affordable” luxury.  We need to be transparent about what we pay cocoa farmers, and pay them enough so that they can protect our rain forests and their families. Craft Chocolate, that is directly traded with transparency, really does matter for all of us.
 

The Conquest of European Taste and Emergence of Chocolate Bars

Within a couple of decades of its presentation by Columbus to the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella, chocolate became a high status, and highly coveted, drink.  As demand in the royal and aristocratic courts grew, a crisis of supply erupted. The conquistadors brought with them diseases which killed off up to 90% of the peoples living in cocoa’s homeland of central America.  It became harder and harder to source cocoa from local farmers and so “forced labour” became the norm. During the 17th and 18th century other colonial powers, especially Portugal, England, France and the Dutch, transplanted cocoa trees to new locales to protect their cocoa supplies.  And as cocoa was grown in colonies such as Brazil, the Caribbean, the Philippines and Indonesia, forced labour (i.e. slavery) was increasingly used.

In the late 19th century, thanks to innovations like the cocoa press and conche, the world moved from drinking to eating chocolate (bars).  This move to eating chocolate vastly increased cocoa demand with a far broader consumer base.  Brands were built promising “affordable” luxury for everyone, not just the aristocracy.  Core to these brands were low price and consistent taste.  Cocoa was on it’s way to becoming a commodity ingredient and the chocolate bar a commodity product.

To supply cocoa as a ”commodity ingredient” new sources of cocoa supply were sought.  The rain forests of West Africa, starting with the tiny Portugese controlled islands of Sao Tome and Principe, proved particularly suitable for cocoa cultivation.  However again attracting workers wasn’t simple.  And despite having banned slavery, Portugese landowners developed forms of “indentured labour” (aka slavery) to provide the workforce. 

So at the same time Cadbury was developing idyllic factory villages around Bournville, over half the chocolate being made in these factories was made from cocoa grown in plantations using slave labour. And this did not go unnoticed. In 1906 Joseph Nevinson wrote a series of explosive articles about these abuses resulting in a series of disastrous court cases for Cadbury and a move to boycott all cocoa sourced from Sao Tome.

The upshot was that in the 1910s Cadburys (and most other chocolate companies) moved their sourcing to the Gold Coast (which became modern day Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire). And the “commoditization” of cocoa increased further. All the European colonial powers imposed high tariffs on manufactured products to encourage the supply of commodity crops (including cocoa) and protect their domestic chocolate makers.  Local African and South America cocoa growers and merchants could only compete on the price of commodity beans.  At the same time convoluted supply chains emerged which made it far harder to identify from where the cocoa for these chocolate makers was being sourced.   And, unsurprisingly, widespread labour abuses continued.
 

Today…

Cocoa remains a commodity like sugar, palm oil and many of the other ingredients in mass produced chocolate bars.  Mass produced chocolate brands are still all about providing a consistent taste for the lowest possible prices.  

Most cocoa (70%) comes from West Africa (Ghana, The Ivory Coast and, increasingly, Nigeria and Cameroon).  Instead of imperial traders it’s now a handful of large cocoa trading companies (Cargill, Olam, Callebaut and Mondelez) who purchase, and now increasingly process, most of this cocoa.  And their economics are all about sourcing cocoa for the lowest possible price.

Since 2000 there have been a series of “exposes” about deforestation (hats off to Mighty Earth) and child slave labour.  The likes of Tulane do an incredibly brave job researching, documenting and proving these abuses.  And there have been various attempts to stem these abuses – in particular Harkin Engel Protocol (see the blog for more).  Big Chocolate has set up various committees and promised much.  But nothing has really changed. Farmers in West Africa can’t feed their families if they earn less than $1 a day — and there will continue to be horrific abuses of children.  Millions of children are working in cocoa, and child trafficking is still in the tens of thousands. Rain forest canopy is now down to below 4% in West Africa (down from 40% less than 40 years ago).  For more on these topics, please see our blog for further reading

All too many people shrug off this issue. We support, and join, marching for the important social and environmental causes of today.  But we find it bizarre that the knapsacks of many fellow marchers are all too often contain a chocolate bar where the farmers have been paid less than $1 per day for their labour in growing the cocoa, and where this cacao has been grown by destroying the rain forest.  Big Chocolate has made us think about chocolate as “just” a commodity, and “just” an ingredient.  We don’t look beyond the label and we don’t dig deeper into our “affordable luxury”.  
 

The Case for Direct Trade and Craft Chocolate

There have been a number of initiatives and certification attempts to address these issues systematically – for example Fair Trade, Organic and Free Trade.  Sadly even combining all of these certifications accounts for a tiny fraction of the chocolate we consume.  And none really addresses the fundamental issue that we have to move away from seeing chocolate as a commodity product like palm oil where it’s all about price.  

At Cocoa Runners we want you to pay a little more for your craft chocolate. We don’t want you to think about chocolate as a commodity ingredient.  We want you to savour craft bars.  And we want you to think about the farmers and rainforests where the chocolate comes from.

Craft Chocolate is all about the flavours, textures and tastes that cocoa beans can create.  It’s the antithesis of chocolate as a commodity ingredient and vector for other flavours.  To create great craft chocolate, makers have to work directly with farmers over the long term.  They realise, and seek to persuade us consumers, that farmers need to be encouraged to grow fine beans – not just as many beans as possible for as low a price as possible.

That’s why we seek transparency and always tell you both about the maker and the farmer for all our bars.  And that is why we encourage you to check out these details, as well as the ingredients, on the bars packaging (you won’t see the source of beans on most mass produced bars, and don’t be fooled by simple statements of origin or country; what doesn’t work for fine wine, doesn’t work for proper chocolate.  Know where the beans come from and who really is making the chocolate)

One of Craft Chocolate’s great pioneers of “Direct Trade”  is Taza, founded by Kathleen Fulton and Alex Whitmore in 2005 in Somerville, Massachusetts.  Since 2011 Taza has been publishing a Transparency Report, which more and more makers are now following (Dandelion, Omnom and Marou to name a few).  These are a great example of building long term trust and transparency from consumer to grower.

Taza’s bars are also very, very different from mass produced chocolate.  They are stone ground which means they have a completely different texture to most bars.  And they’ve a unique circular shape and packaging (modelled on a “Molino”) for many of their products.

They are very distinctive.  Indeed during our Virtual Tastings (including the upcoming one with Professor Barry Smith) we warn people that Taza bars are a bit like “marmite”  – the vast majority of people love them, but a few don’t quite “get” the texture.  Any which way, they really are worth a try (or retry). And they really are a model for realising that cocoa is more than a commodity crop and chocolate bars should be much more than a commodity product.

Craft Chocolate matters for cocoa farmers, their families and for our rain forests. Please, please encourage your friends to move away from seeing chocolate as a “commodity” snack.  It’s so much more.

For references and further reading, please find out more here.