“Sustainable” Chocolate

What Does it Mean to be Sustainable?

Today, many companies use the term “sustainable” to describe their products or their industry. But what does it mean to be sustainable? The term is used so often that the significance has become ambiguous. According to John C. Long, the former Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Hershey’s and 2008 chairman emeritus of the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), – he served as a representative for Hershey’s despite his retirement from the company earlier in that year – the definition of sustainability was not just ambiguous for the consumer but for the company, as well. In his article published in Wiley InterScience, From Cocoa to CSR: Finding Sustainability in a Cup of Hot Chocolate, Long states that “sustainability covers such a wide range of areas touching on all aspects of business…[it’s] hard to know where to begin” (Long 316). However, one thing is clear, Long says: “…sustainability is directly related to being able to succeed as individual businesses and industries” (Long 316). Therefore, if sustainability is tied with success, then there should be a definite definition. With the “heightened level of attention” surrounding sustainability, one would think that the definition would be exactly the same across all industries or companies within the same industry; and yet, Long, a former executive of one of the largest chocolate companies in the world, is clear that this is not the case: “…the definitions range from a narrow focus on preserving natural resources and the environment to broader quality-of-life visions encompassing economic opportunity, diversity, and access to health care” (Long 316). In either perspective, sustainability should theoretically lead to the betterment of the world and society. However, this has not been the case for the cocoa industry due to a variety of different issues: lack of understanding of the meaning and requirements to effectively create a plan for a more sustainable industry.

“[it’s] hard to know where to begin” (Long 316)

The Rise in Sustainability “Awareness”

With increased consumer awareness of the concept of sustainability, companies such as Hershey Co. were quick to react and offer a plan. This concept of “‘doing well by doing good’” was quickly adopted into “mainstream business practice” (Long 315). By 2008, a survey found that “47.7 percent of companies considered sustainability and corporate responsibility an important driver of innovation” (Bonn and Fisher 5). This means that nearly 50% of companies – not specifically in the cocoa industry – found sustainability to be “an important driver of innovation” and yet there was not a definition that thoroughly explained what this concept meant in relation to industries.

According to Dr. Ingrid Bonn – Associate Professor of Strategy at the School of Business, Bond University – and Dr. Jose Fisher – Associate Professor of Management at the School of Business, University of New England, Australia –  “becoming a sustainable organization is a long and arduous process” that requires “continuous capability building and management attention and the need to integrate all sustainability initiatives so they they form a cohesive whole” (Bonn and Fisher 12). However, they also recognize that a large part in being effectively sustainable comes from the true understanding that there are three components: environmental, economic and social sustainability. This highly contrasts from Long’s claim that sustainability is a “focus on preserving natural resources” or “improving quality-of-life” (Long 316). This highlights the problem, primarily within the cocoa industry, which focuses on just one aspect of sustainability, rather than all three. Therefore, companies such as Hershey Co. cannot claim to be fully sustainable if their focus lies solely in one of the three pillars of sustainability – as shown in Figure 1 above.

Sustainability in the Cacao Industry

With the clarification as to what it means to be sustainable, it is important to analyze how this is evident within a specific industry – the cacao industry. In 2008, Long blamed the lack of a unanimous definition across the cocoa industry on the lack of effective plans in countries such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Despite this awareness of the problem, this issue has continued throughout the years. In a short documentary by Al Jazerra English – as found on Youtube – reporter Nazanine Moshiri travels to the Ivory Coast in 2011 to highlight the conditions of the cocoa farmers. Her interview with some of the farmers reveals that even on a fair-trade certified farm, the government should regulate and fix the price of cocoa to be $1.50 per kilogram. However, buyers usually show no respect for this price and often pay only a little over a dollar per kilogram (Al Jazerra English). Because of this, farmers are not making a profit and are forced to abandon their farms or plant other supplies, which then leads to an increase in the price of cacao. This would then impact the consumer who would have to pay more for the luxury of their chocolate bar. As a result, companies have created a series of plans to improve the conditions within the cocoa industry to ensure that the price of chocolate remains low for their consumer and improves the livelihood of farmers. (For more information, please refer to the video below.)

The Cocoa Farmer

Education and Resources

In order to come up with a plan, companies needed to follow the same path as Nazanine Moshiri did as a reporter: investigate the conditions on the farms. Most of these investigations were conducted in West Africa, where “70 percent of cocoa is produced on small family farms” (Houston and Wryer). In regions such as Ghana or the Ivory Coast, farmers have a “limited access to resources” and a “multitude of social issues, such as low levels of adult literacy…and lack of quality education” (Houston and Wryer). These issues worsen when the price of cacao lowers or when farmers have “low yields attributed to pests, aging trees, and diseases that attack the trees” (Houston and Wryer). While pesticides and fertilizer could increase the yields of cacao, thus increasing the amount the cacao farmer gets paid – as their income stems from their cacao yield – farmers are unfamiliar with “modern farming techniques” (Houston and Wryer). Despite the possibility of increasing resources for farmers – which could create an environmentally sustainable farm – the “low levels of adult literacy” makes it hard for cocoa farmers to effectively learn how to use these supplies or “modern farming techniques” (Houston and Wryer). This proves that without a focus on social sustainability to improve the conditions and education of the cocoa farmers, there cannot be environmental or economic sustainability.

