Askinosie Chocolate: A Leader in High Quality Chocolate and Sustainable Business

Chocolate, once a luxury consumed only by the elite, has become an every day good for those of us fortunate enough to live in the better-developed parts of the world. It is easy to walk into the nearest convenience store and find a pretty large selection of different kinds of chocolate (albeit produced by the same few major corporations). But among all of the flashy chocolate wrappers advertising added delights like caramel and nougat, there is very little to inform the consumer about where their chocolate is coming from, how it was made, and what is actually in it. As Kristy Leissle explains, in the 19th century, when it was predominantly artisans making chocolate, the origin of cacao beans was clearly advertised as a measure of quality, but in the 20th century, rising industrial chocolate makers were more interested in selling particular candy bars, and “and thoroughly effaced any links with the sweaty, tropical farms whence their primary ingredient came” [1]. In fact, most chocolate consumers today are entirely unaware of the processes through which a chocolate bar is made and the sheer amount of labor that goes into turning cacao into chocolate. And in today’s modern society when people balk at the idea of their clothes being made in a sweatshop in Asia, people should also be questioning whether or not their food has been ethically produced—this is true for chocolate in particular not only because chocolate is still technically considered a luxury item, or a treat, but also because of the extensive history of slave labor, exploitation, and racist advertising within the chocolate industry.

Awareness is the key here—what kinds of practices are consumers condoning when they buy certain brands of chocolate? And if the answer makes them uncomfortable, what can they do about it? For most consumers, abandoning the consumption of chocolate is out of the question, but luckily, there are more and more chocolate companies out there that provide the amount of transparency that can help consumers make the right decisions. Increasingly more chocolate producers are becoming bean-to-bar chocolate companies, meaning that they oversee the production of the chocolate from the cacao bean to the finished product. These companies are often employed in direct trade relationships with the farmers that they get their cacao from and even more companies have Fair Trade and Organic certifications. Each of these different types of farmer-producer-consumer relationships has its pros and cons when it comes to addressing the issues that prevail in the chocolate industry, but at the end of the day a certification is just a piece of paper and a claim of direct trade could be a marketing ploy—what’s really important is how these companies are presenting themselves and their chocolate, whose best interests they truly have in mind, and how transparent they are with their practices and their intentions. In 2005, the World Summit on Social Development identified three goals for sustainable development that have come to be known as the “three pillars of sustainability”: social development, economic development, and environmental protection [2]. I believe that these goals can and should be directly applied to the business model of an ethically run chocolate company. Chocolate’s history is not without its fair share of social implications, so, as contemporary consumers of chocolate, it is our responsibility hold chocolate companies accountable for their actions and to ensure that our money is going towards supporting companies that believe in not only producing a high quality product, but also in maintaining a sustainable and healthy relationship with that product.

One company that I feel is leading the way as a shining example for other bean-to-bar chocolate companies is Askinosie Chocolate. A criminal defense attorney for twenty years, Shawn Askinosie became a chocolate maker in 2007. He learned all he could about chocolate-making and cacao and soon found himself in the Amazon studying how the post-harvest techniques of cacao farmers influenced the finished chocolate’s flavor. But Askinosie was interested not only to crafting high quality chocolate, but also to weaving social responsibility into everything that the company does; he confidently says now: “We’re dedicated not just to making the best quality chocolate you can buy, but to making it in such a way that the more you learn about it, the better you feel about it” [3]. The company’s mission statement rings along the same lines: “We at Askinosie Chocolate exist to craft exceptional chocolate while serving our farmers, our 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 stands out to me as a bean-to-bar chocolate company because they hold doing as much good as they can in the world just as importantly as crafting high quality chocolate. They are very aware of the impact that they, as a chocolate company, can have on the world and are determined to use that power responsibly, giving back to the communities that provide them with their product and educating the rest of the world about ethical business practices. In this essay, I will analyze how Askinosie Chocolate sells and presents itself and its ideals, how it fulfills the criteria for transparency in its processes, and how it goes above and beyond in developing sustainable practices. In doing so, I plan to show why I believe that Askinosie Chocolate is a great part of the solution to the problems that plague the chocolate-cacao supply chain.

