Ethical chocolate?

Online Guardian readers might have noticed this piece in Friday’s edition Top 10 ethical British chocolates (Guardian Unlimited, September 28 2007). While it’s good to see some critical balance in this piece and not just an assumption that everything ‘ethical’ must taste good, it does seem like some of these brands have done a very good job at getting over a marketing message that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Firstly, I should point out that none of the chocolate used to make these products is made in the UK, and quite a few of the bars are not even moulded or packed in the UK. So ‘British’ in this case refers to the brand and perhaps the confectionery factory, but not where the chocolate is actually made.

I have to repeat here again our oft-repeated mantra that ‘NO ONE IN THE UK IS MAKING FINE CHOCOLATE DIRECTLY FROM CACAO BEANS‘. Some of the big confectionery giants might still be making chocolate from the bean for newsagent ‘candy’ type products, but even that is rapidly reducing.

Also on a side note, the Guardian online front page on the day of publication is billing this as a piece about ‘Eco chocolate’, which is very misleading. Although there may be ecological aspects to organic and fair trade, this is not the focus of the piece and in many cases the chocolate used comes from industrially farmed beans. There’s no suggestion here that the cacao is grown in a sustainable manner in a rain forest environment.

Then there’s the idea of ‘ethical’ chocolate. It’s becoming clear, as we find out more about the cacao industry that the concepts of Fair Trade or Organic are just not reliable when it comes to developing world commodities like cacao.

Organic and Fair Trade doubts 

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m a huge fan of organic food, and I certainly don’t want my pleasure in chocolate to come at the expense of someone else’s suffering. If we’re talking about a milk farm in Northamptonshire producing organic cheese, that’s very easy to police. But when we’re talking about cacao farms that may not even have clear boundaries and it seems an often corrupt chain of traders and middlemen things are much less clear.

Organic and Fair Trade commodities are about certification, not necessarily growing techniques or social welfare. A lot of traditionally farmed cacao is produced ‘organically’ by default – the farmers just wouldn’t be able to afford pesticides. Neither can they afford the expensive certification necessary to meet Western organic standards.

Fair Trade guarantees a price over the standard New York exchange price, but this can still be several times lower than the price farmers in say, Venezuela can expect for their beans, which may still leave them poor in the context of their economy. We’ve also heard too many rumours of illegal trading of Fair Trade certificates and of funds being creamed off by middlemen and not reaching farmers to accept the concept of Fair Trade chocolate without raising a question.

Truth, lies and cacao beans 

Our suspicion is that these consumer friendly labels are hitting a guilt button and using this as a very successful marketing tool, while perhaps not actually benefiting either consumers or the cacao growers. Even if a retail bar is Fair Trade, only a few pence of its retail value accounts for the actual cost of the cacao beans. Add to this the fact that no one has yet produced an organic or Fair Trade chocolate that tastes anything like as good as the best fine chocolate, then what, exactly, is the consumer buying into?

Transparency seems to us the only solution. If you know exactly from which plantation the beans used in your chocolate comes from, then it’s much easier for the public or journalists to uncover social or ecological problems.

To make the best chocolate, you must know how the beans are grown and handled. This can only be achieved through direct contact with plantations and farmers, so companies like Amedei, Domori, Michel Cluizel and Valrhona are the ones we should look to for quality, purity, sustainability and social awareness, as they all own plantations or have very close relations with their growers. Only the first three of the brands mentioned in the Guardian feature can make any such claim.

So let’s go through the brands one by one and uncover some home truths. If this seems a little harsh on companies who may appear to be ‘doing the right thing’, this is because we care about honesty and truth in the chocolate world. And we prefer to offer our support to the companies who are making real attempts to produce chocolate that is both the best possible quality and who support their farmers. (The first is not possible without the second.)

1. Green & Black’s

Noble beginnings, but there’s a fundamental truth that it’s just not possible to make very good chocolate on a large scale, and as G&B have grown, it does seem like the quality has dropped. We believe the cacao comes from various sources these days, and if you haven’t checked the back of a bar recently, it’s made in Italy. In a big industrial factory.

2. Malagasy

Not totally unbiased here, as Seventypercent advised on the creation of Malagasy chocolate. The point is that about 27% of the retail value gets back to Madagascar, not around 3% if it was just Fair Trade beans. There’s no social welfare guarantees here, and profits may well end up going to Madagascar’s commercial elite. Not perfect, but no one questions this when goods are going in the other direction. At least they actually make their own chocolate, in their own factory. The only company on this list that does.

3. Divine

Because of the structure of Divine, where the cooperative that supplies the beans owns part of the retail company, Divine goes one step further than most Fair Trade chocolate. They have a definite source of beans and Kuapa Kokoo should receive some of the profits as well as a better price of beans.