“Multitude of social issues, such as low levels of adult literacy…and lack of quality education” (Houston and Wryer)

In order to come up with a plan, companies needed to follow the same path as Nazanine Moshiri did as a reporter: investigate the conditions on the farms. Most of these investigations were conducted in West Africa, where “70 percent of cocoa is produced on small family farms” (Houston and Wryer). In regions such as Ghana or the Ivory Coast, farmers have a “limited access to resources” and a “multitude of social issues, such as low levels of adult literacy…and lack of quality education” (Houston and Wryer). These issues worsen when the price of cacao lowers or when farmers have “low yields attributed to pests, aging trees, and diseases that attack the trees” (Houston and Wryer).

Simplistic Solutions

Despite the complexity of this issue, some of the biggest companies in the chocolate industry create simplistic solutions. This mostly stems from the lack of a concise definition among these organizations and a lack of focus on all three components (environmental, economic, and social) that make up sustainability. Kerstin Roos critiques this by highlighting the supposed solution that “farmers need only increase productivity” (Roos 5). She points out that “poverty has many dimensions” (Roos 5). T

The reality is that a solution that “increase[s] productivity” cannot target “chronic poverty, child labor, soil degradation and deforestation” without analyzing the root causes of each issue. She continues her argument by stating that increasing productivity is not enough and “development based on growth actually creates more inequalities” (Roos 7). This perception that growth, or productivity, can reduce poverty is reflects a misunderstanding that  “all people benefit when the economy grows” (Roos 5). Therefore, simple stating that sustainability is achieved through increasing productivity reflects a genuine lack of understanding; in fact, it also reflects a lack of planning that will only impact the top layer of a deep rooted issue.

Rapid Solutions

To continue this point, it is important to point out that the simple solution of increasing productivity not only stems from a lack of understanding as to what sustainability needs and requires, but also from a lack of organization and planning. In other words, companies were quick to respond to the “heightened level of attention” surrounding sustainability with a simplified plan that was rather ambiguous in nature (Long 316). The simplified response was a direct result of a company’s rapid timing to provide a solution to target deep issues. John C. Long also criticizes this by highlighting that solutions for problems as big as child labor, poverty, and low yields of cacao do not result from quick-timed responses: “It doesn’t happen by itself, and it doesn’t happen overnight” (Long 317). Long, having been an employee of Hershey Co., recognizes that companies such as Hershey Co. have been guilty of simplifying a large scale problem. However, he is also quick to point out this is issue is larger than just one company. In fact, even if one company recognizes all three pillars of sustainability and takes the time to investigate and create a thorough plan, “it does not happen by itself” (Long 317). In a billion dollar industry, “corporations cannot address the challenges of ensuring a truly sustainable supply chain without working in partnership within their particular industry” (Long 317). In other words, in order to create a sustainable industry, there needs to be systematic change that occurs not only within the governments of the countries in which the cacao farms are located, but within the companies themselves.

“It doesn’t happen by itself, and it doesn’t happen overnight” (Long 317)

Current Conditions and Failed Plans

Without this systematic change that spreads through the entire industry, sustainability efforts will continue to fail. In a news article for Candy Industry, a magazine that provides “in-depth news analysis and comprehensive profiles” of the candy industry, Crystal Lindell – Editor for Candy Industry – provides a detailed report on the failed efforts within the chocolate industry. Her piece titled, Cocoa Sustainability: Goals shift to 2025, she presents coverage of the 2018 Cocoa Barometer – “a biennial review of the state of sustainability in the cocoa sector” (Lindell). Lindell selects certain portions of the report that she deems important to analyze including the following:

  • “More than ninety percent of West Africa’s original forests are gone” (Lindell)
  • “Child labor remains at very high levels in the cocoa sector, with an estimated 2.1 million children working in cocoa fields in the Ivory Coast and Ghana alone” (Lindell)

Without this systematic change that spreads through the entire industry, sustainability efforts will continue to fail. In a news article for Candy Industry, a magazine that provides “in-depth news analysis and comprehensive profiles” of the candy industry, Crystal Lindell – Editor for Candy Industry – provides a detailed report on the failed efforts within the chocolate industry. Her piece titled, Cocoa Sustainability: Goals shift to 2025, she presents coverage of the 2018 Cocoa Barometer – “a biennial review of the state of sustainability in the cocoa sector” (Lindell). Lindell selects certain portions of the report that she deems important to analyze including the following:

She raises criticism by making evident that “…efforts in the cocoa industry to improve the lives of farmers…are having little impact” (Lindell). In fact, the “proposed solutions do not even come close to addressing the scale of the problem” (Lindell). This is a direct consequence of the lack of planning and understanding surrounding sustainability. The irony within this fact stems from the knowledge that companies have the investigative research and information to make a change- as proven by Long’s statements in 2008. The fact that it has been over ten years since Long released his journal on sustainability and the need for change within the industry, reflects the ineffectiveness of the efforts made by the companies – even Hershey Co.

