An Ethnographic Analysis of the Taza Chocolate Company

Chocolate as a consumable commodity dates back all the way to 1500 B.C. when the Olmec civilization discovered the beans that would go on to become one of the most sought-after foods in the world.  The history of the cacao industry is as rich as its products taste. However, it also possesses a dark past ― one that is rooted in grave issues, such as child labor, unfair trade, and extremely harmful side effects.  As chocolate’s popularity has continued to grow in the 21st century, assisted by commercial advertisements and more widespread manufacturing, new companies are entering the market and attempting to combat the industry’s problems.  While these companies tend to be smaller and produce more expensive chocolate, they provide hope for the future of the chocolate industry.

The Unsettling History of the Cacao Industry

Slavery is a historical scourge that has unfortunately played a significant role in the chocolate industry.  Institutionalized slavery was widespread all throughout the global continents, from the Spanish encomienda system, where conquerors demanded tribute and forced labor from the indigenous inhabitants, to the system of chattel slavery, in which people were treated as the personal property of an owner and were bought and sold as commodities during the transatlantic slave trade (Martin, 2019).  The slaves were forced to work under intense heat, sometimes for 18 hours a day, in conditions that were so extreme that the life expectancy for slaves brought to the Caribbean and Brazil was only seven to eight years upon arrival. A key example of post-abolition slave labor occurred in West Africa in São Tomé and Príncipe, a Portuguese colony that produces chocolate for the Cadbury Chocolate company.  In 1905, Reporter Henry Nevinson uncovered and publicly exposed the exploitation of slaves, however, it wasn’t until a decade later that major British companies formally boycotted the cocoa (Martin, 2019). Slavery in West Africa was utterly inhumane ― people were being traded for guns and other commodities and many died on the ships before making it to their future destination (Satre, 2005)

Child labor has also been at the forefront of the immoral issues that plague the chocolate industry.  Currently, 2.3 million children are working in the cocoa fields of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire (“Slave Free Chocolate,” n.d.).  Although the majority of these children are working for their family plantations, they are doing so without much choice and many without receiving an education ― in both Ghana and the Ivory Coast, 40 percent of children aged 5 to 17 cannot read or write a single sentence (Ryan, 2011).  A 2007 report revealed that 15,000 children worked in conditions of forced labor picking beans in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. These individuals were trafficked from extremely poor countries, including Mali and Burkina Faso, and worked on some of the 1.5 million small cocoa farms in West Africa (Aaronson, 2007).  In one case study, Carol Off calls attention to the trafficking that occurs from Mali to the Ivory Coast.  These children are living in brutal, harsh conditions ― working countless hours in extremely humid heat, toiling on the farms with not even the slightest understanding of the concept of chocolate (Off, 2008).  As Off notes, “Everyone looks tired and hungry” because these children are underfed and overworked (Off, 2008).  She writes that, “The farmers, or their supervisors, were working the youngest people almost to death.  The boys had little to eat, slept in bunkhouses that were locked during the night, and were frequently beaten. They had horrible sores on their backs and shoulders, some as a result of carrying the heavy bags of cocoa, but some likely effects of physical abuse” (Off, 2008).  Despite the tireless efforts of advocates like Diplomat Abdoulaye Macko, who works against the government to try to bring hundreds of children in the Ivory Coast to safety (Off, 2008), child labor is still common worldwide and must be eliminated.  

The United States has attempted to address this issue by enacting legislation that would reduce the occurrence of child labor.  Under the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, the U.S. Customs Service is supposed to refuse entry to any goods manufactured using forced labor (Aaronson, 2007).  However, this government agency very rarely investigates or interdicts such products (Aaronson, 2007).  While this legislative act may appear to be beneficial on paper, if it is not enforced, then it might as well not exist.  

