The Ethical Choices of Chocolate and Carbon

Any food we eat leaves a global environmental and ethical footprint, and chocolate, as adored as it is, is no exception. This blog post will consider the deleterious global effects of chocolate’s production and consumption and will provide guidelines for consumers who seek to enjoy its delicious flavor while minimizing some of its harmful global impacts.

The most comprehensive way to analyze the environmental impact of cacao, the raw material processed into chocolate, is to address every input and output for every aspect of its lifecycle from growing the raw materials to disposing of the wrapper post consumption. This impact analysis must consider how the cacao tree is cultivated and how the beans are then fermented, dried, roasted, winnowed (removal of the shell), and crushed. It must also consider how the sugar and vanilla used as ingredients in chocolate are grown and processed. If the chocolate is milk chocolate, it must consider how the cows are fed, milked, and housed during the winter, and how the milk itself is pasteurized and dried. Even the soy lecithin, a natural product used in small amounts to stabilize the coco solids in a processed bar, has a story with environmental footprints along the way – oil is extracted from raw soybeans, then mixed with water, and then dried. Every step along these supply chains require electricity and transportation, and the transportation vehicles themselves have to be manufactured.

This is only to demonstrate the complexity of accurately determining and comparing chocolate’s environmental footprint. A thorough lifecycle analysis that considers every impact from the tree to the consumer’s stomach is challenging, as every input requires another input further down the line and the supply chain never ends. Because of this, few have undertaken the challenge of calculating a full life-cycle analysis for this cherished food. But the analyses that do exist can help us understand chocolate’s environmental footprint and guide us in consumer choices. 

One lifecycle analysis was undertaken by ESU-services, a sustainability consulting firm, for cocoa produced in Ghana and consumed in Europe. Ghana is the world’s second largest cocoa producing nation after Cote d’Ivoire. While Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire have startlingly different social structures and levels of government regulation within the cacao industry, they neighbor each other geographically and both produce the Forastero variety of cocoa. In other words, a lifecycle analysis of just Ghanaian cacao is representative of a large portion of the world’s current cacao supply.

This ESU-services study found that on-farm activities account for over 70% of chocolate’s total environmental footprint. Retail packaging, distribution and selling, and transport from retailer to household account for the remaining portion of the footprint. Most food products have agricultural production footprints that account for a majority of their overall environmental footprint, so 70% puts chocolate on-par with other foods. The ESU-services study also found the global warming potential from the production of white chocolate to be more than double that of dark chocolate (milk chocolate falls in the middle). This is because white chocolate is largely made with milk solids and cows produce huge amounts of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. The Cadbury chocolate company found a similar result when it calculated the carbon footprint of its chocolate. The single largest source of emissions came from the production of the milk. In-house production accounted for 20% of emissions, sugar production was 10%, and packaging was just 2%. When other environmental criteria like heavy metal contamination, water usage, radioactive waste production, and eutrophication is considered, dark chocolate still has a lower footprint than white chocolate, but this gap closes. The ESG-services study also made an interesting point about the importance of how chocolate is transported. Because air travel has a carbon footprint almost 100 times larger per pound than cargo ship travel, chocolate that is purchased duty-free at the airport and transported home by airplane has the highest environmental footprint of all.

ESU-services made another report on the environmental lifecycle analysis of chocolate wrapped in aluminum foil. Although aluminum is an environmentally destructive metal to mine, the results from this study were almost identical to the results from the Ghanaian analysis. This further supports the claim that packaging and distribution are only of minor environmental importance compared to the on-farm and processing activities.

A third life-cycle assessment that sought to consider all the stakeholders of Ghana’s cocoa industry came to the same conclusion that the production of the raw cacao accounts for a majority of chocolate’s environmental impact. The footprint from agricultural production was followed by processing and chocolate manufacturing, and the study found room for improvement in the efficiency of the energy-intensive equipment such as roasters at the processing factory. While improvements to on-farm sustainability is the lowest hanging fruit, this last energy-related finding suggests that a consumer could look for companies that boast processing facilities run with entirely renewable energy.  

The tree that produces cacao grows in tropical environments, so cacao growing regions overlap significantly with global biodiversity hotspots.

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As recent chocolate demand growth has overwhelmed West Africa, cacao production has expanded in South America. This expansion of  cacao cultivation has unfortunately been paired with an increase in rainforest clear-cutting. By exacerbating climate change and destroying natural habitats, agricultural land-use changes are one of chocolate’s primary environmental impacts. Instead of conducting a complete lifecycle analysis like ESU-services, the World Resources Institute used satellite images to calculate the carbon footprint of just these land-use changes. The study looked specifically at Peru, which has seen a nearly five-fold increase in cacao production between 1990 and 2013, and found that consideration of the land-use changes doubles the carbon footprint of chocolate. While this land-use analysis is not as comprehensive as a full lifecycle analysis, it none-the-less raises the important issue of deforestation in the cacao industry.   

Theobroma Cacao is an understory tree, so farmers can theoretically cultivate it among the existing rainforest, and if integrated in this way, cacao is actually a comparatively sustainable crop. The government of Peru has even partnered with the US Agency for International Development to encourage the cultivation of cacao as a way of protecting the forest. In regions that were formerly clear-cut to grow coca (the raw substance for cocaine), the introduction of sustainable cacao cultivation not only supports the regrowth of forest, but also has social value as it provides an alternative to the drug trade associated with coca. 

New research shows that cacao, a crop that traditionally prefers shade, can be grown in direct sun as long as it is heavily irrigated. This allows companies to grow cacao on cleared plots of land rather than integrating it among the existing forest. The role of the consumer in working against land-use changes is to buy from companies that encourage integrated crop systems. Chocolate companies that work with farmers to sustainably cultivate the cacao that ends up in their bars will advertise that they are doing so.

