Talking Fair Trade: Exploring Chocolate Consumption and Ethical Perspectives through a Chocolate Tasting


In a world of increasingly globalized supply chains, considering the origins of the products that we use every day can be a daunting task. Economist Pietra Rivoli’s renowned book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy follows the production processes for different components of a standard t-shirt across the nations in which they are produced, discussing the labor conditions, history, and current economic situation in each locale. Rivoli recounts efforts by manufacturers to cut production costs along every step, from harvesting materials to manufacture and even resale. Yet, she arrives at a somewhat surprising conclusion – despite the relatively dismal conditions under which some workers labor, “she asserts that their jobs were a little better than other available options (usually farm work) and, what’s more, that textile factories led to advances in industrialization and, just as dependably, in living standards” (Lowenstein, 2005). This leads to a somewhat befuddling moral quandary – should we be willing to accept global jobs that provide significant relative benefit to the employees, even if the working conditions are poor on an absolute scale?

Unfortunately, Rivoli’s findings are by no means limited to the textile industry. Globally, the cacao industry employs millions of farmers in impoverished areas that are less-than-satisfied with their line of work, even if it’s necessary for their subsistence; as noted in class, “less than one-quarter of cocoa farmers would recommend that their children go into farming” (see Lecture 15, slide 9). However, despite the wishes of their parents, many children do not have a choice – the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) reported from a study began in 2001 that more than one million West African children work on family cacao farms (and thousands more children working on farms without family ties), with “most children [stating] that they came to work because factors out of their control – such as family poverty” (Toler et al. 1).

Of course, numerous solutions have been devised to mitigate this problem. Perhaps the most notable program that works to improve labor conditions on farms is Fair Trade, “a global trade model and certification [that] allows shoppers to quickly identify products that were produced in an ethical manner” (see “What is Fair Trade?”). Toler et al. describe Fair Trade as “a proven solution to the child labor crisis because it guarantees farmers a stable living wage, prohibits abusive child labor and forced labor, and requires independent monitoring of farms each year” in addition to ensuring environmentally responsible practices are enacted (Toler et al. 4). Fair Trade manifests its benefits for both producers and consumers: the farmers and their families see quality of life improvements from receiving higher wages, while chocolate consumers enjoy a higher quality product that comes with the moral satisfaction of having helped afford a better life for farmers that are less well-off. The appeals of the program have certainly gained traction in recent years; as seen below, Fair Trade certified product sales have risen tremendously from 1998-2011, increasing from just a few millions of pounds cumulatively to 250 million pounds annually.

Fair Trade Sales in the United States have risen drastically across the past 15 years.

As with any proposed solution to an ethical problem, there are numerous criticisms of Fair Trade. Some argue that Fair Trade neglects the poorest growers, or that it attracts lower quality product since prices can be made artificially high; another argument holds that the prohibitive costs of certification prevent some from participating and heavily reduce profit margins for some participants (Wydick, “10 Reasons Fair-Trade Coffee Doesn’t Work”). On the consumer side, a popular criticism is that the moral satisfaction consumers may gain from buying Fair Trade products affords a false sense of having “done good,” while failing to tackle or even appreciate the actual problem of widespread poverty that remains prevalent. Fair Trade is in vogue, and is on the rise – but is it effective? Perhaps just as importantly, are people aware of it and what it means for producers?


One of the themes of the course by which I was most engaged this semester was that of food as an inherently social object, the need for and consumption of which necessarily affects our social lives (see: Objectives 4 and 7, Lecture 5). The notion of food as a social bonding tool is by no means new; William Robertson Smith wrote in his 1889 foundational anthropological work The Religion of the Semites that “the very act of eating and drinking with a man was a symbol and a confirmation of fellowship and mutual social obligations” (Robertson 269). Sidney Mintz acknowledges this viewpoint in Sweetness and Power, expressing his belief that “the connections between food and kinship, or food and social groups, take radically different forms in modern life. Yet surely food and eating have not lost their affective significance” (Mintz 5). In keeping with this concept, I wanted to use this ethnographic project as an opportunity to bring people together over eating food and a shared interest in exploring and discussing chocolate while still diving into the complex ethical issues we tackled in the second half of the course. Accordingly, I asked several friends and roommates of various backgrounds to join me in consuming chocolate bars from different origins and talking about the differing conditions that may have factored into their production.

Logistically, I and five friends spent an hour on Friday, 5/1 trying three different chocolate bars and conversing about the practices behind the chocolate’s production and how that relates to the global cacao industry today. To contextualize the findings from our discussion, I will first briefly provide details on each chocolate bar and the values and practices of the company behind it.