In 2001, cocoa producers, traders, suppliers, governments, unions, and civil-society groups agreed to a solution spearheaded by Congressmen Eliot Engel, who introduced a legislative amendment to fund the development of a “No child slavery” label for chocolate products sold in the United States.  Tom Harkin, a Senator from Iowa, later signed on to support the amendment (Harkin Engel Protocol, n.d.).  The Harkin-Engel Protocol was created to ensure that the growing and processing of cocoa beans was done in a manner that complies with the Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which pledges to abolish child labor and adult forced labor on cocoa farms in West Africa (Harkin Engel Protocol, n.d.).  The protocol was signed by the eight largest chocolate companies, two U.S. Senators, one U.S. congressman, the Ambassador to the Ivory Coast, and a few NGO and industry alliance representatives (Harkin Engel Protocol, n.d.).

Yet, five years after the protocol was passed, children were still picking cacao in unsafe and unjust conditions.  In 2006, BBC reporter Humphrey Hawksley conducted an in-depth investigation of the conditions of cacao plantations in the Ivory Coast and found little evidence that industry efforts were changing longstanding farm conditions (Aaronson, 2007).  He concluded, “No one is in charge of the efforts put in place under the Cocoa Protocol. There’s no place the buck stops. In the cocoa belt, it’s only a short drive to find children working with machetes amid some of the worst poverty anywhere in the world” (Aaronson, 2007).  This demonstrates the ineffective nature of a sector-specific strategy in addressing the broader cultural, social, and economic factors in West Africa that are responsible for child labor.

The industry’s promise to reduce child labor in the Ivory Coast and Ghana by 70%, in response to the 2001 protocol, had not been met by the 2015 target date, so the deadline was simply extended to 2020 (“Behind a bittersweet industry,” 2016).  Continuously pushing back the deadline to experience a feeling of accomplishment when met is not a viable solution when millions of West African children are still doing the dangerous and physically taxing work of harvesting cocoa.  The solution lies in acting now.

Slavery and child labor are not the only issues that haunt the chocolate industry.  Fair trade is a labeling initiative aimed at improving the lives of the poor in developing countries by offering better terms to producers and helping them to organize (Dragusanu, Giovannucci, & Nunn, 2014).  This movement creates price levels that provide a livable wage for producers that and establishes a price floor which ensures a minimum price for which a Fair Trade-certified product can be sold to a Fair Trade buyer (Dragusanu, Giovannucci, & Nunn, 2014).  With Fair Trade regulations, certain harmful chemicals are prohibited for Fair Trade production, helping to eliminate the use of less-desirable agrochemicals and replacing them with natural biological methods (Dragusanu, Giovannucci, & Nunn, 2014).  This approach creates greater economic stability, as illustrated through a sample of 228 coffee farmers from Nicaragua.  Researcher Christopher Bacon examined this population and found that the Fair Trade farmers report being less concerned about losing their farms in the coming year than conventional farmers (Bacon, 2005).

It is evident that implementing Fair Trade will work towards rebuilding the chocolate industry’s ethical foundation, however this method has not been widely integrated into societies where chocolate is grown, leaving many farmers with barely enough money to get by and leaving the environment in ruins.  As of 2010, there were 62 cocoa-growing cooperatives in the U.S. Fair Trade system. That year, the number of Fair Trade- certified cocoa products in the U.S. increased by 67 percent from 2009 (De Neve, Peter, Pratt, & Wood, 2008).  However, this is still a very small percentage of the total market for cocoa product, meaning that the vast majority of companies are still not employing fair trade practices.  A similar trend is evident in the coffee industry ― Fair Trade-certified coffee exports were only 1.8 percent of global exports in 2009 (Dragusanu, Giovannucci, & Nunn, 2014).  In order to improve these sales, it is essential that companies not only enact change, but that the general population be educated on what Fair Trade policies entail so that they can be conscious of buying these products in stores.  Only 34% of Americans even understand what the concept of Fair Trade requires (De Neve, Peter, Pratt, & Wood, 2008).  Without a greater public awareness, Fair Trade policies will not be adopted by corporate chocolate companies that care more about their profits than the ethics of their product production.  A global movement advocating for the payment of higher prices to exporters and improved social and environmental standards, cannot succeed if people are completely unaware of this initiative.  

