Greening the Cocoa Industry

I used to work for a conservation NGO, and there I learned to further appreciate the importance of preserving the rich biodiversity we have. I also learned how interconnected and sometimes at odds economic development is with conservation development. While practitioners in each are working more closely together now, there is still much work to be done in really collaborating with a shared vision.

Cocoa farming is an excellent example to illustrate this conflicted relationship. On one hand you have your cocoa farmers, who are concerned with getting a regular income and putting food on the table for their family. Then you have acres of rainforest that are being clear-cut, slash and burn style, to make room on large plantations for more monoculture crops. Why? Because demand is through the roof, and when faced with increased demands, the forests tend to lose, and human livelihoods tend to win. This does not have to be an either-or relationship! Conservation of trees and wildlife and sustenance of livelihoods can creatively come together and thrive.

Case in point – Rainforest Alliance co-launched the “Greening the Cocoa Industry” Initiative with UNEP and GEF in February of this year. This program is cross-continental and is working actively to help farmers “adopt practices that conserve their environment, increase their income, benefit their families and communities, and provide long-term stability for the cocoa industry.”

I encourage you to check out the link above to learn about the potential impacts of such partnerships. It makes so much sense to work with farmers to give them the tools that can enable them to become stewards of their land. Especially in the cocoa industry because the cacao tree is a crop that can grow and thrive in absolute harmony with other native species. The development of shade-grown cocoa can not only preserve the forests, it can improve livelihoods. This should be a mandated practice and  it is my hope and dream that all the large industries adopt this awareness and contribute to a more conscious-laden industry. It is in their best interest to work with the farmers to preserve their forests to ensure a sustained and quality supply of the world’s dreamiest treat. This is where you, the consumer comes in. Demand quality. Demand to know what your beans were sprayed with. Demand full-cycle knowledge and transparency so you can trace your bar back to the farmer and the tree. If you need another push, check out this ode to shade-grown cacao as a powerful way to preserve wildlife.

With RA certification, you know that the cacao in your bar was shade-grown. It was grown alongside other fruit trees, in the forest’s natural habitat. I applaud RA for providing the necessary training to farmers. They are empowering farmers to become more invested in the cacao tree. They are making it possible for the farmers to become more efficient and knowledgeable so they can increase their yield and the quality of their beans. Shade-grown cacao is generally of this higher quality. So the farmer ends up getting paid more for their higher quality yields, while preserving their natural environment, improving their health (no pesticides), and contributing to symbiotic relations between the human and the tree. There is enough deforestation occurring on a global scale already, and to cut down more habitat to grow a crop that actually grows better and tastes better if grown within a diverse habitat is just plain ridiculous.


How Fair is Fair Trade? Is Nestle’s partnership with FLA legit?

Ok, so I’ve talked about the certifications out there, and I’ve said these are a good stepping stone to knowing that there’s some level of regulation revolving around the production of a fair trade chocolate bar. But, how fair is it really?

This is really hard to discern. While you can be certain that fair trade chocolate is not made of beans that come from farms in West Africa that use child slave labor, you cannot always know or be guaranteed that the farmers who are a part of the cooperatives are receiving enough money to send their kids to school. So, in a culture where most children working on family farms is the norm, is boycotting the answer? How can we discern between trafficked children who’ve been taken away from their homes and children who are working with their families?  Fair trade does guarantee an above market price for the farmer for their cocoa beans, setting a floor price that was designed to protect small producers. With cocoa prices fluctuating, this is better than nothing and does make a difference. However, it is discouraging to learn that large companies can fluff up their image by promoting one fair trade bar amongst many non-fair trade ones, as well as using other ingredients in their chocolate bars that have a gritty value chain. Why not aim for fair practices throughout your business model?!

The fact of the matter is, we have to look beyond to the root causes, those of poverty, corruption, and lack of education. These conditions, ever present in the Ivory Coast, allow for exploitative practices to flourish. Some families have no choice but to have their children work on the farms. On top of that, taxes for cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast are extravagantly high, about 40%, and are pocketed by the government.

So what can we do? I think as consumers, all we can do is demand and purchase Fair Trade chocolate, and ask where our chocolate comes from. If we can push the big players to give us transparency, they can in turn put pressure on the governments to demand fairer labor conditions. As for who pays more, I’d say we all pay more, on a consumer level, and on an industry level.

