Valrhona Chocolate, created in 1922 by French pastry chefs, has long been committed to producing high-quality chocolates (Coe and Coe 259). They also take pride in projecting a sustainable business plan, which is admirable when considering that chocolate companies are often not held accountable for their actions. Valrhona sources Criollo and Trinitario cacao from Guanaja, Venezuela, Madigascar, Trinidad and Tobago, and most recently the Dominican Republic (Valrhona 4). It has published a Social Responsibility Report for public consumption which outlines the many ways it is committed to its suppliers, employees, consumers, and the community at large. In analyzing Valrhona’s practices in each of these areas in relation to the grander sociohistorical environment of the chocolate supply chain, we can better understand Valrhona’s success and shortcomings. Based on these conclusions, I will argue that Valrhona is on the path to solving many of the ethical problems that come with producing chocolate from the bean to the bar, but also has some room for improvement.
At the Source
First, Valrhona claims that they are committed to their suppliers. They have set up a “Buyer’s Code of Conduct” that encourages buyers to communicate fairly with suppliers, act sustainably and buy ethically (Valrhona 9). While this does not ensure that their buyers will behave this way, it is a step in the right direction. One of the biggest problems facing cacao farmers is how they may be exploited by buyers and not paid fairly, possibly being taken advantage of by both big chocolate companies and the local governments (Lockwood). At least they are attempting to prevent this.
In addition, Valrhona offers programs to teach cacao growers about research, planting cacao, and ways to improve (Valrhona 12). This is all part of their sustainability pledge: to build long-term relationships with their farmers, which is in the best interest of both the cacao farmers and Valrhona itself. I think this is very important because it means that the future of cacao, and of high quality chocolate, is being carefully considered.
Below is a short video created by Valrhona showing an idealized version of their newest plantation in the Domincan Republic, touting great treatment of farmers and high quality cacao:
Child labor is one of the most concerning issues facing the cacao industry today, and is an example of how farmers may also be the exploiters. In the United States, legislation was almost passed that would require a label stating that no child labor was used in the making of the chocolate, but it was heavily lobbied and did not pass. In the end, the Harkin-Engels Protocol was created. This was a voluntary pledge to work toward more ethical and credible standards, but has yet to prove itself as successful because the companies who signed it are not held accountable if they do not meet these standards (Coe and Coe 264).
Valrhona actually did not sign this protocol. They do, however, claim that they are committed to fight child labor on their cacao farms by regularly visiting plantations and otherwise relying on Fair Trade, Rain Forest and UTZ certifications. They also maintain that 80% of their supply chain is 100% traceable, meaning that each part of the supply chain is held accountable (for 80% of its cacao)(Valrhona 15). While this is a great feat, I would argue that it still leaves 20% of its products open to child labor and other ethical oversights, and any chance of child labor is not ideal. This keeps the cacao industry plagued by the same slavery used by early 19th century chocolate companies (Coe and Coe). We are past this as a society, and ideally chocolate companies should settle for nothing less than 100% accountability.
In addition, plantation visits and other certifications are only marginally helpful. For example, to become Fair Trade certified, farmers have to pay more to be a part of a certified co-op, which means that those who are underpaid are unable to be certified and those farmers who are already wealthier are benefitted (Martin). So while Valrhona claims that they are “fighting” child labor, there is still much room for improvement on this front.
One area where Valrhona has begun to prove itself is in its community outreach programs for cacao growing communities. They have co-founded a small school in their newest plantation in the Dominican Republic, and built a school on their Madagascar plantation. These initiatives may also help ease chances of child labor by giving children a chance at an education, but seem to be focused more on promoting the future success of their plantations than anything else.