While the primary problem of Fair Trade is that it is not practiced widely enough, there are issues with the concept of Fair Trade itself.  U.S. products which have as little as 11 percent of Fair Trade-produced chocolate can be labeled as Fair Trade chocolate (Brown, 2013). This allows larger companies that meet the minimum requirement to receive the Fair Trade label with a limited investment and without necessarily supporting the moral objectives associated with producing chocolate in this manner.  Maintaining such a low minimum requirement shifts the focus towards branding and detracts from the value that comes with raising salaries for farmers and establishing more beneficial environmental regulations. One of the major upsides to the chocolate industry is that this highly-sought-after commodity is affordable to all. However, Fair Trade chocolate is more expensive to sell, thus creating a higher financial decision for consumers.  Although Fair Trade does not solve all of the problems within the chocolate industry, it is a step in the right direction.

The Solution: Taza Chocolate

Taza Chocolate was founded by Alex Whitmore after he took his first bite of stone ground chocolate while traveling in Oaxaca, Mexico (“About Taza,” n.d.).  Whitmore was so inspired by the rustic intensity of the flavor that he decided to create a chocolate factory in his hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts (“About Taza,” n.d.).  In 2005, he officially launched the Taza Chocolate company with his wife, Kathleen Fulton.  The two were the first chocolate makers to establish a third-party certified Direct Trade Cacao Certification Program (“About Taza,” n.d.), meaning that the company maintains direct relationships with their cacao farmers and pays a premium above the Fair Trade price, ensuring that these workers are treated with the utmost respect, thanked for their efforts, and receive a living wage.  Through the direct trade approach, Taza Chocolate is committed to establishing real, face-to-face relationships with growers who respect the environment and fair labor practices (“Taza Direct Trade,” n.d.).  They pledge to visit their partners in Pisa, Haiti; Oko Caribe, Dominican Republic; Finca Elvesia, Dominican Republic; Alto Beni Cacao Co., Bolivia every year (verified through E-tickets), pay a price premium of at least 500 USD per metric ton above the market price for their partners’ cacao beans, source the highest quality beans (defined by having at least a 75 percent fermentation rate and dried to 7 percent moisture or less), and work exclusively with USDA Certified Organic cacao farms (“Taza Direct Trade,” n.d.).

Taza not only pledges to carry out these actions, but it also publishes an annual transparency report to provide proof.  This pioneering company works to address all of the unethical issues plaguing the chocolate industry ― there is no child labor, the process of harvesting chocolate does not harm the environment, farmers are guaranteed livable salaries, and growing partners are visited at least once a year to establish a strong relationship.  As a result of publishing the first transparency report back in 2012, other companies, such as Dandelion Chocolate and Askinosie chocolate, decided to follow suit and implemented this same production method. Madecasse Chocolate decided to take it a step further and adopted a direct trade program in 2016 in addition to publishing annual transparency reports (“Taza Direct Trade,” n.d.).  Hopefully, in the years to come, more companies will feel pressured to release these reports and guarantee that they are using exclusively ethical practices throughout the entire chocolate manufacturing chain.  Taza’s most recent report from 2018 can be found here.  The company also released a visual summary of the current year’s progress, so visitors to their website can immediately begin to understand how Taza is transforming the chocolate industry.  This chart is last year’s summary:

     Source: https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/2018-transparency-report

As the report indicates, Taza Chocolate makes a tremendous effort to guarantee a strong relationship with their growing partners.  This company works to connect all aspects of the supply chain and eliminates all disconnect between producers and manufacturers. Gilbert Gonzales, who visited the farm in Pisa, expresses that “Our objective in getting the cocoa is to create a different dynamic in the chain. The relationship with the farmers is a direct one. We go to the farmers, we talk to them.”  Taza released a video of their sourcing in Haiti in which the employees are seen spending significant time with their growing partners and allowing them to try the finished product. The Taza visitors will spend 15 hours a day in the field meeting with their partners in an attempt to make “the northern part of Haiti smile more by seeing their success and being able to send their children to school.”

Taza Chocolate strives to ensure that the company never partakes in slavery or child labor and maintain its core value of developing a strong relationship with its farmers and operating on the most ethical grounds.