And, it might be working…as seen in yesterday’s announcement that Nestle is now working with Fair Labor Association to investigate whether there is child labor on the farms they source their cocoa from. When I first read about this I thought…hmm, but, you’ve known, for a good 10 years at least, that’s there’s a high likelihood this is the case. Still, I advocate action on any level, and I guess, they’ve addressed the issue more than they did years ago when they were sued by the Intl. Labor Rights Fund on the issue of child trafficking on farms they sourced cocoa from. My concern however is that FLA themselves have been scrutinized for their credibility. According to FLA Watch, the organization was started by large multi-nationals in the Apparel industry and some non-profits to monitor factory conditions and accredit large companies but was not explicit in calling out unethical practices and may still not be.

I’m no expert, but I hope these efforts by Nestle and FLA are more legitimate than simply image boosting. I just don’t think a large company can overturn its practices without raising the price of its chocolate, if indeed it decides to remove itself from most of its current sourcing options. And then, how about using their massive profits to help build roads and pay the farmers more to raise their standard of living in the Ivory Coast? There have to be viable alternatives and incentives to eliminate forced child labor, and to allow farmers the opportunity to give their children a choice in where they work and what they learn.

What are your thoughts on this? If anyone knows more about certification or has ideas on how consumers can impact better business practices in this industry, please send your comments!

Giving Thanks

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving! This is one of my favorite holidays, as it revolves around some of my most loved activities- spending time with good friends and family, and indulging in delicious food and beverages. While chocolate was not on the menu yesterday, I want to give a public thanks to the cacao tree and the goodness it produces.

As I sit quietly here and let a piece of exquisite Michel Cluizel Grand Noir chocolate melt slowly in my mouth, it’s easy for me to convey why I have such a passion and respect for chocolate. This kind of chocolate, purely made, with no unnecessary additives, honors the terroir where  the cacao bean hailed from.  If you think about it, it’s quite amazing that I can smell berries and bark in a fine chocolate bar and taste such depth of flavor when all that’s in it is cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, sugar (very little), and bourbon vanilla pod. It is this recognition and knowledge (of how a cacao flower bloomed into a colorful pod that bore sweet fruit, and beans that then went through a deliberate process of fermenting, drying, roasting, shelling, milling, conching, tempering, and finally moulding, into the bar that I now am consuming), that elevates the whole act of purchasing and eating a chocolate bar.

Simplicity retains integrity and passionate artistry wields raw ingredients into complex and bold flavors that taste different to every tongue.

I feel honored to be able to taste this chocolate dance around in my mouth as the flavors develop. To me, chocolate is not a sweet kick I search for when I’m feeling low on energy or down in the dumps. It’s something I experience. With intent and appreciation. It provides this calm and pleasure that makes a bad day seem not so bad. It is pure joy when enjoyed properly, and it allows me to develop my palate and to wonder about the land and flavor profiles in each country across the equator. It’s delightful!

So I’m thankful to the chocolate makers’ who believe in showcasing a bean’s purity and in picking quality above all. I’m excited that chocolate is making its way back up to being recognized as a valuable, nuanced treat. Not only was the cocoa bean so valued in the past, as money (that did indeed grow on trees), as a cultural tradition (still today, in places like Panama), today it is slowly being revered as a superfood, and being explored in its purest form to extract unique and subtle new flavors in a way similar to that of grapes for wine-making.

As I take you through the history and origins of cacao and how to taste a bar I hope you too develop a grander appreciation for its existence.

Learn. Act. Eat.

Ok folks, I threw a lot of facts your way in the previous post and now here are some tools for you to expand your consumer knowledge and power, make your voice heard, and guide you in how to carefully select your chocolate.

The C10 class at BGI were given an assignment by a faculty member to explore the undercover world of the chocolate industry, and I have chosen some sources from there to share with you.

Learn more:

  • Watch this brief video of a BBC undercover story about a young boy who was trafficked to pick cocoa and then returned home.
  • Read this BBC story on the conflict cocoa if you currently eat bars that are sourced with cocoa from the Ivory Coast. Read this story to see how consumption of chocolate is outweighing supply and affecting prices. Is chocolate worth its weight in gold? I certainly think so.


