Choosing an Ethically Sourced Chocolate: How Hard Can It Be?

In today’s world, we as consumers are faced with seemingly unlimited choices when it comes to different products.  Each product claims to be better than the next, making comparison between them extremely difficult.  This trend continues into the world of fine, crafted cocoa.  Each chocolate company profiles particular aspects of their bar, be it organic certifications, ethically sourced ingredients, different flavor profiles, or species of bean.  Combine this with the “personality” that the companies try to present and you end up with one confusing choice for consumers.  If a customer wants to make an informed decision to only buy chocolate with a strong, transparent, and ethical background, how can they get this information to guide their choice?  In order to make the most ethical product decision, product and certification labels alone simply do not provide enough information to the consumer about how fairly or directly ingredients are sourced.  For that, more in-depth research about each company is required.

In order to arrive at this conclusion I first took a trip to my local Stop and Shop, a large grocery store retailer present in much of the Northeast.  I headed to the natural/organic section of the store and looked for their chocolates.  There were only about 7-8 different brands on the shelf, each with at least two different flavors of chocolate bar.  Based mostly on what looked appealing to me, I chose chocolate bars from five different companies: Equal Exchange Chocolates, Green & Black’s, Endangered Species Chocolate, Pascha, and Theo.  As a point of comparison I also went to the regular candy aisle in the supermarket and picked up the store brand of chocolate branded under the label Simply Enjoy.  Together with Taza, I wanted to see what certification labels each company uses, what kind of story they try to tell with their packaging, and whether the information they provide about their sourcing practices matches the persona that they are trying to present.  At the end, I wanted to see if the product labels alone gave enough information about the company for consumers to make an informed, ethical decision.

As sort of a “control” case, I began to research Taza and its practices.  This company was touted in class as a leader in the ethical sourcing and production of craft chocolate here in the United States. According to their website, Taza “is a pioneer in ethical cacao sourcing. [They] were the first U.S. chocolate maker to establish a third-party certified Direct Trade Cacao Certification program.”[i]

Taza has a set of Five Direct Trade Principles:

“1: Work exclusively with USDA Certified Organic cacao farms that practice sustainable agriculture.

  1. Pay a premium of at least 500 US dollars per metric ton above the New York International Commodities Exchange (NY ICE) price on the date of invoice directly to cacao farmers
  2. Physically visit each cacao farmer or cacao farmer cooperative at least once a year to build long-term, sustainable relationships.
  3. Only buy cacao from farmers and farmer cooperatives that ensure fair and humane work practices.
  4. Never purchase cacao from farmers of farmer cooperatives that engage in child or slave labor.”[ii]

Additionally, they have a third-party company certify that they visit their cacao producers once a year, that they pay a price premium of at least 500 US dollars above commodity price, and that they purchase high-quality beans that meet a certain standard.[iii]  By themselves, these direct trade principles and certifications would signal that Taza is an ethical company.  However the information that Taza provides does not stop there.  Every year the company publishes a Transparency Report, detailing which farms cacao was sourced from, the price paid per ton, when the most recent visit was, the amount purchased in the last 12 months, and how much each producer contributed to Taza’s total purchases in the last 12 months.[iv]  In the video below, Taza Co-Founder discusses how the Fair-Trade model didn’t work for his company and why they opted for a Direct Trade model instead.

All of this information signaling Taza’s ethical practices is clearly displayed in an easy-to-find way on Taza’s website.  While I did not have any of their chocolate on hand to see how they present this information on the actual product, they set the bar for actual practices in the chocolate industry and serve as the comparison for the chocolate bars that I bought at the grocery store.