The easiest way for companies to signal their environmental awareness to consumers is through outside certifications. Farms certified through the Rainforest Alliance, known for its iconic green frog symbol, must meet criteria encompassing social, economic, and environmental sustainability set by the Sustainable Agricultural Network. These farmers are audited regularly and receive a price premium for their cacao. If a chocolate wrapper is made with paper or another wood-derived product, the company may choose to pursue a certification from the Forest Stewardship Council. This ensures the material was made with sustainably and ethically managed forestry practices.

Another certification is organic, which simply means that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were applied during cultivation. While these agricultural chemicals present an array of environmental concerns, there is also debate about the benefits of improving yields through traditional farming methods to reduce the environmental problems associated with land-use changes. Additionally, many have begun to attach other expectations about product quality and ethical fairness to organic certification. With the proliferation of food certifications, confusion about each one’s mission is common among consumers.

On top of its environmental impacts, chocolate production also has ethical implications felt globally. In addition to aligning unfortunately with global biodiversity hotspots, the geographic distribution of cacao production also aligns with areas of increased poverty. Theobroma cacao grows within 20 degrees north and south of the Equator, and due to the unfortunate inverse correlation between proximity to equator and wealth, the regions most suitable to growing cacao are also some of the poorest.

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A 2015 study found that the average income per capita per day for an entire cacao farming household in Ghana is approximately $0.50-$0.80 USD3. This is largely because less than five percent of the price of a typical chocolate bar makes its way back to the farmer. Worst of all, a cacao farmer’s already meager income is highly volatile because yields are dependent on natural events and global commodity prices are constantly in flux3. This irregular income further undermines a farmer’s ability to climb out of poverty. Cacao farm labor is both dangerous and demanding, and farmers are marginalized and under-represented. Because of this, less than one-quarter of West African cacao farmers would recommend that their children go into farming3. There is significant evidence of the worse forms of child labor, as defined by the International Labour Organization, on many West African farms3. Input and labor costs for cacao cultivation are high, so engaging familial labor is common practice. If a child is pulled from school to work on the farm, they lose out on education and the cycle of poverty continues. On a much broader scale, the demand for familial agricultural labor encourages high fertility rates.

Policy aimed at some of these problems suffer from unequal trade agreements, and corporate social responsibility lacks transparency and consumer education. In general, it is challenging to bring wide-scale awareness to these ethical concerns without falling victim to the exploiter-exploited binary3. Just as certifications have risen to respond to the environmental impacts of chocolate, certifications have risen to respond to the ethical impacts of chocolate.

The Fair Trade certification is probably the most recognized among American consumers of these ethically-focused certifications. The Fair Trade organization makes dramatic claims about the positive impact it brings to farmers who are certified with ambitious promises about everything from promoting community development and environmental sustainability to reducing child labor and gender inequality. The UTZ certification seeks similar outcomes of improving product quality, environmental sustainability, and farmer welfare. However, the reality is that the premiums paid to farmers who become certified are insufficient to achieve such dramatic economic, social, and environmental outcomes. Additionally, the certification process itself is expensive and only accessible to farmers who are able to take on the initial financial investment.

Taza, a small bean-to-bar chocolate company, thought Fair Trade was not doing enough and started its own Direct Trade program independently verified by a third party. They exclude all middle-men, visit the farmers they work with annually, and pay prices significantly higher than Fair Trade. Taza also requires that its cacao is grown in agroforestry systems – i.e. the cacao trees are integrated within the existing forest to avoid clear-cutting and radical land-use changes. Taza prides itself on absolute transparency by stating in its annual transparency report exactly how much it paid for each bag of cacao beans. The growth of this company demonstrates consumer buy-in for this supply-chain model, but the involved nature of Taza’s farmer relations is not scalable to the entire chocolate industry. This is only to say that it is a work in progress. All certification programs have their flaws, but they are steps in the right direction by bringing awareness to social and environmental issues in the supply chain of which consumers might not have been previously aware. By purchasing certified products, consumers can also demonstrate their commitment to those values.

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The symbols from certifications do not alone educate consumers, so the burden is on consumers to research the certification requirements for each one. These are the symbols of all the certifications discussed in this blog post.

Chocolate is a $100 billion dollar per year global industry ensnared in negative environmental and ethical footprints. While Europe, the United States, and Canada account for 73% of this global consumption, they produce none of it. This strong misalignment between where cacao is consumed and where it is grown has led to consumer naiveté about its negative footprints. We have yet to develop solutions for all of these impacts, and each cacao growing region has its own microclimate and political and cultural constraints so no one solution or certification is the golden ticket.

These issues require governmental action and multi-stakeholder collaboration, but from the consumer’s perspective, purchasing dark chocolate from companies that work to improve on-farm sustainability through agroforestry systems is a good start. Additionally, consumers can purchase chocolate from companies that support or partner with the International Cocoa Initiative and/or the International Cocoa Organization to end the worst forms of child labor.

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This is a consumer guide for chocolate made by several students at the Harvard Chen School of Public Health. It rates a diversity of commercially-available chocolate bars on environmental, nutritional, and societal metrics and could be a useful tool for consumers trying to mitigate the negative global impacts of their chocolate consumption.

Once chocolate production internalizes its negative social and environmental externalities, the product is going to cost more. But compared to other fine food items like cheese and wine, chocolate can still be a relatively accessible treat. Consumer awareness of the global impacts of the chocolate industry can also extend to a greater understanding and appreciation of the global impacts of other food and non-food products.

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