Before I move any further, I would like to make it clear that my impression of the Askinosie Chocolate company and how they present themselves comes directly from their website at https://askinosie.com/. The popularity of the Askinosie Chocolate company is part of a rising focus on what is referred to as ethical eating—Julie Guthman explains that, in this view, consumption practices are driven by a conscious reflexivity, where customers pay attention to how food is made and then reflects upon the consequences of that knowledge when making future food-related decisions [4]. But because ethical eating is the latest trend, many companies that boast ethical practices are actually more focused on other things, advertising the luxuriousness of their chocolate instead, for example. As such, Askinosie Chocolate takes great care to portray that social, economic, and environmental responsibility are an integral part of their company. The Askinosie Chocolate website is simply, but elegantly designed—following an earthy-toned color scheme, the three centrally positioned links at the top are labeled “shop” (their online store), “learn” (a plethora of information about their company), and “wholesale” (for retailers interested in selling their products and being part of the team). The banner that takes up the top portion of their website shuffles between commendations on their products and images of the several sources that they get their cacao beans from. Already, it is clear to see that the image that they’re selling is that their business (chocolate-making) and their mission (doing good in the world) go hand-in-hand.

A screenshot of what a visitor to Askinosie Chocolate’s main website would first see on the home page.

Askinosie Chocolate sells a large variety of chocolate-related products: chocolate bars, cocoa powder, chocolate nibs, chocolate spread, chocolate beverages, the vast majority of their ingredients are produced at their own factory from the same cacao beans that the chocolate is made from—they even make their own cocoa butter to add to their chocolate [5]! They sell single-origin chocolate bars from four different locations around the world: the Philippines, Honduras, Ecuador, and Tanzania. Each of these single-origin bars come simply packaged in paper with a piece of string tied at the top. On the paper wrapping, the name of the origin is printed colorfully at the top; below that, a picture of what is presumed to be the cacao farmer that the company works with at that origin location, a description of the chocolate content, and the Askinosie logo. Although I believe that the name of the cacao farmer should be clearly indicated on the front of the packaging with the picture, I also understand that there may be privacy or security reasons that it is not included. Despite this, Askinosie Chocolate does a wonderful job of modestly and honestly packaging their chocolate bars—each of the farmers are presented in as neutral a light as possible, with their skin tones even being edited to match to color of the paper packaging. Their presentation of the cacao farmers involved with their company can be compared to that of the Divine Chocolate company: Although Divine Chocolate has been praised for “refashioning” their cacao farmers to be “Cosmopolitan,” I feel that their advertisements miss the mark [6]. Their portrayal of the female cacao farmers as “glamorous” with tacky labels like “Equality Treat” almost makes it seem like the women are the products, especially considering the common association of chocolate with blackness. The decision of Askinosie Chocolate to include a humble image of their cacao farmers right on their chocolate bar packaging reflects the intimate relationships that they have forged with those farmers—they are more than business partners, they are their friends as well.

A side-by-side comparison of Divine Chocolate’s representation of their cacao farmers (left) versus Askinosie Chocolate’s representation of their cacao farmers (right).

In an industry that has always faced controversy when it comes to ethical concerns in business practices, i.e., slave and child labor and exploitation, it is important for all chocolate companies to have a certain amount of transparency in what they do, especially if they are advertising themselves as being on the right side of ethics. With chocolate companies in particular, transparency is important in several areas—where their beans are coming from, who is growing the cacao and how are they being treated, who is making the chocolate and where that is happening, where the rest of the ingredients are coming from—but it ultimately boils down to (1) the nature of the relationship between the farmer, the producer, and the buyer and (2) how the chocolate is being presented and why that is the case. With one look-through of Askinosie Chocolate’s website, I was incredibly impressed with how transparent they are with their business practices. They make a strong attempt at clearly communicating to their customers what they are doing and what they hope to do every step of the way. For example, as mentioned before, in addition to the “shop” section of their website, there is a clearly labeled “learn” section, where readers can find a lot of information: the story of the founder, Shawn Askinosie, where their cacao comes from, how their chocolate is made, and all of the special initiatives that have been incorporated into their business model. It even includes a lot of information about what direct trade is and why they choose to have that kind of relationship with their farmers. A whole page is dedicated to explaining their precise seventy-step process of chocolate making, from finding the farmers to molding the finished product, complete with a detailed description and a video demonstration for every step. Additionally, they even have a link to the travel blog (http://askinosiechocolate.tumblr.com/ ) that documents all of their journeys to the countries where their cacao originates from, which includes not only pictures of the cacao farmers, but their communities and schools.

Image taken from Askinosie Chocolate travelogue; Caption: “Yoga before business. Me with my Del Tambo, Ecuador farmer friends in the cocoa trees this morning.”

It is these personal accounts that really show that there is a good relationship between the company and the communities that they are building with. These trips aren’t just about business, but also about building friendships, having fun, and sharing knowledge between cultures. For example, on every trip that Askinosie Chocolate goes on, they make sure to host an extensive chocolate tasting for their partners, who may not have that opportunity.