Big 5 Who? Taza Reigns Victorious

If someone were asked to name a chocolate brand, they would probably only be able to recall those that control the majority of the industry’s revenues ― Mars, Nestlé, Hersheys, Mondelez, or Ferrero.  Although these companies might be successful with their marketing and financial strategies, they lack high ethical standards. Companies, including Nestlé, Hershey, Cargill, ADM, and Barry Callebout, have admitted to buying cacao beans from fields that utilize child labor, and they vowed to remedy the solution.  Unfortunately, very little has changed in the 14 years since these companies agreed to no longer exploit children for their labor (“Slave Free Chocolate,” n.d.).

Some of the Big 5 chocolate companies have done research to determine if their products are ethically sourced and produced.  Nestlé found that more than 3,000 children are working on the cocoa farms that produce its chocolate (Wilk, 2018).  Mars has also acknowledged the practice of child labor in the harvesting of its chocolate and stated that by 2020, none of its chocolate will be produced using child labor (Wilk, 2018).  This claim feels like an empty promise and, given the history of these companies extending deadlines because they couldn’t be met, I would not be surprised if Mars pushes back the deadline to a later year.  However, one redeeming quality of this company is its effort to implement Fair Trade practices. In January of 2010, Kit Kat converted its bar to use Fair-Trade certified cocoa (Pride, 2012).  Hopefully, Mars can begin to replicate this practice across its product lines and work towards earning all of its offerings the Fair Trade label.

The Hershey Chocolate Company is the leading chocolate manufacturer in North America, controlling 42 percent of the U.S. chocolate market and generating more than $6 billion in revenues.  Despite the undeniable success of this company, Hershey’s falls into the trap of needlessly exploiting children for its benefits. In 2011, nearly two million children, including an estimated 819,921 in the Ivory Coast and 997,357 in Ghana, worked illegally on cocoa farms (Manza, 2014).  Only five to ten percent of these children actually worked for any pay and the rest were forced to assist with their families’ farms (Manza, 2014).  Similar to Mars, Hershey’s pledged in 2012 to use only 100 percent Fair Trade-certified cocoa by 2020 (Nieburg, 2012), but its current and previous practices provide little indication that this will transform into a reality.  Hershey’s was one of the companies that refused to participate in the São Tomé and Príncipe boycott and continues to take advantage of child labor.  However, reducing child labor and implementing serious reforms in West Africa is more complicated than it appears on the surface. Farmers describe the efforts of these larger companies to improve the ethics of the chocolate industry as more akin to intimidation than to education.  The farmers don’t understand that the exploitation of their labor is wrong and “People are worried that America will not buy our cocoa anymore,” says Julien Kra Yau, the director of a farmers’ cooperative in Thoui (Parenti, 2008).  Getting the larger companies on board and enabling them to turn to smaller companies, such as Taza Chocolate, for guidance is crucial in bringing about a full reformation of the chocolate industry within the next few decades.

Getting up Close and Personal with Taza:

While researching the strengths of Taza in contrast to the flaws of the chocolate industry as a whole is effective in formulating a complete ethnographic analysis of this company, I decided to take it a step further and experience Taza first hand.  My roommate’s parents had shipped a selection of Taza chocolate as a consolation for not being able to fit this class into her schedule, and I tried it myself. As someone who typically prefers milk chocolate that is high in sugar, I actually enjoyed the richness of the Mexican dark chocolate.  Its smooth texture enhanced my experience and the chocolate left a pleasant aftertaste in my mouth. After spotting Taza Chocolate at a bagel shop in Ithaca a few weeks ago, I also started to recognize that Taza Chocolate is extremely accessible and gathered a brief collection of photos of Taza in various locations.   