Taza's "Cacao Nib Crunch" bar. $5.99
Taza’s “Cacao Nib Crunch” bar – $6.99

The flagship company for ethical business practices discussed in this class has been Taza Chocolate, a chocolate manufacturer based locally in Somerville, MA. Taza prides themselves on making “stone ground, organic chocolate” that features the cacao as the centerpiece of the experience rather than the sugary sweetness of most modern chocolate. Notably, Taza sources Direct Trade Certified cacao, which is often thought of as going a step beyond Fair Trade in terms of ethics – it strives to build lasting relationships with organic cacao farms and farmers, paying premium prices over the accepted price for high-quality organic beans and ensuring fair labor practices (see “Taza Chocolate Direct Trade Certified Cacao”). In this sense, Taza is likely to be perceived as the “most ethical” of the three companies. The bar used for this tasting was a “Cacao Nib Crunch” bar with 80% dark stone ground chocolate, pictured below, purchased for $6.99.

The second bar came from Equal Exchange, a food producer and seller that deals exclusively in fairly traded products. They define their mission as being “to build long-term trade partnerships that are economically just and environmentally sound, to foster mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers and to demonstrate, through our success, the contribution of worker cooperatives and Fair Trade to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world” (see “Equal Exchange – About).

Equal Exchange Very Dark bar - $5.99
Equal Exchange Very Dark bar – $5.99

The company’s website also lists a variety of their farmer partners for sourcing cacao, providing detailed information about each cooperative, their relationship with Equal Exchange, and how cooperative farming and Fair Trade relationships have tangibly benefited the worker (see “Equal Exchange – Chocolate and Cocoa”). They adhere very strictly to the notion of Fair Trade, hoping to serve as a representative success story that could inspire others to participate. Given this, Equal Exchange is the “second most ethical” of the three companies used in this tasting. The below-pictured $5.99 Organic Very Dark Chocolate with 71% cacao content sourced from cooperatives in the Dominican Republic and Peru was selected for this study to keep with the dark chocolate theme of the Taza bar.

The final bar requires less explanation, and will be more familiar to most consumers – a standard Hershey’s milk chocolate bar, one of the most iconic bars around the world. Unfortunately, the source of the cacao used in the production of this chocolate bar is less transparent than the other countries, so the exact labor practices are less well-known; however, Hershey’s has received criticism in the past for permitting poor labor practices and conditions on West African farms from which they source cocoa (Baird et al. 1). As such, it was considered the “least ethical” of the bars and companies.

Hershey's Milk Chocolate bar - $1.25
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar – $1.25

Having laid out the bars used, I will list a few of the questions used to motivate discussion. Although I did not restrict the discussion to a more linear format, the conversation flowed nicely and moved around topically without much difficulty.

  • How much do you know about labor practices in the cacao industry?
  • Have you heard of Fair Trade? If so, what are its implications, and do you think it’s a good program? How about Direct Trade?
  • Which of the chocolate bars do you most prefer and why?
  • What would you expect each bar to cost?
  • Do you consider ethics when purchasing products in general? What about chocolate specifically?

The discussion was extremely productive, with everyone participating substantially and me serving as a moderator without trying to guide their opinions or experience. The favorite chocolate bar of the five participants was the standard Hershey bar, closely followed by the Equal Exchange bar. The Taza bar was too “gritty” and unrefined feeling for most of the participants, who also found it to be extremely bitter compared to the taste they were used to and did not enjoy the taste of the cacao nibs. The Equal Exchange bar was also found to be bitter, but not relative to the Taza bar, and it had a smoother texture. The Hershey bar was described almost unanimously as “familiar” and “what I’m used to” by the tasters, which gave it the edge over the craft bars. The average predicted price for the Hershey bar was understandably accurate, but the participants expected the Equal Exchange bar to cost $8.00 on average rather than the $5.99 that it cost; similarly, the predicted average price for the Taza bar was $8.60, whereas it only cost $6.99 in reality. The differential between actual and expected prices reveals that the participants held some incorrect conceptions about the price of “craft” or luxury chocolates. This has interesting societal implications in that it suggests the average consumer may associate “unique” or nonstandard chocolates with an even higher price point than they achieve in reality, which may distance more cost-conscious buyers.

