Cacao farming is a laborious occupation, and behind the sweet facades of large chocolate corporations is the potential for exploited labor and poor working conditions. Maricel Presilla, culinary historian and author of The New Taste of Chocolate, writes about and has dedicated her work to overcoming the “information gap” that exists between chocolate producers and consumers. She writes: “even at high levels of connoisseurship, there was an information gap—a lack of communication between those who consume and cook with chocolate and those who produce it” (Presilla 4). Through her work and the work of other chocolate scholars and socially conscious chocolate producers, consumers can become more knowledgeable about chocolate. Presilla tells her readers about the “skill and strength” required to “cleave open the [cacao] pods and disembowel them” (Presilla 108). This skill and strength are certainly required to perform the entire cacao harvest and post-harvest processes, a fact that is largely unfamiliar to the typical chocolate consumer.
A widespread movement towards ethical consumerism and ethical production has reached the chocolate industry. Here we will consider several artisanal chocolate makers who embrace the true meaning of ethical production, aiming to bridge Presilla’s information gap and practice responsible production. Presilla writes of American and European chefs that she toured through Venezuelan cacao farms: “I wanted them to see the human face of cacao farming.” Her words summarize the motivation for many artisanal chocolate makers: “The life of a plantation worker in the Third World should mean as much to the chocolate lover as that of the chef who transforms a bar of chocolate into a work of art” (Presilla 5).
Before we can consider the three artisanal chocolate companies that I would like to highlight, I must present a bit more historical background. Cote d’Ivoire produces about one third of the world’s cacao (Cocoa Market Update). In Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, Carol Off exposes the modern day slavery practices in use on cacao farms in Cote d’Ivoire. Many cacao producers receive meager pay for their cacao beans, and financial struggles inspire a need for cheap labor (Taza – Direct Trade). Off writes: “Cocoa farmers slid deeper and deeper into poverty, and they began to look for cheaper ways to produce their beans. They turned to the same old scourge that has plagued cocoa growing since its inception—slavery” (Off 118). Many artisanal chocolate companies embrace economic practices that aim to work against this institution, ensuring that their beans are sourced from ethically run cacao farms and their growers are paid sufficiently. Some even directly oversee the growing of their own cacao beans.
Indeed, ethical consumerism is a broader phenomenon that is promoting ethical production in many areas of the economy. The New Economics Foundation in partnership with The Co-operative Bank of the UK have developed an ethical purchasing index. They report that: “the findings of the first year demonstrate real consumer power. They provide firm evidence that ethical consumers have a great deal of influence over the products they buy, translating into a solid impact on market share in the measured areas” (Doane 2). Food is a particularly strong industry for impact of ethical consumerism, with chocolate being a particularly important product in this regard. The Ethical Purchasing Index report shares: “ethical food…grew at an overall rate of 24%…some areas, such as Fair Trade chocolate, banana and honey have increased five-fold (Doane 10). So, the economic data is there to support that consumer values can indeed bolster ethical production.
The chocolate companies to be highlighted are all unique in that their founders lived in a cacao producing country. Their stories share one common thread: an expatriate was inspired, when living in Central or South America, to set up a “bean-to-bar” chocolate operation (one that can directly control and account for the ethicality of its entire production and distribution pathways). The chocolate products are a result of assimilation into the local community and a respect for the land, local farmers, and cacao production in general. The craft chocolate producers discussed here are particularly special, having a direct, personal connection with cacao production lands.
Taza Chocolate is a well-known bean-to-bar chocolate factory in Somerville, Massachusetts. Its inception was inspired by a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. After traveling in Oaxaca, Taza’s founder, Alex Whitmore, returned to apprentice with a “molinero” and learn the craft of carving stones for grinding cacao (Taza – Our Story).
Taza now sources cacao beans from the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and Belize. The company takes pride in their direct relationships with farmers and agricultural cooperatives in these countries from which they purchase beans. Taza emphasizes that these direct relationships with producers allow them to ensure quality, sustainability, and good and fair working conditions (Taza – Direct Trade). Taza truly is one of the pioneers at this level of ethical production, termed Direct Trade. Fair Trade is a common certification that similarly promises good working conditions and fair pay to producers. However, producers of Fair Trade goods are still one level removed from the farmers and other people directly involved in the growing of the raw ingredients. This third party certification leaves the Fair Trade process somewhat nontransparent, and the Fair Trade process has consequently been scrutinized for not truly bringing higher wages to the lowest level of workers and also failing to promote quality production. Direct Trade means that Taza communicates and negotiates directly with cacao producers, trading higher wages for higher quality cacao beans. They publish transparency reports detailing their community visits and financials. Taza asserts that this model provides “[their] producers with economic security and flexibility necessary to conserve natural resources and protect the rights of workers” (Taza – Direct Trade). This impressive example of ethical production was inspired by a trip to cacao producing lands. Alex Whitmore witnessed cacao production first hand and was empowered with the wherewithal to combat the immoralities he found with current practices of the chocolate industry.