  • Letters – I don’t wish to dictate what to write and who to write to, so use your judgment. If you are a Hershey’s fan, go dig into their practices. If you are concerned about something, let them know. I think the point here is to demand accountability and transparency so you have the ability to trace the ‘where’ and ‘how’ this chocolate came from. Traceability with the big companies is extremely difficult, and… lack of measures to trace also leads to a lack of accountability.

Here is contact info for some of the large players. Please keep in mind that all these companies have begun addressing the known issues and, there are other companies that likely could be questioned. This is just the link I came across. I’ll be reporting on these various sustainability initiatives one company at a time in future posts.

  • Consumption – What do you look for? Look for certifications, look beyond mass market chocolate. I promise you this is worthwhile. While I don’t expect you to purchase $7-12 bars like I do (although, I hope to pull some of you there), I ask you to consider the true cost of chocolate.
  • Understanding certification – these are the current labels you should look for:

FairTrade USA (the only independent, third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the U.S. and one of 20 members of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO); Rainforest Alliance (RA works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior); USDA Organic; UTZ Certified(one of the largest sustainability certifiers in the world, with a focus on improving and sustaining livelihoods for farmers).

  • So, onto guilt-free eating: there are SO many certified, delicious options! All these chocolate bars were on sale at a Safeway in Portland I went to yesterday for a very reasonable $2-$4:

Newman’s Organic, Theo, Endangered Species, Green & Black’s (now owned by Kraft, but they are FT certified), AlterEco (my favorite is their dark chocolate blackout 85%).

Enjoy these bars! And, if your grocery store does not carry these sustainable brands – ask them to. The more people that do, the more chance they will find a way to accommodate you.

Do you know where your chocolate comes from?

Before you unwrap that inexpensive chocolate you bought at the check out counter today, or prior to sipping on some hot cocoa or that sublime brownie, ask yourself where the chocolate came from, beyond the store shelf. 
As a consumer of a commodity that is rampant with exploitation, it is imperative that you connect your consumption choice to the source and understand how it was made. Remember, you vote with your dollar, through every purchase. And if chocolate is something you purchase often, I implore you to dig deeper into why you should care to know where the cocoa came from.
Here’s the quick and dirty:
  • Almost 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from just 2 countries – the Ivory Coast and Ghana (Source: WCF).
  • Up to 200,000 child slave laborers work on West African cocoa farms (Source: Intl Labor Rights Forum.) I’m not talking about children working on their family farms, but about kids, aged 8 – 14 who are trafficked from neighboring countries and brought to these farms. Kids handling machetes, breathing chemical fertilizers, working long hours, paid nothing. Their pain is our pleasure. How is this OK?
  • The companies that control the supply of cocoa from West Africa: ADM, Cargill, Barry-Callebaut, Nestle). The largest purchasers of this cocoa? Hershey’s, Mars, Cadbury’s, Kraft.
The dilemma here is that I don’t wish to see cocoa farmers in these two countries go out of business. Cocoa is their livelihood. I want them to be paid more so they don’t cut down cocoa pods that aren’t ripened yet in order to receive their wages. I want them to not have to resort to child labor because demand is so high for cheap chocolate, and this is the source for most of the world’s consumption.
 Chocolate companies are also limited in their ability to solely address  this matter  as they don’t own the cocoa farms, so it is necessary to work  with the countries’ (often corrupt) governments on how to eliminate  forced child labor and work with local communities and organizations  to improve the livelihoods of cocoa farmers. That said, the large  companies exert considerable control over prices and can push for more  ethical working conditions through their intermediaries, and, the  problem is complex. It requires sincere efforts by the governments of the  Ivory Coast to channel more funds to the farmers and to education. To  read more on slavery’s link to cocoa in the Ivory Coast, go here.
In the U.S., The  Harkin-Engel Protocol was passed in 2001 in an effort to push the industry to work together to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, in accordance with Intl Labor Organization standards. Problem is, the protocol was initially a mandate, and was fought by the industry and thus watered down to be voluntary – to date, deadlines to certify products and wean off child labor cocoa have not been met or adequately reported on. Many argue the ICI‘s efforts should be strengthened.
Being aware of the issues is a first step in deciding what chocolate company to support. There isn’t one clear solution (although one that I do promote is supporting companies that are transparent and fair). On one side, you have  Global Exchange, the ILO, and Equal Exchange advocating for more transparency and more pressure on the large cocoa companies. Then you have the World Cocoa Foundation and the International Cocoa Organization  working directly with the largest chocolate companies to address these complex issues around the sustainable production of cocoa, issues of slave labor, poverty, deforestation, and livelihoods. Change is occurring, and while I continue investigating this change, I see no other option but to contact companies to push for change, and to choose companies that are open about their value chain.
Stay tuned for a post on consumer tools for education and action.
Clifford, Cassandra. (Oct, 2011) The Child Slavery Behind Your Chocolate. The Netherlands Aid.
North, Rodney. (Sept, 2011) Child Labor in the Cocoa Industry. Equal Exchange.
Parenti, Christian. (2008) Chocolate’s Bittersweet Economy, CNN Money.
(Photo credit: Bill Zimmerman/(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) ) 

