Cocoa Beans to Better Society: Fair Trade vs. Direct Trade Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Companies

Cocoa bean products have evolved in countless ways throughout time. From drinkable chocolate beverages of the Ancient Maya and Aztec in modern-day Central America, to a worldwide audience of chocolate bar lovers, chocolate is nearly ubiquitous. The market for chocolate is extremely large and growing, with a projected $98.3 billion dollars in global sales for 2016 (MarketsandMarkets). The sweet confections serve as crowd pleasers for both children and adults alike. While many enjoy the chocolate products presented on shelves in the super market, far fewer are truly aware of the origins of the cocoa beans that they consume. In an effort to reduce the poor treatment of cocoa farmers, the Fair Trade movement took off, presented on the labels of bean-to-bar chocolate companies such as Theo Chocolate, but this effort does not necessarily help farmers as it is intended to, leaving other companies, such as Askinosie Chocolate, to pursue the direct trade approach.

Although many consider slavery to be a part of history, enslavement is still rampant and very much an issue today (Abbott 3). The Ivory Coast is home to forty-three percent of the world’s cocoa bean supply (Raghavan). Small cocoa farms are scattered throughout the West African country, providing many with labor opportunities (Raghavan). The truth about these small operations is that in some cases those working to harvest the cacao pods are young men who were either sold or tricked into slavery (Raghavan). According to a 1998 UNICEF report, many of the enslaved children used by Ivory Coast farmers come from the poorer neighboring countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo (Raghavan). These child slaves were often poached from bus stops, where they were promised riches once they arrived in the Ivory Coast (Ryan 44). While many men utilized the child labor and slavery to their advantage and profit, others were silenced in their attempts to reveal the unsavory practices (Off 119). During the 1990’s, Abdoulye Macko, who has since been recalled from his position as Malian consul general in the Ivory Coast, began to hear stories of child enslavement (Off 119). Under Macko, Malian men disguised as cocoa bean transporters reported seeing local boys worked at gunpoint (Off 121). These undercover investigators also revealed that the children were kept in unfit living conditions. The boys were worked to death, received little food, slept in locked bunkhouses, were beaten and had sores on their bodies (Off 121)(Ryan 44). In one particular instance, Macko came across a boy who had been left for dead in the middle of a field, sick and exhausted, covered by a pile of leaves (Off 124). Eventually, Macko liberated a portion of the children, but could not save them all (Off 124).

This image shows a child working with cocoa beans. Images like these represent the thousands of children forced to work without pay on cocoa farms in West Africa today.

Due to the issues with the treatment of farmers that have come to light, and continue to do so, a new wave of companies has entered the chocolate industry. These companies choose to market their brand in a way that makes known to the consumer that those involved in producing their cocoa beans receive fair compensation for their work and also enjoy a high standard of living, designated by a Fair Trade label (Abbott 3). According to Fair Trade USA, they “seek to empower family farmers and workers around the world, while enriching the lives of those struggling in poverty” (“Mission/Values”). The organization claims to carry out its mission by utilizing “direct equitable trade” which in turn helps families “eat better, keep their kids in school, improve health and housing and invest in the future”(“Mission/Values”). However, the Fair Trade movement has come under scrutiny for the lack of data showing how Fair Trade practices positively impact farmers (Haight). Additionally, companies have begun to use the Fair Trade labeling as a ploy to expand their consumer base and their profits. In other words, the conscientious consumer will most likely purchase foods labeled Fair Trade, rather than those without the label, thus encouraging companies to place Fair Trade labels on products that only contain a small fraction of Fair Trade ingredients (Rosenthal). This “halo-effect” prevents the consumer from gaining a true grasp on whether or not a company is dedicated to alternative trade and the betterment of rural producers’ living conditions (Rosenthal). Another issue with the Fair Trade movement is the fact that the premiums paid by consumers do not go directly to the hands of the individual farmers themselves (Haight). Instead these extra dollars are funneled into the cooperatives that the farmers belong to (Haight). Within the collective, “farmers vote on how the premium is to be spent for collective use” (Haight). Moreover, the poorest farmers are generally migrant workers who do not own land, cannot join a cooperative and may lose business. Finally, cooperatives must pay large fees to become Fair Trade certified (Haight).

Fair Trade certifications have been expanding throughout recent years, leading many to question the real meaning behind the symbol. Companies realize both the ethical and profit potential of using Fair Trade cocoa beans. Consumers with a desire to make clear conscience choices are more likely to purchase expensive Fair Trade brands, giving these companies a chance to gain profit while also making a difference.

Theo Chocolate endeavors to incorporate ethics into their cocoa bean purchases by following the Fair Trade guidelines. The mission of Theo Chocolate is to, “make the world a better place” by “bringing out the best in the cocoa bean” by understanding the connection between the “cacao farmer in the Congo” and “the chocolate lover in Philadelphia” (Theo Chocolate). Theo Chocolate vaguely outlines how Fair Trade works in practice on their website, stating that a certification ensures that, “producers have been paid a price that enables positive economic growth for the individual and the region” (Theo Chocolate). The company does not address the issues many have with Fair Trade foods, but instead takes great care to present their product as a healthy option by stating the high amount of antioxidants within the bar as well as the potential for dark chocolate to combat high blood pressure, inhibit inflammation and increase blood flow to the brain (Theo Chocolate). They also publicize the organic and non-GMO nature of their chocolate as a way to tap into the segment of consumers who choose not to eat foods grown with “synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers” or genetically modified organisms (Theo Chocolate).