Concerns are that a ‘cooperative’ is not one single unit and we’d like to see more access to Kuapa’s farms and more visits from journalists to be really sure that the benefits are being shared and all the participants are getting a good deal.

Made in Germany and the dark is very German in style. Divine are focussed on profits (for good reasons), but we do believe they could make a better chocolate if they chose to. (How about a premium bar, or introduce some better varieties?)

4. Booja Booja

Quirky British branding, interestingly Vegan. The chocolate, though, is all Callebaut, a name we’ll see popping up a lot as we go down this list. They are one of the biggest producers of ‘higher end’ chocolate and provide the chocolate behind many a high street brand. Thorntons, Godiva, Charbonnel and every ‘Belgian’ chocolatier you can think of – the list is too depressingly long to think of.

Booja Booja’s "organic-certified chocolate cornucopia" may be made in Norfolk, but the chocolate is not. It arrives in the Booja Booja factory (if they have one) in big bags of buttons, and – remembering our mantra – is not made in the UK.

5. Chocolala

This one’s new to us. Again, the ingredients may be sourced locally, but not the chocolate. There are only a few producers in the world who can make Fair Trade chocolate, so the choices are limited. We’ll need a taste to decide which one it is.

6. Montezuma’s

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7.  Duchy Originals

Duchy were given some very good advice about where to source fine quality chocolate when they started their chocolate range.

They decided to ignore this and their milk is Belcolade and the dark Callebaut. Or the other way round, I can never remember. There’s a reason why the chocolate tastes generic, it is! A let down really for Duchy, and as I see it a fairly cynical use of the brand, even if the profits are charitable.

8. Organica

Fairly new brand, we got to try their products quite recently. Just that though, a brand. You’ll notice the white plastic ‘eco’ inner wrapping when you open the chocolate. You’ll notice this as well when you open most other Fair Trade bars, apart from Divine and the supermarket brands. This is because it’s all made in the same factory, by the same company, in Switzerland, not in the UK. Good news about the monkey donation, but you could just make that anyway.

9. Blakes

Doesn’t really matter that an Irish company is in this list, because as we’ve already pointed out NO ONE MAKES FINE CHOCOLATE FROM THE BEAN IN THE UK. Sorry to shout that again! There’s none made in Ireland either. As the chocolate is both Fair Trade and organic, this narrows down the source to a couple of industrials. Big deal that there’s no lecithin, I’m sure it came like that.

10. Traidcraft

Fair play to Traidcraft for being first, but this is essentially the same chocolate as Organica and many others, with slight recipe variations. Again, worthily charitable.

5 Comments

  1. jasonbstanding September 28, 2007

    Fairly cynically, but probably quite accurately, Tim Harford points out that most of the time “Fairtrade” is used more as a means of identifying customers who will pay more for an item if given a reason than people who aren’t that worried and want to save a few pence. Given that these bars seem to come from the same source suppliers and the rest is just marketing, it seems obvious that this is – yet again – what’s going on.

    The Undercover Economist is an excellent read, by the way.

  2. Juliet Bennett August 23, 2010

    Hey, great blog btw.

    I’m a big Lindt fan, and I’m just wondering if you have an opinion on them, and their practices? My correspondence with Lindt makes me think they are okay: http://www.julietbennett.com/2010/08/18/correction-lindt-didnt-lie-we-can-eat-lindt-chocolate-in-peace/

    Slave trade is only happening in the Ivory Coast isn’t it?

  3. ollie August 27, 2010

    What’s up with this:

    “6. Montezuma’s

    This item has been removed.”

  4. ollie August 27, 2010

    oh yea, and don’t domori and The Chocolate Society make excellent organic chocolate, even according to your own reviewers? (e.g. Domori Chacao Absolute)

    this feature is overall worthwhile, but it does smack a little of ‘looking for the negative’

  5. Martin Christy August 27, 2010

    Hi Ollie,

    Re Montezuma’s, they got all legal on us and threatened to take action for writing about them in the context of this post. You can draw your own conclusions about a company that feels the need to do that kind of thing. As we don’t have a legal defence budget, it was easier to remove the paragraph and move onto writing about other companies.

    A lot has changed since that Guardian article. Firstly we do now have two bean to bar fine chocolate makers in the UK (Willie Harcourt-Cooze – http://www.williescacao.com and Duffy Sheardown – http://www.redstarchocolate.co.uk).

    We also now have a lot of better organic and some of the single origins that have been around are finally trumpeting their certification – like Michel Cluizel’s Los Anconès, which is now ‘organic’. It’s great that their are now some real organic ‘fine’ bars, but they are tiny fraction of the whole market.

    At the same time, there is even more generic, industrial, ‘value added’ organic around and I think the core message of this post still applies – the only way you can be truly sure about the ethical quality of a chocolate your eating is to know where the cacao has come from. Generic brands with lots of marketing,romanticism and ‘worthy’ certifications are not the way to go, in my opinion.

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