Source: Collegetown Bagels, Ithaca, NY
Source: http://www.tazachocolate.com
Mailed to my roommate from her parents in Seattle, WA

Source: Fairway Market, New York, NY; Photo taken by my mother

I reached out to the company via email and had a brief exchange with Jesse Last, the Director of Cacao Sourcing & Strategic Initiatives for the company.  I initially asked him what he thought were the biggest problems in the cocoa industry, and how Taza works to address them. This was his response:

“The cocoa industry is notoriously opaque, and this lack of transparency translates into a lack of accountability on issues ranging from deforestation to child labor to poverty. Rather than ignore these issues or hide behind a certification that may or may not make a difference, Taza welcomes transparency and shares our Direct Trade approach to sourcing cacao in a way that’s seriously good and fair for all. Some of our specific sourcing strategies include paying higher prices for higher quality cacao beans, building honest and open relationships by visiting our Direct Trade partners and having them visit us, and agreeing on clear environmental and social standards for growing and trading cacao beans. It’s not that at Taza we have all the answers, but we have an outsized impact because we openly share our questions and our learnings with the rest of the industry.”

I also wanted to know more about how Taza can work to inspire other companies, such as the Big 5, to follow suit in being more transparent and utilizing direct trade practices.  This is what Mr. Last had to say:

“High level though, we work to inspire others by publishing our Annual Transparency Report, sharing our Direct Trade Standard Operating Procedure (basically, our sourcing playbook) with other companies including chocolate makers that wish to become Direct Trade certified, and collaborating with other chocolate companies that share our values and vision for a more sustainable cacao industry.”

And finally, I was interested to know what his experience was like visiting the growing partners, to which Jesse Last responded:

“I have been, and the experiences were different from one another in many ways but similarly important to building a personal relationship with the farmers and the cacao processors with whom we partner. Here are a few blog posts that give an idea:  Haiti, Bolivia, DR, and Ghana.”

Combining extensive research and personal insights provides a complete analysis of how Taza Chocolate succeeds as a leading force in working towards remedying the issues troubling the chocolate industry.  Although these issues are extremely complicated and will not be resolved overnight, Taza provides hope that future companies will adopt its practices and help create a fair, ethical, and affordable chocolate industry.  

Works Cited

Aaronson, S. A. (2007). Globalization and child labor: the cause can also be a cure. YaleGlobal Online, Yale Centre for the Study of Globalization, available at: http://yaleglobal.yale. edu/display.

About Taza. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/about-taza

Bacon, Christopher. 2005. “Confronting the Coffee Crisis: Can Fair Trade, Organic, and Specialty Coffee Reduce Small-Scale Farmer Vulnerability in Northern Nicaragua?” World Development 33(3): 497–511

Behind a bittersweet industry. Fortune. 1 March 2016. Retrieved 7 January 2018.

Brown, K. R. (2013). Buying into fair trade: Culture, morality, and consumption. NYU Press.

De Neve, G., Peter, L., Pratt, J., & Wood, D. C. (Eds.). (2008). Hidden hands in the market: Ethnographies of fair trade, ethical consumption, and corporate social responsibility. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

Dragusanu, R., Giovannucci, D., & Nunn, N. (2014). The economics of fair trade. Journal of economic perspectives, 28(3), 217-36.

Harkin Engel Protocol. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.slavefreechocolate.org/harkin-engel-protocol

Manza, K. (2014). Making chocolate sweeter: How to encourage Hershey Company to clean up its supply chain and eliminate child labor. BC Int’l & Comp. L. Rev., 37, 389

Martin, Carla. (2019). AFRAMER119X: Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor, week 5, [Course Presentation]. Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1-tCZfTFSi7EuZqb1dxrJatPuv–33tERRDYM0y_PZBg/edit?usp=sharing

Nieburg, O. (2012). Hershey stuns critics with commitment to source 100% certified cocoa by 2020. Confectionery News.

Off, Carol. 2008. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. pp. 1-8, 119-161

Parenti, C. (2008). Chocolate’s bittersweet economy Seven years after the industry agreed to abolish child labor, little progress has been made. Fortune Magazine, 15.

Pride, W. (2012). Marketing 2012. Cengage Learning.

Ryan, Orla. 2011. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. pp. 43- 62

Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 1-32, 73-99

Slave Free Chocolate. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.slavefreechocolate.org/

Taza Direct Trade. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/taza-direct-trade

2018 Transparency Report. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/2018-transparency-report

Wilk, A. (2018). 5 Major Chocolate Companies That Use Child Labor. Retrieved from https://www.theodysseyonline.com/5-major-chocolate-companies-child-labor




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