Chocolate companies that grow their own cacao beans may go one step beyond the Taza Direct Trade model. French Broad Chocolates in Asheville North Carolina has an interesting story.
An American couple, Dan and Jael Rattigan, left their life in the American Midwest behind to move to Costa Rica where they opened Bread & Chocolate.
While there, in 2004, they also purchased an abandoned cacao farm. Today, they are back in the United States running French Broad Chocolates and awaiting their first harvest from their Costa Rican cacao farm (French Broad Chocolates – Our Story). They operate on a direct trade model, much like Taza, sourcing cacao beans directly from farmers in Peru, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua (French Broad Chocolates – Our Cacao Farm Partners). They also have their own cacao farm that they have been working to rehabilitate.
This perhaps is the epitome of a bean-to-bar operation. David “Mott” Green, who I will introduce shortly, termed this “tree-to-bar” chocolate production. French Broad Chocolates also makes a point to source many of their ingredients locally and through direct trade. Their thoughts summarize well the benefits of direct trade: “we can encourage farming methods that will improve the value of [the farmers’] products, increasing their profitability while procuring a better ingredient for our operation” (French Broad Chocolates – Our Manifesto). In addition to cacao beans, they source hazelnuts, pistachios, butter, cream, maple syrup, lavender, fruits, and berries directly (French Broad Chocolates – Our Manifesto). The restaurant is also certified organic and certified green (For example, Dan and Jael heat their water with solar energy and promote other environmentally responsible practices like providing discounts to cyclists) (French Broad Chocolates – Sustainability). This company is another example of Americans inspired while living in a cacao producing land. Dan and Jael Rattigan actually lived in Costa Rica for about a year and build a chocolate business there, including their very own small cacao farm.
David “Mott” Green took bean-to-bar chocolate to the very extreme, living and working on his cacao farm and chocolate factory in Grenada, the Grenada Chocolate Company (see video at the beginning of this post!).
After dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, frustrated by a “corrupt social structure,” he moved to Hermitage, Grenada and quickly became a “folk hero to the local Grenadians” (Yardley, Making Chocolate in Grenada). He worked with local cacao farmers in addition to producing his own beans. In a New York Times article about his unfortunate death, journalist William Yardley wrote that all Green’s farmers and factory employees earned the same salary as (“and probably more than”) himself. He received the State Department Secretary’s Award for Corporate Excellence among big corporate names like Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, and General Motors. He also established an incredible distribution model, using sail-powered ships to transport his chocolate internationally. In Amsterdam, volunteer cyclists distributed his bars. He termed his distribution model “the first carbon-neutral trans-Atlantic mass chocolate delivery.” Yardley supposed the Green created the only “chocolate-making company in a cocoa-producing country” (Yardley). The Grenada Chocolate Company truly is the epitome of direct sourcing and responsible production on all fronts.
Mott Green is a pretty extreme example of an expatriate setting up a sustainable and responsible chocolate business as the result of international travel. He rooted himself in Grenada and developed a complete chocolate manufacture process from tree to bar in Grenada. His work, in addition to that of companies like French Broad Chocolates and Taza Chocolate, actively work against exploitative labor practices in cacao producing regions (typically existing in the form of child labor). A survey by Tulane University, conducted in 2009, found that a quarter of all children in cacao growing regions of Cote d’Ivoire had worked on a cacao farm (Yardley). The problems of child labor, inadequate wages for farmers and lack of an appropriate incentive structure to produce quality cacao are being combatted by the direct trading advocated by the companies considered here. They indeed go steps beyond and work to protect the environment and bolster cacao-producing communities.
“Cocoa Market Update.” Worldcocoafoundation.org. World Cocoa Foundation, 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 4 May 2015.
Doane, Debra. Taking Flight: The Rapid Growth of Ethical Consumerism, The Ethical Purchasing Index 2001 New Economics Foundation, Oct. 2001. Web. 4 May 2015.
Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New, 2008. Print.
“Our Cacao Farm Partners.” French Broad Chocolates. Web. 04 May 2015.
“Our Manifesto.” French Broad Chocolates. Web. 04 May 2015.
“Our Story.” French Broad Chocolates. Web. 04 May 2015.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.
“Sustainability.” French Broad Chocolates. Web. 04 May 2015.
“Taza Chocolate Direct Trade Certified Cacao.” Taza Direct Trade. Web. 04 May 2015.
“The Taza Chocolate Story.” Taza Our Story. Web. 04 May 2015.
Yardley, William. “Mott Green, a Free-Spirited Chocolatier, Dies at 47.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 June 2013. Web. 04 May 2015.
“Making Chocolate in Grenada.” YouTube. Reserve Channel, EX-PATS Episode 8, 7 Mar. 2013. Web. 04 May 2015.
Bhavnani, Kum-Kum. “Nothing Like Chocolate Trailer.” Vimeo. 2014 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, 31 Jan. 2014. Web. 04 May 2015.
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