Charles Levkoe argues that food can be a way to understand and learn about the world in which we live, and part of Askinosie Chocolate’s great communication with their customers is also their eagerness to teach and share information [7]. It is built right into their business model to use their proceeds as a producer of high quality chocolate to educate people and battle social issues. Askinosie Chocolate’s Chocolate University initiative embodies this dedication to education and advocacy for social issues: It is an experiential learning program with a worldwide reach for local students, the goal being to use artisan chocolate making to inspire the students to be responsible global citizens and to use business to solve world problems. They involve students from neighboring schools by visiting their classrooms, hosting field trips to the factory, and even visits to cacao origin sites [8]. In addition, they even allow their customers to learn about the story behind the specific bar of chocolate that they purchased by entering a number into their website (see below).

But what has impressed me most about Askinosie Chocolate and what I believe really, truly sets them apart is their willingness to go above and beyond in creating a sustainable chocolate company. For example, they bring direct trade to a whole new level: Not only are they intimately involved with all of the on-site cacao processing, but they help the farmers identify and solve problems and have complete control over the actual importation of the beans (which is rare). They share their profits with the farmers, visiting them and paying them directly, and even share and explain their financial statements with the farmers, so that they understand exactly why they are receiving the amount that they are [9]. Levkoe also emphasizes that there has been an increasing focus on people as consumers, rather than citizens, and this has led to the image of our current progress as a civilization to be unsustainable [7]. Askinosie Chocolate combats this unsustainability because they care about the people that they are working with. When asked why they practice direct trade, they respond, “Very few chocolate makers do, after all, and almost none go to the lengths we do to be involved every step of the way. It’s certainly not cheaper, easier or simpler, and it definitely doesn’t carry less financial risk for us. We practice Direct Trade because we think it’s the right way and the best way” [9]. Beyond just the business relationship, Askinosie Chocolate does a considerable amount investing back into the communities in the origin locations. For example, in the Philippines and Tanzania, they have worked with schools to develop a Sustainable Lunch Program, where they sell a product harvested there, sell it domestically, and then return one hundred percent of the profits to buy lunch for every student every school day [9].

Advertised on the Askinosie Chocolate website home page, Direct Trade is an integral part of their company.

There is much work for our society to do to truly combat the social, economic, and environmental issues that we face today, but I truly believe that Askinosie Chocolate is a leader in this battle. Their reach extends beyond that of the chocolate industry—they are showing that business is not just all about profit, it’s about what you can do with that profit and the ways that you can improve the lives of those who helped you gain that profit. At the end of the day, bettering one community puts us all in a better position to better all of our communities.

—-

Multimedia Sources

[1] Askinosie Chocolate home page. Digital Image. Available from: https://askinosie.com/. Accessed May 6, 2015.

[2] Cacao farmer representations in advertising. Digital Image. Available from: http://i174.photobucket.com/albums/w104/xlitobabiiangelzpiex/comparison.png. Accessed May 6, 2015.

[3] Askinosie Chocolate travelogue. Digital Image. Available from: http://38.media.tumblr.com/a3312a9a130880a742fd396d66acca29/tumblr_inline_ncom83W4jP1sxcjpi.jpg. Accessed May 6, 2015.

[4] Askinosie Chocolate Choc-o-Lot Number. Digital Image. Available from: https://askinosie.com/. Accessed May 6, 2015.

[5] Askinosie Chocolate Direct Trade. Digital Image. Available from: https://askinosie.com/. Accessed May 6, 2015.

References

[1] Leissle, Kristy. (2013). Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 13(3): 22-31.

[2] United Nations General Assembly (2005). 2005 World Summit Outcome, Resolution A/60/1, adopted by the General Assembly on 15 September 2005. Retrieved on: 2009-02-17.

[3] Our Story – Learn | Askinosie Chocolate. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2015, from https://askinosie.com/learn/our-story.html.

[4] Guthman, Julie. (2013). Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the making of ‘Yuppie Chow’. In C. Counihan & P.V. Esterik (Ed.), food and culture (pp. 496-509). New York: Taylor & Francis. (Original work published in 2003).

[5] Chocolate Making – Learn | Askinosie Chocolate. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2015, from https://askinosie.com/learn/chocolate-making.html

[6] Leissle, Kristy. (2012). Cosmopolitan cocoa farmers: refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate advertisements. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 24(2): 121-139.

[7] Levkoe, Charles Z. (2013). Learning Democracy Through Food Justice Movements. In C. Counihan & P.V. Esterik (Ed.), food and culture (pp. 587-601). New York: Taylor & Francis. (Original work published in 2006).

[8] Chocolate University – Chocolate Farming | Askinosie Chocolate. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2015, from https://askinosie.com/learn/chocolate-university.html

[9] Direct Trade – Chocolate Farming | Askinosie Chocolate. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2015, from https://askinosie.com/learn/direct-trade.html

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