The Rising Popularity of the Craft Chocolate Movement: A Demand for Change

Craft chocolate makers pride themselves on the fact that they develop their product all the way from the cacao bean to the chocolate bar. Often using old-fashioned techniques, these bean-to-bar companies use a very small selection of ingredients when producing their chocolate, keeping it as pure and authentic as possible. The number of craft chocolate companies is constantly on the rise in both the US and Europe, resulting in the formation of organisations such as the ‘Craft Chocolate Association of America’ and also improving the level of direct trade in the cacao industry. I believe that, by looking closely at the methods and philosophies of a specific bean-to-bar chocolate company, many of the current problems surrounding the cacao industry are brought to attention. Furthermore, I feel that the increased popularity of these small companies represents a growing concern regarding the poor treatment of cacao farmers, for which large multinational chocolate companies are deemed responsible.

Parliament Chocolate, a small craft chocolate company located in Redlands, California, consists of a small team looking to bring something ‘new and exciting to the chocolate world’ (Parliament Website). The workers at the firm believe chocolate making is a truly artisanal process and use only two ingredients, which are high quality cacao and organic cane sugar. Through this simplistic approach the company believes they allow the true profiles of the cacao bean to come through in their chocolate. As with any small bean-to-bar chocolate company, Parliament Chocolate manages the entire production process straight from the cocoa bean. This process is summarised in the short video below demonstrating the various stages of production that take place at Parliament chocolate, including the sorting, roasting and winnowing of the beans as well as the final preparation of the chocolate bars.

In terms of production, it is clear that Parliament Chocolate follows the general methods used by craft bar-to-bar companies. However, Parliament chocolate separates itself from many other companies like itself by the way in which it selects and manages the cacao farms from which the beans used in its chocolate production are grown. The owner of the company, Ryan Berk, travels to Central America an average of four times a year in order to meet face to face with the farmers who supply Parliament Chocolate’s cocoa beans. He does this in part because he believes the cacao farmers are an integral part of chocolate production, and that they deserve the company’s upmost respect and gratitude. He also believes that the use of good environmental practices throughout the entire farming process is of huge importance, and by visiting the farms in person he can make sure these standards are being maintained. When at the farms, Berk rewards the farmers for maintaining these high standards by paying them and their families a salary significantly above the going market value. Furthermore, by maintaining this direct relationship with the farmers, Parliament Chocolate feels it can be sure that the farmers they are using are striving to utilise the most up to date methods for the processes that they perform, which include the growing, fermentation and drying of the beans, leading to a better quality of chocolate at the end of the entire process (Parliament website).

Ryan Berk with cocoa beans that he directly selected and paid for
Ryan Berk with cocoa beans that he directly selected and paid for

Thus, it can be said that Parliament Chocolate, whilst labelled a bean-to-bar chocolate company, is essentially a cacao farm-to-bar company, as it not only produces all of its own chocolate from scratch, but also plays an important role in the growth and harvesting of the cacao beans it uses by directly choosing and compensating the farmers who grow it. This direct relationship that Parliament Chocolate forms with its farmers is a far cry from the methods enforced by large chocolate manufactures such as Mars and Hershey. Bean-to-bar companies like Parliament Chocolate make up a fraction of the $17.7 billion a year industry dominated by the corporate sector a small selection of huge multinational chocolate manufactures, and they believe that the current actions taken by these large corporations are both unethical and leading to a possible shortage of cocoa beans in the future (Pierson).

Whilst the low quality chocolate produced by the large confectionary manufactures does not sit well with the far smaller bean-to-bar companies, it is the way in which they source their cocoa that really troubles the artisanal chocolate industry. Roughly two thirds of the world’s chocolate comes from western African countries, most commonly Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The extremely low earnings of the cacao farmers in these countries have lead to very poor working conditions, including the use of both child and slave labour. According to the International Labour Rights Forum, it is possible that more than 1 million children are currently working on African cacao farms (Pierson). These unacceptable conditions are what lead companies like Parliament Chocolate to have a direct relationship with their farmers, as by directly observing the farmers at work, the companies can be sure that low or unpaid labour is not occurring at their source of cacao. Furthermore, the direct relationship results in the farmers being far better compensated than they would be if producing cacao for a large multinational company. This is because, when not directly paid, much of the pay provided to cacao farmers does not reach them due, most commonly, to corrupt governments and landowners.

Parliament Chocolate Owner Ryan Berk with Cacao Farmers
Parliament Chocolate Owner Ryan Berk with Cacao Farmers

The low pay that a vast majority of cacao farmers receive due to the lack of care large chocolate manufacturers demonstrate not only leads to unacceptable working conditions on the farms, but also an increase in the number of farmers changing to other crops. In Africa, it is becoming a growing problem for the cacao industry that farmers are transitioning to to more profitable crops like palm and rubber. This decrease in the number of cacao farmers, coupled with issues surrounding drought and plant disease, has severely affected the international supply of cacao from African countries. With the demand for chocolate ever increasing around the world, especially in emerging markets such as China and India, this potential lack of cocoa supply has led to forecasts that there will be a shortage of approximately 1 million tons come the year 2020 (Pierson).