The first bar that I picked up for examination was Green and Black’s Organic 70% Dark Chocolate. The label features a Fair Trade and USDA Organic certification on the front.  The back of the label primarily discussed the flavor profile of the chocolate.  It was only underneath the ingredients list that any mention of Fair Trade or ethically sourced ingredients was mentioned, and it was done in a way that promoted the Fair Trade name instead of the actual producers of the cacao beans.  When visiting their website, I was greeted with pictures of farmers holding cacao pods. The “About Us” page said that ingredients were sourced with care, and that the company is “committed to applying Ethical Sourcing Standards in [their] own workplace, and [they] expect [their] suppliers, co-manufacturers, and business partners to follow suit.”[v]  While on the surface this seems admirable, their good intent falls flat.  Nowhere on the website was there a mention of what the Ethical Sourcing Standards are or how they are applied.  Furthermore, applying the standards within your own workplace doesn’t necessarily mean that you promote the same principles with the farmers or co-ops that you work with.  The whole website seemed like a façade of good intent to cover up the fact that Green and Black’s is owned by the food giant Mondelez Global.  Even though the chocolate bar was Fair Trade Certified, it’s not the most ethical choice that I picked up from the store.

The second bar that I bought was the Endangered Species Chocolate. The front label had a Rainforest Alliance certification, it was verified by the Non GMO Project, and was certified as Gluten Free.  On the back of the bar, the text at the top mentions ethical trade and how the company buys its cocoa from “small family-owned properties, helping sustain the habitats and communities in which they exist.”[vi]  Right from the start, this company is already more open about where it sources its ingredients from.  When visiting the website, this claim is repeated but not expanded on.  The consumer is not told which farms or even continents the beans come from.  They mention that they visit the farmers but not how often or when they last visited.[vii]  The fact that this chocolate bar is not Fair Trade Certified is addressed in the FAQ’s where the company states that philosophically Fair Trade and Ethically Traded are the same thing, each giving the farmers fair pay for their product.[viii]  Overall this company has made some solid efforts to become transparent in its ethics, but the evidence backing up their claims is just not presented for the public to see.

The third company that I bought a chocolate bar from was Pascha.  On the front label were USDA Organic, Fair Trade, and Non GMO certifications.  The back of the bar claimed “bean to bar near the source” and “full ingredient traceability.”[ix]  Upon visiting the website to learn more about this process, I was left slightly disappointed.  There was very little information about anything, set aside for a company origin story and 5 Principles that the company was guided by.  While two of the principles concerned themselves with the “bean to bar” process, there was no information given as to how this is achieved or what steps still need to be taken in the future.[x]  While the label on this bar looked promising, the website left for very little follow-up on the actual practices of the company and didn’t provide any supporting evidence of ethical practices.

The fourth bar I bought was from Theo Chocolate, and it was a 70% Sea Salt Dark Chocolate.  This bar had Non GMO, USDA Organic, and Fair for Life certifications on the front.  The back of the bar used half of the available space to talk about the bean to bar process that they use.  The text stated how the company shares its sourcing practices with the public and invited the consumer to use their website to learn more about the whole process.  This bar was the first product that I came across in this little test to openly invite customers to inspect their ethical claims.  Upon visiting their website, I learned that their beans primarily come from Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru, and Panama and was shown the exact farms that the beans are grown.[xi]  Furthermore, Theo shares their pricing details publicly the way that Taza does.[xii]  Theo had a very robust web presence which highlighted their transparency in ethical practices, and was one of the most ethical brands I bought.

The fifth bar that I picked up was an Equal Exchange Chocolates Mint Chocolate bar.  From just the looks of the packaging, this appeared to be the most ethically focused company of the lot.  The front of the bar had a USDA Organic certification, a huge Equal Exchange logo, and advertised that it was always small farmer grown and organic and fairly traded.  The back of the bar featured a picture of a farmer next to text saying that they source only from small farmer organizations.  The inside of the wrapper told an even greater story.  Yet another farmer was featured, and information about his co-op was included.  The origin of location for the cacao, sugar, and vanilla used in the bar were identified and shown on a map.  The label also pointed out how 20,000 small scale cacao producers were helped through the purchases of this product.  Based on just the label alone, a consumer could feel fairly confident that they were making an ethical choice.  When visiting the website, this feeling was confirmed.  There, customers can learn that Equal Exchange pays “50-100% more than what [farmers] would get paid in the marketplace,” and that they offer innovate programs such as pre-harvest financing which pays “up to 60% of the Fair Trade floor price as credit” in order to support the crop in the first place.[xiii][xiv]  Everything at Equal Exchange is done to support others in a positive way, and their website uses every opportunity to show you that.