However, the interesting results of the discussion extend far beyond those inferred from price differentials. Much of the talk centered on ethical cocoa production and the responsibility of consumers and sellers in this process. After some discussion, the participants agreed that relatively well-off Western consumers have some moral responsibility to purchase ethically-produced chocolate (assuming they have the means to do so), but identified two key problems. First, one participant noted that he and one other participant were not especially aware of Fair Trade practices before the discussion, and suggested that education of consumers about alternatives may be one logistic barrier to popularizing ethically-produced products that exists right now. Additionally, another person pointed out that sourcing and scaling up Fair Trade products takes time, and that supply has to rise before demand in order for the products to remain affordable and attractive. I found these to be reasonable concerns, but shared the consensus opinion that Fair Trade was overall a step in the right direction – even if it does not go as far as Direct Trade certification, it is better than sourcing and consuming uncertified cacao.

A fascinating discussion on how global expectations of chocolate have changed ensued when trying to assess why the Hershey bar was most favored. One theory is that because it was perceived as more familiar, it matched their expectations about how chocolate should taste sweet and feel smooth. As Mintz discusses, the constant and steady addition of more sugar to the diet of the modern consumer has colored expectations for the taste of different foods. The role of marketing in establishing expectations of sweetness for customers was also briefly discussed, which included mention of the sugar industry’s bankrolling of studies in the late 20th century as we learned in class.

One potential bias in the conversation’s demographic was that not many of the participants regularly consume chocolate that they have purchased for their own personal enjoyment due at least in part to being on fairly restrictive college budgets. Anecdotally, all five other people agreed that they ate free chocolate treats at events or on special occasions more frequently than they purchased them for themselves. As such, the views of the participants may not be reflective of those of the average chocolate consumer in the U.S.

Overall, it proved to be an incredibly informative discussion with important conclusions. Despite the general consensus that relatively well-off Western consumers have some ethical obligation to purchase Fair Trade chocolate when possible, most consumers do not seem to do so as a result of cultural conceptions of chocolate as sweet as well as somewhat-misguided affordability concerns due to the association between “different” chocolate and expensive chocolate. This demonstrates that we must work as a society to break cultural conceptions of chocolate as necessarily being sweet before organic and Fair Trade production practices become favored. While this is a broad goal, the steps of tackling consumer education and establishing more Fair Trade and Direct Trade farms are meaningful first efforts.

Works Cited:

Baird, Harper, Nicole Guevara, Aleksander Karpechenko, O. C. Ferrell, and Linda Ferrell. “The Hershey Company and West African Cocoa Communities.” The Hershey Company and West African Cocoa Communities (2012): 1-10. Web. 6 May 2015. <;.

“Chocolate.” Better World Shopper. N.p., 2014. Web. 06 May 2015. <;. Note: for a list of the research sources used to compile these rankings, please see:

“Equal Exchange – About.” Equal Exchange. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2015. <;.

“Equal Exchange – Chocolate & Cocoa.” Equal Exchange. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2015. <;.

Lowenstein, Roger. “Travels With My Florida Parrot T-Shirt.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Aug. 2005. Web. 06 May 2015. <;.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Smith, William Robertson. The Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1927. Web. 6 May 2015. <;.

“Taza Chocolate Direct Trade Certified Cacao.” Taza Chocolate. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2015. <;.

“The Taza Chocolate Story.” Taza Chocolate. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2015. <;.

Toler, Deborah, Ph. D, and Melissa A. Schweisgurth. “While Chocolate Lovers Smile, Child Cocoa Workers Cry.” Ed. Jason D. Mark. (n.d.): 356-60. Web. 6 May 2015. <;.

“What Is Fair Trade?” Fair Trade USA. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2015. <;.

Wydick, Bruce. “10 Reasons Fair-Trade Coffee Doesn’t Work.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 07 Aug. 2014. Web. 06 May 2015. <;.

Multimedia Sources:

Elliott, Kimberly. “Is My Fair Trade Coffee Really Fair? Trends and Challenges in Fair Trade Certification.” Center For Global Development. N.p., 19 Dec. 2012. Web. 06 May 2015. <;.

“Fair Trade and Earth Day.” One World Fair Trade. N.p., 12 Apr. 2013. Web. 06 May 2015. <;.

Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar. Digital image. Hershey’s. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 May 2015. <;.

Organic Very Dark Chocolate. Digital image. Equal Exchange. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 May 2015. <;.

Ranson, Ben. Fairtrade Criticisms. Digital image. SlideShare. N.p., 11 Dec. 2014. Web. 6 May 2015. <;.

Taza Stone Ground Cacao Nib Crunch Amaze Bar. Digital image. Tony Caputo’s Food Market & Deli, n.d. Web. 6 May 2015. <;.


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