In addition to promoting sustainable and ethical relationships with cacao suppliers, Valrhona also claims to improve the lives of its employees and community where the chocolate is manufactured in France. In fact, their investment in their employees appears to exceed their interest in those who grow their cacao. They pride themselves on providing extensive training, equal opportunities, and even psychological counseling to their employees (Valrhona 18), all to improve the quality of their product and ensure that the company continues to flourish. They even organize trips for some employees to travel to their plantations and see how cacao is cultivated, likely an amazing learning experience. However they do not offer this same privilege in reverse: farmers are not invited to see the manufacturing process. This alone shows inequality between the farmers who are paid relatively little for doing extremely laborious work and Valrhona’s employees.
Unlike Hershey’s Chocolate in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where an entire town was built to house and service its employees (Coe and Coe 251), Valrhona’s company is relatively small and so it spends its efforts on community outreach outside of itself. Conscious of its impact on its local community, Valrhona donates money and services to develop its surroundings and ensure a minimal environmental footprint (Valrhona 29-30). They regularly survey local residents for feedback on their progress, and prove to be successful in improving the lives of not only their own employees, but those who live in their community.
For the Greater World of Chocolate
Since it was established in 1922, Valrhona has primarily focused on producing high quality chocolate for pastry chefs. Even world-renowned French pastry chef Pierre Herme, commonly known as the “Picasso of Pastry”, works exclusively with Valrhona because of their extensive knowledge of chocolate and their ability to consistently produce it well (Williams 176). And with the birth of L’ecole du Grand Chocolat in 1989 and its two newer outposts in Japan, and most recently in 2014, the United States, Valrhona has become synonymous with expertise in the world of chocolate all around the globe. This is unlike any other chocolate company, and shows a true dedication to this unique craft. Valrhona is also responsible for promoting and even creating some of the world’s leading pastry competitions, thereby furthering its reputation as a leader in haute cuisine and promoting an interest in the pastry arts, while also donating sales to charitable causes (Valrhona 25).
While Valrhona has made great strides in ethically and sustainably sourcing and producing its chocolate, there is still room for improvement. One area they do not openly discuss is how much their farmers are being paid and what their working conditions are truly like, so there is no way to know if money is going to the farmers, their co-op, or even into the local government’s pocket. The only mention is that they “encourage local suppliers to support their local economies” (Valrhona 9). This loosely stated policy is likely not the most effective strategy to ensure equal pay.
Once again, their response to the issue of child labor is also lacking – they could take on full accountability and focus more energy on eliminating any chance of child slave labor all together, rather than claiming that only 80% of their cacao is child labor-free. More of their efforts seem to be located in serving their own local communities and pastry chef consumers than that of the farmers who work to grow their cacao, which demonstrates Valrhona’s greater commitment to quality and the future of the industry than to their farming partners.
One more interesting thing to note is that one of their main missions is to meet the stakeholder’s expectations (Valrhona 6), and because they do not delineate what their stakeholder’s expectations are, this may suggest that their primary goal is to make money rather than behave sustainably. (However I cannot fault them for that, as a business should indeed have the goal to be profitable.) Still, there is the sense that because this report was voluntarily released, many of Valrhona’s weaknesses may not be overtly evident.
Having weighed these weaknesses against their strengths, I think it can still be said that Valrhona is on its way to meeting its goal of developing high quality chocolate in an ethically sustainable and consistent way. Of course there will always be room for improvement. But building schools, offering training, donating services and money to local causes and requesting their suppliers to behave ethically are all steps in the right direction. In this way, Valrhona is a leader of the modern chocolate industry – all while producing some of the finest chocolates in the world.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The True History of Chocolate”. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Lockwood, Sarah. “Exploiters or Exploited? Cocoa Production in West Africa.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 23 March 2015. Class Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/Globalization.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 8 April 2015. Class Lecture.
Williams, P. and Eber, J. “Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate”. Vancouver, CA: Wilmor Publishing Corporation, 2012. Print.
Valrhona. Corporate Social Responsibility Report. 2012-2013. Group Espirit Libre: Tain I’Hermitage, France. Retrived from: http://www.valrhona-chocolate.com/files/Valrhona-CRS-Sept-2013.pdf.