Finally, I picked up a store branded Simply Enjoy chocolate bar as a comparison.  There were no certifications of the front, just a small line of text saying that it had sustainably sourced cocoa.  On the back however, the bottom 25% of the bar was dedicated to displaying and discussing an UTZ certification.  After visiting the site, I learned that the UTZ certification process was strict and had very certain requirements.[xv]  It certainly wasn’t something I expected a store brand of chocolate to have.

After examining all of the different chocolate bars that I had purchased from the store, I realized how difficult it actually is to choose an ethically sourced and produced product while standing in front of the store shelf.  Out of all of my choices, only Theo and Equal Exchange proudly advertised and invited inquiry into their sourcing practices.  This distinction became even clearer when a little bit of research into the product became involved.  Those two brands were the only ones that included a complete and thorough look into the bean to bar process, showing consumers where the beans came from and how much the farmers were being paid.  When compared to Taza, they both reach that “top tier” of accountability and ethics.  In comparison, the other chocolate bars didn’t quite reach that same level of consumer information.  While the Endangered Species bar mentioned small farmers and price premiums, they had no publicly available data to back up their claim, leaving room for skepticism.  The Prascha bar had absolutely no information to support the claims made on the packaging, and as such should not be considered a completely ethical choice.  The Green and Black’s bar made no claims to sourcing ingredients ethically beyond Fair Trade, and everything on their website was cleverly worded to mask the fact that it is owned by a giant multi-national.  Finally, the Simply Enjoy bar didn’t hold any Fair Trade or equivalent certifications, but was at the very least had an UTZ certification.  No information on the ethics of this particular bar was available, but that certification placed it higher than other standard chocolates that were sitting in the candy aisle.

By conducting this rather unscientific experiment we see that labels alone are not enough to guide consumers to the most ethical producers of chocolate.  Furthermore, the fractures between Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, and UTZ certifications all signal different things, and customers must do their own research about what is most important to them.  At their core each certification wishes to transform “the world’s production systems and value chains to make them more sustainable.”[xvi]  However each accomplishes this in a different way and has its own advantages and drawbacks.  Thus the mere presence of a certification label is not enough to automatically qualify a product as ethically sourced.  It is more than likely that a consumer would have to engage in their own research outside of the supermarket aisle to determine which companies are the most deserving of a dollar.  Even when a product sports a certain label, the mere presence of that certification does not mean that the company follows best practices.

[i] “Our Story,” Taza Chocolate, accessed March 6, 2015, http://www.tazachocolate.com/About/Our_Story

[ii] “Taza Direct Trade,” Taza Chocolate, accessed March 6, 2015,http://www.tazachocolate.com/About/Taza_Direct_Trade

[iii] Ibid.

[iv]“Taza Cacao Sourcing Transparency Report 2014,” Taza Chocolate, published September 2014, http://www.tazachocolate.com/documents/file/Transparency%20Reports/Taza_Cacao_Sourcing_Transparency_Report_2014.pdf

[v] “About Us,” Green and Black’s, accessed March 6, 2015, http://us.greenandblacks.com/about-us#

[vi] Endangered Species Dark Chocolate with Hazelnut Toffee.

[vii] “Who is ESC?” Endangered Species Chocolate, accessed March 6,2015, http://chocolatebar.com/docs/doc_story2014.pdf

[viii] “FAQ,” Endangered Species Chocolate, accessed March 6,2015, http://www.chocolatebar.com/docs/esc_faq.pdf

[ix] Pascha Chocolate. 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate Bar.

[x]“Our Chocolate Philosophy,” Pascha Chocolate, accessed March 6, 2015, http://paschachocolate.com/our-chocolate-philosophy/.