It is clear that the actions of the small bean-to-bar companies when dealing directly with cacao farmers are largely an attempt to prevent the poor working conditions seen on a vast amount of cacao farms and also reduce the financial need by cacao farmers to switch to other crops. The huge increase in the popularity and number of bean-to-bar chocolate companies, such as Parliament Chocolate, can be attributed to a growing concern amongst chocolate connoisseurs and the general public regarding these ethical issues surrounding cacao farming. This increased concern may be a result of the relatively recent criticisms that large chocolate companies have faced regarding their lack of action concerning the possibility of slavery, as well as the ‘general desire to know where your food comes from and a reaction against mass-produced food in general’ (Pierson). In his article named ‘Is There Slavery in Your Chocolate’, John Robbins discusses how it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that slavery and child labour on cacao farms was a possibility known to the public, after the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and others published investigative reports on the problem. The Cacao farms in the Ivory Coast were particularly targeted, resulting in a lot of pressure on the biggest companies in the industry, Hershey and Mars, to take action, as they both use large amounts of Ivory Coast cacao. However, these and other big chocolate producers denied their responsibility, claiming they do not own the farms, and even collectively lobbied against efforts to have a ‘slave free’ label put on chocolate bars known not to involve slave labour (Robbins).

Despite the denial of large corporations, efforts against the problem of slavery and child labour in cacao farms were nevertheless taken in response to the increased awareness of its goings on. The Harkin-Engel protocol, presented in 2001 with the intention of eradicating slave labour from western cacao products in 4 years, was one of the biggest, albeit optimistic, efforts. Certification such as fair trade and direct trade also arose in response to fears of slavery in the industry, and continue to gain popularity, partly due to the large increase in craft chocolate companies like Parliament Chocolate. In her book ‘Cocoa and Chaos in Ghana’, Gwendolyn Mikell argues that, in Ghana at least, the solution to poverty on cacao farms lies in policies that recognize that rural vibrancy contributes to national stability, such as allowing local agricultural organizations to address local socio-economic needs (Mikell). This stems from the idea she presents that a lot of the issues surrounding cacao farming in Africa and particularity Ghana arise through conflict between capitalist peasants and a national government that sought control over cacao resources (Mikell).

Child and slave labour is currently a huge issue in chocolate
Child and slave labour is currently a huge issue in chocolate

The idea of capitalist-orientated peasants (farm labourers) being part of the problem can be associated with the actions of Parliament Chocolate and also to the ideas of Robert Albritton. As mentioned earlier, one of the goals of having direct relationships with the cacao farmers, like Parliament Chocolate does, is to prevent the farmer from transitioning to other crops in order to receive more money and possibly avoid high government intervention. Being capitalist in nature, farmers are incentivised to make as much money as possible, which may often lead to less cacao famers as it simply is not as financially rewarding as other, often non-food, products, due to low the low pay for which large western confectionary companies are largely responsible. In his article ‘Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry’, Albritton argues that capitalism is largely to blame for both the poor quality and lack of food in the US, stating farmers transitioning from food crops to other more prosperous materials as one of the main reasons for the latter. He states how ‘fertile land that could grow food crops is being utilized for non-food crops, including trees for pulp and paper’ (Albritton). Whilst Albritton is focusing more on the problems in the western world, it is clear that his argument can be applied to the problems in cacao farms in Africa and elsewhere. However, whilst he would potentially blame capitalism for the potential shortage of chocolate in the future, it seems inconceivable to blame the attitudes of the farmers for the problem, as they and their families can struggle to survive on the low pay provided to them for producing cacao beans.

Thus it is clear that the actions of craft bean-to-bar chocolate companies like Parliament Chocolate can be associated with some of the primary problems with the chocolate industry today, namely the use of slavery and child labour on the cacao farms and the potential shortage of cocoa bean supply in the future. The recent ‘exponential rise’ (Pierson) in these small firms strongly suggests there is a belief amongst many that things need to change in the chocolate industry in order for it to become an ethical industry and keep up with the ever rising demand. Whilst reluctant to act at first, it appears that the multinational confectionary companies are begging to take responsibility for these problems in the chocolate industry. Mars, for example, is combining science and increased farmer outreach in an attempt to achieve its goal of only using sustainably used cocoa in its products by the year 2020 (NCA). With other companies such as Hershey and Nestle announcing similar initiatives, it is clear that the increase in bean-to-bar companies, coupled with various others pleads for reform, are being taken into account by the large chocolate manufacturers and causing acting to be taken.

Ultimately, from investigating the methods they use in the production of their chocolate, it is evident that craft chocolate companies not only have a passion for making high quality, traditional chocolate, but also much concern for the cacao industry regarding the problems that it currently faces. The massive increase in these companies is a sign that more and more people are realising the current path of the industry is not acceptable, as it encourages the use of slave and child labour and a potential shortage of chocolate in the near future. Large chocolate companies are beginning to take action however, and whilst it seems there will still be problems for many years to come, there is hope of the chocolate industry one day becoming an ethically sound and sustainable business.

Works Cited

  • Mikell, G. ‘Cocoa and Chaos in Ghana’. (1991)
  • Albritton, R. ‘Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry’. Food and Culture (3rd Edition) (2013)
  • Robbins, J. ‘Is There Slavery in Your Chocolate?’. (2010)
  • National Confectioners Association. ‘ Mars Invested in Cocoa’s Future’. NCA Journal Vol 2 (2012)
  • Pierson, D. “Artisanal, Hand Crafted Chocolate Is a Growing Niche.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 28 Feb. 2015. Web. 06 May 2015.
  • “Parliament Chocolate.” Parliament Chocolate. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2015. http://www.parliamentchocolate.com/

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