In honor of Food Day and Hawaii’s fruit

Hello lovers of good food,

I almost forgot, in the midst of a cold and mountains of work, that today is Food Day. While last week was World Food Day, today is America’s Food Day, a time to tell Congress to support sustainable, locally grown food, improve access to healthy, affordable food, cut subsidies for factory farms, and more good stuff.

There are a couple of things you can still do:

1. Tell your representative to support the Eat Real Agenda. You can view the letter here or send your own message.

2. Check out the 6 Food Day Principles to get a sense of the major issues that the Agenda seeks to address.

3. Exercise your right to buy organic, shade-grown chocolate, made of high quality beans and real health benefits and remember…the higher the bean quality, the more money the farmer receives. My recommendation for this week is a chocolate bar that is indeed grown, from pod to bar in this very country! Hawaii is the only part of the U.S. that has the right climate (areas 20 degrees north and south of the equator) to grow cacao. This weekend, I was able to check out the NW Chocolate Festival and taste this delectable little bar from Madre company: – a 70% with real passion fruit. A little on the sweet side but I love passion fruit and the flavor really comes out.

I talked to one of the makers and am glad to report they promote organic, sustainably grown cacao of the highest quality, in addition to working directly with the farmers. You can order through their site and hopefully, as they grow,and with your support, this chocolate will be soon be sold widely across the country.

Stay tuned for the story of chocolate and my series on sustainable chocolate companies. I will divulge what I learned from the Chocolate Fest this week too, including the controversies surrounding Fair Trade certification.

Blog Action Day & World Food Day – The importance of Fair Trade Chocolate #BAD11

Today is a special day! Blog Action Day has chosen the topic of FOOD to commemorate World Food Day.

It’s only fitting that I talk about my favorite food on this day – chocolate – what was once known as Food of the Gods, and what today is still considered so by me, but not by everyone. As bustling as the chocolate business is, with millions of customers anxiously tearing open their wrappers to devour that amazing brown stuff that just makes them feel sooo good, there is comparably as much disconnect between the fact that the growers who make it possible for us to access the brown stuff in edible form are not feeling so good.

What am I talking about? Unfair trade. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be eating chocolate associated with exploited labor,  unfair wages, or environmental degradation. With the chocolate industry raking in over $13 billion last year you’d think the farmers harvesting this sacred bean would be adequately compensated. Sadly, this is not the case. With over 70% of the world’s chocolate production originating from beans grown in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, there is simply not enough transparency or standards monitoring the growing process. Large companies are paying for cheap labor, producing cheap, low-quality chocolate, and making huge profits. One way in which to guarantee accountability and know the relative impact of your chocolate is through consuming Fair Trade chocolate.

Fair trade certification basically ensures farmers and laborers are paid a fair wage for what they produce. Because of this direct link between the farmer owned cooperatives and the buyers, producers can avoid cost-cutting practices that sacrifice quality and are destructive to the environment. For example, Fair Trade chocolate is typically organic and shade-grown, meaning it is grown under the canopy of the rainforest rather than in a clear cut field. Under Fair Trade certification, slave labor is prohibited, and environmental and social standards are mandated through audits and the establishment of cooperatives. The WCF says there about 5-6 million cocoa farmers. But the number of people who depend upon cocoa for their livelihoods is 40-50 million people! So, by purchasing fair trade chocolate, you can make a difference by aiding farmers to earn enough to support their families and send their children to school.

