Which chocolate is considered sustainable?
There are certain products that, thanks to revelations about the exploitative nature of their production when it comes to people and/or natural resources, you might think twice about buying (we’re looking at you, avocados). It’s a bit harder – understatement! – when the decision involves chocolate, but the good news is you can buy your favourite treat with a clear conscience.
The challenge is seeing beyond the marketing hype and judging which brands are ethically best to buy – whether it’s for a gift, a sweet-treat snack or to bake with. As Ayn Riggs, founder of the advocacy organisation Slave Free Chocolate, suggests, “We vote with our purchases,” so you do have the power to bring about change.
First of all, what is chocolate?
It comes from the small evergreen tree Theobroma cacao, which grows in the Tropics. Cacao farmers harvest the fruit pods, then ferment and dry the seeds and flesh inside. These dried seeds are shipped to chocolate makers, who crack them into nibs, roast the beans and grind them into a flowing mass. Sugar and any additional cacao butter are added. The chocolate is then tempered, packaged and sold.
So chocolate is just cacao and sugar?
Well, no. It’s most likely you’ll see common emulsifiers on the label, such as soy lecithin, or artificial flavours like vanillin. The red-flag additives to look out for, though, are unspecific ‘vegetable fats’. Many industrial chocolate makers cut costs by replacing cocoa butter with palm oil or its derivatives: a huge hit to the bar’s quality and taste, as well as devastating in terms of palm oil’s negative environmental impacts.
Craft chocolate makers are proud of the undiluted taste of their ethically sourced chocolate. “You won’t buy an ethically good bar of chocolate twice if you haven’t enjoyed it,” says Duffy Sheardown, who’s Lancashire-based handmade chocolate brand Duffy’s is a pioneer of ethical sourcing in the UK. “The main reason to enjoy craft chocolate is to appreciate the wide range of flavours. The flavour and quality come from the beans – all we do is to try not to ruin them.”
Read the label (see below for what to avoid). And remember this: if a bar of chocolate seems cheap, it’s the planet that’s bearing that cost.
Why is the chocolate industry dodgy, sustainability-wise?
Because chocolate is an agricultural commodity, every step of the cacao-growing process has ecological ramifications. Decisions like whether to grow the cacao tree from seed or from grafts; whether to intercrop cacao plants with other tropical trees or grow them in open plantation fields; whether to grow heirloom tree varietals or more productive, pest-resistant hybrids – all these have sustainability impacts.
As a consumer, it’s obviously not viable to track down information about individual chocolate plantations, but it makes a difference if you support small growers and craft makers who are making decisions with sustainability in mind. When you think about protecting biodiversity and preventing habitat loss as part of what you’re paying for, £7 for a 70g bar of craft chocolate seems fair.
Chocolate is an agricultural product, so it’s important to pay attention to how it’s grown and be prepared to pay for the whole process.
What about the people who grow the chocolate?
Unfortunately, when you take the social and cultural elements of sustainability into account, chocolate fares even worse. Seventy per cent of the world’s cacao is produced in West Africa and, according to the Rainforest Alliance, about 87% of cocoa-growing households in Côte d’Ivoire earn below a living income. Widespread poverty is just the tip of the iceberg. The West African chocolate industry is fuelled by human rights abuses. A 2011 Tulane University study reported that over two million children were engaged in cacao farming in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, many of them kidnapped or sold into slavery by their parents.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. By choosing the right chocolate, says Ayn Riggs, “you can reward the many small chocolate companies that are making chocolate using cocoa that isn’t tied to slavery”. Slave Free Chocolate has a buying guide for brands that are actively fighting child enslavement in chocolate-growing regions. In general, though, buying from smaller producers is a good start. Craft chocolate makers proudly support their farmers. “Almost all the bars we make are made using directly traded beans,” explains Duffy Sheardown, “so every award we’ve won is due to the work of the farmers we work with directly.”
Buying slave-free, child-labour-free chocolate is the best way to combat human rights abuses. Do your research and shop for the shortest possible supply chain.
Can I trust the regulation certification I see on the packs?
To an extent, yes – but there are serious limitations. Fair Trade certification is the biggest and best-known certification for cacao beans, but Riggs and many other chocolate activists don’t put much stock in the label. The certification is expensive, far too costly for most small-scale producers.