[xi] “Our Cocoa Beans,” Theo Chocolate, accessed March 6, 2015, https://www.theochocolate.com/our-product-info/our-cocoa-beans

[xii] “Cocoa Bean Pricing Details,” Theo Chocolate, accessed March 6, 2015, https://www.theochocolate.com/our-product-info/our-cocoa-beans/cocoa-bean-pricing-details

[xiii] “Where do your profits go?” Equal Exchange, accessed March 6, 2015, http://equalexchange.coop/about/equal-exchange/faqs/where-do-your-profits-go

[xiv] “How does pre harvest financing program work?  Why does it matter?” Equal Exchange, accessed March 6, 2015. http://equalexchange.coop/about/equal-exchange/faqs/how-does-pre-harvest-financing-program-work-why-does-matter

[xv] “How UTZ works,” UTZ, accessed March 6, 2015. https://www.utzcertified.org/en/aboututzcertified/how-utz-works

[xvi] “Joint Statement Fairtrade, SAN/Rainforest Alliance & UTZ CERTIFIED,” accessed March 6, 2015. https://www.utzcertified.org/attachments/article/2174/Joint_statement_rainforest%20alliance_fairtrade%20and_utz_certified.pdf?phpMyAdmin=3d81e3370877212193cf2f61673caf47

Works Cited

Counihan,  Carole, and Esterik, Penny Van. Food and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Endangered Species Chocolate. “Who is ESC?” Accessed March 6, 2015. http://chocolatebar.com/docs/doc_story2014.pdf

Endangered Species Chocolate. “FAQ.” Accessed March 6, 2015. http://www.chocolatebar.com/docs/esc_faq.pdf.

Endangered Species Chocolate. Dark Chocolate with Hazelnut Toffee Bar.

Equal Exchange. “Where Do Your Profits Go.” Accessed March 6, 2015.  http://equalexchange.coop/about/equal-exchange/faqs/where-do-your-profits-go

Equal Exchange. “How Does The Pre-Harvest Financing Program Work? Why Does This Matter?” Accessed March 6, 2015. http://equalexchange.coop/about/equal-exchange/faqs/how-does-pre-harvest-financing-program-work-why-does-matter.

Green and Black’s. “About Us.” Accessed March 6, 2015. http://us.greenandblacks.com/about-us#.

“Joint Statement Fairtrade, SAN/Rainforest Alliance & UTZ CERTIFIED” Accessed March 6, 2015. https://www.utzcertified.org/attachments/article/2174/Joint_statement_rainforest%20alliance_fairtrade%20and_utz_certified.pdf?phpMyAdmin=3d81e3370877212193cf2f61673caf47.

Pascha Chocolate. “Our Chocolate Philosophy.” Accessed March 6, 2015. http://paschachocolate.com/our-chocolate-philosophy/

Pascha Chocolate. 70% Cacao Dark Chocolate Bar.

Taza Chocolate. “Our Story.” Accessed March 6, 2015. http://www.tazachocolate.com/About/Our_Story

Taza Chocolate. “Taza Direct Trade.” Accessed March 6, 2015. http://www.tazachocolate.com/About/Taza_Direct_Trade

Taza Chocolate. “Transparency Reports 2014.” Published September 2014. http://www.tazachocolate.com/documents/file/Transparency%20Reports/Taza_Cacao_Sourcing_Transparency_Report_2014.pdf

Theo Chocolate. “Our Cocoa Beans.” Accessed March 6, 2015. https://www.theochocolate.com/our-product-info/our-cocoa-beans

Theo Chocolate. “Cocoa Bean Pricing Details.” Accessed March 6, 2015. https://www.theochocolate.com/our-product-info/our-cocoa-beans/cocoa-bean-pricing-details

UTZ. “How UTZ Works.” Accessed March 6, 2015. https://www.utzcertified.org/en/aboututzcertified/how-utz-works

Williams, Pam, and Eber, Jim. Raising the Bar:  The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmour Publishing, 2012.

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