Theo Chocolate bars feature a delicate drip of chocolate covering the additional ingredients in their products. This simplistic imagery adds to Theo Chocolate’s commitment to producing a pure product.

Askinosie Chocolate also strives to improve the lives of rural cocoa bean farmers with their products, but does so in a manner different from Theo Chocolate. On the Askinosie website, the company’s mission is to, “craft exceptional chocolate while serving our farmers, customers, our neighborhood, and one another, striving in all we do to leave whatever part of the world we touch better for the encounter” (Askinosie Chocolate). Essentially the company seeks a balance between creating delicious chocolate products and helping to improve the current state of the world. The company claims to do this by participating in direct trade practices, allowing for face-to-face encounters between Askinosie and each individual farmer who grows their cocoa beans (Askinosie Chocolate). According to Askinosie, direct trade results in superior products than Fair Trade for many reasons. First, the farmers that the company employs are held to the high quality standards of Askinosie, rather than a middleman, or broker (Askinosie Chocolate). Secondly, the origins of the cocoa beans are 100 percent traceable, as each farmer is held responsible for their supply (Askinosie Chocolate). Lastly, the farmers receive significantly higher compensation as compared to Fair Trade prices because there is no middleman receiving a cut and Askinosie pays far higher per-ton than standard Fair Trade companies (Askinosie Chocolate). Due to the close relationship the company develops with their producers, these individual farmers are even aided in creating their first bank accounts and are provided with Askinosie’s financial statements, in the farmer’s own language, so as to understand where their profits come from (Askinosie Chocolate).

Askinosie Chocolate bars feature pictures of individuals who grow their cacao. This gives consumers the ability to easily imagine the faces of the farmers that receive their money in return for their crop.

Askinosie and Theo Chocolate take pride in the origin of their respective products and also their bean-to-bar chocolate making processes. The Askinosie beans come from Davao, Philippines, Mababu, Tanzania, Cortés, Honduras and San Jose Del Tambo, Ecuador and each have their own rich history (Askinosie Chocolate). On the other hand, Theo Chocolate imports cocoa beans from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Ecuador (Theo Chocolate). Askinosie Chocolate features each step of their “70-Step Process” on their website while Theo Chocolate outlines in detail the five steps the beans go through once they enter their factory (Theo Chocolate)(Askinosie Chocolate). The packaging on Askinosie chocolate bars features photos of the farmers themselves, along with a description of where they are from. This helps to create a feeling of intimacy between the consumer and the producer, while also presenting a face and reason for the high mark-ups of the bars, when compared to the relative low prices of Hershey’s and Mars bars (Askinosie Chocolate). Alternatively, Theo Chocolate utilizes simple packaging with a colorful font and an image of the fresh ingredients to come inside the wrapper. This gives the consumer a taste of what to expect and serves as a signal for the quality of the candy bar, while providing a reason for the higher prices compared to other candy bars (Theo Chocolate).

While both companies do well to follow their mission and create a world with ethical methods of production and a higher standard of living for those in poverty, they may not be meeting this goal to the same degree of success. Askinosie Chocolate provides a great deal of information to the consumer about how direct trade positively impacts the lives of farmers at the micro level while Theo Chocolate does not. They do present their products as beneficial to society, but do not choose to truly reveal how their Fair Trade practices impact individual farmers abroad. Both companies do, however, source their cocoa beans from areas free of slavery and make products far healthier than many of their competitors in the chocolate market. Overall, I think products such as these, that require a consumer to consider the far-reaching implications of their purchases, will help to create a more just world, but that does not mean that these practices cannot be improved upon.

Works Cited:

Abbott, Phillip. Purdue University. International Agricultural Trade Research Consortium, April 2003. Web. 2 May 2015.

Askinosie Chocolate. Askinosie Chocolate, 2015. Web. 2 May 2015.

Haight, Colleen. “The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee”. Stanford University. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2011. Web. 2 May 2015.

MarketsandMarkets. “Global Chocolate Market worth $98.3 Billion by 2016”. MarketsandMarkets, 2015. Web. 2 May 2015.

“Mission/Values”. Fair Trade USA., 2015. Web. 2 May 2015.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: The New Press, 2006. Print.

Raghavan, Sudharsan and Sumana Chatterjee. “A Taste of Slavery”. UCSD. Knight Ridder Newspapers, 24 June 2001. Web. 2 May 2015.

Rosenthal, Jonathon. “Fair Trade: The Long Journey That Informs the Current Reality”. Fair World Project. For a Better World, 2012. Web. 2 May 2015.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying For Cocoa in West Africa. London : Zed Books, 2011. Print.

Theo Chocolate. Theo Chocolate, 2015. Web. 2 May 2015.






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