Another independent certification is B-Corp, a corporate audit that looks at an organisation’s social and environmental impacts. Tony’s Chocolonely and Valrhona both carry the B-Corp logo – a positive as they’re widely available and relatively affordable brands. The B-Corp assessment only goes as far as the labour practices in Europe, though, not on the chocolate farms themselves – so this logo only tells half the story.
The Rainforest Alliance focuses on environmental factors and only offers a limited view. The Washington Post reported in 2019 that UTZ, then the largest certifying agency of cacao worldwide and now part of the Rainforest Alliance, “certified farms in Ivory Coast that were more likely than other farms to have child labourers, with children putting in more work deemed dangerous, such as working with machetes and insecticides”.
Sadly, all these ethical promises on the label fall short of true transparency. Ayn Riggs puts a finer point on it: “When every chocolate company claims its product is free from child labour and slavery but we know the number of exploited children is actually increasing, who, then, is the culprit? Obviously someone is lying.”
Labelling schemes are a great place to start, but in practice they don’t ensure fair wages or fair working conditions on cacao plantations.
What’s ‘direct trade’?
Broadly speaking, direct trade foregrounds long-term relationship-building between makers and growers. This way of working focuses on setting above-market commodity rates, but there’s no real, legal designation. Chocolate makers that use the direct-trade model, such as Willie’s Cacao in Devon and Pump St in Suffolk, are obsessive about transparency, publishing annual reports on their websites and getting third-party audits to ensure they’re doing things above board.
Direct trade also often means that chocolate makers work with communities to develop new initiatives aimed at mutual benefit, like building schools or wells, doing profit-sharing or other forms of mutual accountability. Divine Chocolate, for example, pioneered a co-ownership model with the Ghanaian Kuapa Kokoo Farmers’ Union. Two Kuapa Kokoo members sit on Divine’s board, meaning the union not only has a stake in the dividends but also in the institutions’ leadership.
So, what’s the good news for the chocolate industry?
It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s never been a better time for craft chocolate than right now. You can find smaller producers who champion their growers, source directly and offer transparency almost everywhere.
Chocolate has the potential not only to be enjoyed sustainably but also to be a force for good. Willie’s Cacao sources the chocolate for its hot cocoa mix from an NGO in Medellin, Colombia. This organisation, Cacao for Peace, promotes economic and social stability in the region by helping farmers transition from growing coca leaves (used to make cocaine) to cacao.
Cacao plantations have long and painful histories – for centuries slaves and indentured labourers were the ones farming, harvesting and fermenting. The small island of Sao Tome, off the coast of West Africa, was a major producer of sugar and chocolate as a colony of Portugal. Now, Sao Tome is home to the cacao farmers’ cooperative CECAQ-11, whose beans are used in Divine’s organic chocolate.
The cooperative is over 1,000 farmers strong and growing, ensuring them fair compensation and steady, stable markets. Member farmer Hortência Pina sees the cooperative as a way to move forward: “My trees are getting old and I’m able to replace them with new ones that are more productive.” Now is the time for change. It’s incredible to think how much impact a small treat can have on so many people and our planet.
We are in the middle of a craft chocolate renaissance – if you want to buy ethically produced chocolate, you’ve have never had so many excellent and sustainable options!
What the labelling means
Ethical cocoa On its own, this is just advertising copy. Look closely at the brands’ sourcing to substantiate these claims.
Bean to bar This originally meant a chocolate maker was importing cacao beans to make its chocolate bars, rather than buying industrially produced cacao mass from a third party. Now, the term’s use is broader. Chocolate makers who are sourcing more directly sometimes use phrases such as ‘tree to bar’ or ‘farm to bar’.
Single origin The beans used to make this bar all came from one country or growing region. If a specific country isn’t listed, the chocolate is probably bought in a larger shipment as a pre-made commodity.
Single estate The beans used to make this bar came from a single plantation. As a rule, the more transparency the better. Choose brands that proudly list the names of specific growing regions, plantations – or even farmers.
Raw This isn’t actually a marker of sustainability or quality. It just means the chocolate hasn’t been roasted – which many consider a key part of chocolate making, as it opens up many flavour compounds.
Find out more at Slave Free Chocolate and Cocoa Runners.