TransFair USA certifies U.S. products, and FairTrade International certifies products elsewhere. I want to note that the certification process is costly, and it’s not perfect, but it’s a start in the right direction. I will explore it more in future posts, but for now, if you’re thinking about what bar to get – here are a few Fair Trade and organic options that are available widely:

Divine – benefits cacao growers in Ghana.

Theo – the first U.S. based bean-to-bar producer of organic, fair trade chocolate.

Equal Exchange – I’m a purist, but their caramel crunch bar is pretty delicious.

Alter Eco – with the help of an independent Swiss chocolatier, these bars don’t sacrifice quality. The company sells other non-chocolate products too, pretty cool.

What is your relationship to chocolate? How does it make you feel? What is your favorite bar? For those of you who do not like chocolate, whether it’s because you don’t have a sweet tooth, or you just haven’t been introduced to the right one…I can help. I urge you to keep reading in the hopes that you will, at some point, be compelled to try the good brown stuff.

If I can’t make a chocolate lover out of you, I want to appeal to your passion for the environment, conservation, poverty alleviation, green living,  sustainable agriculture and travel. All those things have connections to the royal cacao tree.

And, if that weren’t enough…climate change is now affecting cacao production. More on that in a future post. Stay tuned for a series on the most sustainable chocolate companies out there. I will be showcasing my favorite bar from each company;)

Chocolate and sustainability….it’s everywhere!

As I delve into the origins of cacao, you will learn just how entrenched certain cultures are in cultivating these plants. You’ll also learn why if you care about the environment, your health, and fair trade, you should care about sustainable chocolate.

I will share the linkages to conservation impacts of cocoa farming in a future post, but for now, to tweak your interest, check out this partnership between a well known conservation NGO and the cocoa industry.

Interested in economics and agriculture? You might be surprised to know cocoa is big enough to have been discussed at a World Economic Forum meeting.

As for you business people out there, you already know how big the chocolate business is. You might be interested to know how the largest companies have come under increasing scrutiny over their industry’s practices, which is why they are now competing for the ever coveted “sustainable chocolate makers” title. Case in point, Kraft, and Mars.

And finally, for the foodies who love chocolate, let it be made clear: all chocolate is not made equal. If you’re curious just how legit your “chocolate/candy” bar is, know this – There is a VAST difference between chocolate- the candy bar and chocolate- the real thing.

More to come on all of the above! Do you have any burning questions you would like answered on this blog? What do you perceive to be the biggest issues in the chocolate industry today?

Welcome to Cacao for a Cause

Hello readers! I’m currently a student at Bainbridge Graduate Institute, studying sustainable business, and I am taking a fascinating class: Social Media for Social Change. The intention in this class is for us to become comfortable with our public persona, out here in the social web, and one avenue is through blogging. I am no stranger to blogging, however my past blogs (yes, I’ve had more than a couple) have not stuck. They were born on a whim and abandoned because their purpose and path was not apparent.

This blog is different, and it’s here to stay. And it’s about cacao, sustainability, and conscious consumption.

Ever wonder where that divine chocolate bar you’re eating was made? Or what the implications of munching on that Hershey’s Kiss are? Or are you simply interested to learn about the coolest new sustainable chocolate bar on the market? Whatever your relationship with my favorite food in the world, come explore this special bean’s history, health benefits, and fair food revolution. More importantly, join me in the journey to see just how big a deal cacao is in business, who it benefits, who it doesn’t, and what conscious groups are doing to make this business more equitable so you and I can enjoy our chocolate without any guilt.

With this blog, I intend to find continuity and rhythm through the promotion of sustainable indulgence. I will share my passion for chocolate, my belief that business can create positive change, and explore all the ways that the chocolate industry, a big business, can improve its practices. Cacao for a cause is one of my passions, ever since I learned about how it impacts millions of farmers across the world. There is immense potential to make chocolate lovers around the world connect with the product and join the movement for fair trade, ethical chocolate. My hope is that I can inspire love and responsibility on the consumer end for a food that is truly a gift to us. You’ll learn why it’s important to stand up to big chocolate-making companies to demand more transparency. You’ll learn how the cacao bean has evolved. You’ll learn about its many benefits. And you’ll learn how you can make a difference.

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