Is fine chocolate ethical?

We were recently asked by a customer "if the cocoa used in your products is from ethical sources?" This question was prompted by recent BBC reports about child slave labour in Ivory Coast. If you’ve been following these concerns in the news or in Steve Chung’s Hot Chocolate column in our Club magazine, you may also be aware of the Harkin-Engel agreement of 2001. This set out engage the whole industry in eradicating the use child labour, but has unfortunately made little progress.

Like many issues in the food industry, the answer to the question raised by our customer is not as straightforward as we’d all like.There is one distinction we can make though. All the child slave labour reports that we have heard of relate to west Africa, where 60% of the world’s cacao is grown.This is also where most of the bulk cacao that goes into industrial chocolate comes from. It’s almost impossible to make the best chocolate from these beans.

Most fine chocolate comes from beans from the native growing countries in South or Central America, of from South East Asia or Madagascar. The price of ‘fine’ beans can be up to 4 times the price of the bulk beans grown in Africa, and these more traditional plantations usually grow cacao in a more sustainable way, replicating the natural environment for cacao as a tropical forest shade tree. Labour conditions may not be perfect, but are a world away from those in Ivory Coast.

Unfortunately ‘Fair Trade’ does not help the farmers of fine beans very much, as it guarantees a price above the international trading price that is not related to quality, and is often several times lower than these farmers local market price. (A market price that does not, however, make these farmers rich in the context of their local economy.) Several parties have also expressed concerns about the cost of Fair Trade certification and possible abuse of that system (e.g. alleged trading of certificates or fulfilling allowed quoters from non Fair Trade sources).

Fair Trade is not an easy system to police, but even where Fair Trade is helping, it still only accounts for a few pence of retail the price of a chocolate bar (and where the sugar part of the bar may or may not also be Fair Trade). This is where projects such as Divine chocolate present a fairer alternative – the farmers of the Kuapa Kokoo cocoa cooperative have a stake in the company.Or taking things a step further, Malagasy aims to return more wealth to the country of origin (Madagascar) by actually producing the finished product in the country of origin – this is called Equitrade (although there are no specific labour guarantees there). Another example of chocolate produced by cooperative in a growing country is the Grenada Chocolate Company.

Meanwhile fine chocolate makers such as Amedei are helping the villagers in the Chuao cooperative to improve their life considerably,and the fact that many of the fine chocolate ‘bean to bar’ producers specifically use beans from a single plantation makes the production chain much more accountable and traceable.

So in general, fine chocolate is much less likely to be ‘unethical’ than bulk chocolate. There are very few guarantees either way though,whatever stamps may appear on a bar’s packaging. The only real way to tell is to look beyond the label at the real source of the beans and the philosophy and approach of the companies behind these products. This is one of our aims, and a guiding principle of the Academy of Chocolate.

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