“…companies have the investigative research and information to make a change”

New Proposal, New Solutions

That being said, there are solutions that – if applied to the entire industry – can make an impact. Lindell continues in her coverage by highlighting the goals that should be achieved by 2025 that starts with an increase in “urgency and ambition to reflect the scale of the problems” (Lindell). By simplifying solutions down to measuring productivity, the industry will not be fixed. More awareness and a grasp on the meaning of sustainability could bring an end to an issue that has plagued the cocoa industry for decades. Because of this Lindell recognizes the complexity of issue at hand: “…sustainable cocoa is not an easy fix” (Lindell). The fact that this issue is difficult, however, should not deter companies; rather, the urgency for sustainability should serve as an incentive – just as the companies claimed productivity should incentivize the cocoa farmers.

Consumer Awareness

Despite the failed efforts to achieve sustainability, one thing is clear: the consumer has a direct impact on the industry. While some may read this and choose to boycott chocolate all-together, this does not have to the case. In fact, this may hurt the industry even more and take away the small income the cacao farmers make. This does mean that consumers should be more aware of where their chocolate comes from and what the labels on chocolate bars mean; as consumers, we should also be aware of what it means to be sustainable and whether or not a company knows and reflects this policy.

With an industry with expected sales “to reach $225 billion by 2025,” the need for systemic change is necessary more today than ever before (Roos 32). The increase in profits are not reflected in the incomes of cocoa farmers, who make up “5 million households that farm cocoa” and rely on it for “60 to 90 percent of their income” (Houston and Wryer). In 2017 alone, the prices in cacao dropped and farmers saw “incomes drop by 30-40%” (Roos 3). All of these numbers reflect just how unequal the playing field is between the industry and big companies in relation to the cacao farmers.

Chocolate is not just a guilty pleasure in regards to health, as some might think, but in the impact it holds. As consumers, we can choose to be aware of our own impact on the “economies of developing countries” and advocate for more to be done. Current sustainability plans have not abolished child labor, unstable incomes, environmental diseases, and more. This should be enough incentive to make a change for the “better livelihoods at the farm level, increased resources and investment at the national level, and a safer, more secure environment for smallholder farmers that supply the bulk of coca production for the world’s consumers” (Houston and Wryer). As consumers, we are directly involved in the efforts made for sustainability. The problem cannot be simplified, but the first step comes in adopting a uniform definition for sustainability that recognizes the three pillars: economic, environmental, social. By taking this definition as using it as the foundation to take the time and create a thorough plan, there can finally be a sustainable cocoa industry. Until then, a true sustainable chocolate bar or company simply does not exist.

Sources

Scholarly Articles

Bonn, Ingrid, and Josie Fisher. “Sustainability: the Missing Ingredient in Strategy.” The Journal of Business Strategy, vol. 32, no. 1, 2011, pp. 5–14.

Houston, Holly, and Terry Wyer. “Why Sustainable Cocoa Farming Matters for Rural Development.” Why Sustainable Cocoa Farming Matters for Rural Development | Center for Strategic and International Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 6 Sept. 2012, http://www.csis.org/analysis/why-sustainable-cocoa-farming-matters-rural-development.

Long, J. C. (2008). From cocoa to CSR: Finding sustainability in a cup of hot chocolate. Thunderbird International Business Review, 50(5), 315. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1002/tie.20215

Roos, Kerstin, “Cacao Together: A Model for True Sustainability in the Chocolate Industry” (2018). Capstone Collection. 3138. https://digitalcollections.sit.edu/capstones/3138

Multimedia Sources

News Articles

English, Al Jazeera. “Ivory Coast’s Bittersweet Cocoa Industry.” YouTube, YouTube, 13 Dec. 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA-dm0TSmpk.

Lindell, Crystal. “Cocoa Sustainability: Goals Shift to 2025; Cocoa Suppliers and Manufacturers Made Big Promises for Sustainability Efforts That Mostly Come Due in 2020–but as the Deadline Gets Closer Many Are Now Looking to 2025.” Candy Industry, vol. 183, no. 11, 2018, p. 18.

Images

Figure 1: KTucker. “Nested Sustainability.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia, 19 Oct. 2011, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nested_sustainability-v2.svg.

Figure 2: “Sustainable Cacao Farming.” Chocolate Connoisseur, Google, http://www.chocolateconnoisseurmag.com/corruption-in-the-chocolate-chain-deadly-deforestation-and-cacao-part-two/sustainable-cacao-farming/.

Figure 3: Kirubi, Mwangi. “Cocoa Farmer Ghana.” Flickr, 25 May 2017, flic.kr/p/2ahtX3d.

Figure 4: “Cocoa farming holding collection of fermented cacao beans in both hands while surrounded by cacao beans in the background.” UVM Bored, Google, https://uvmbored.com/event/presentation-the-cocoa-campaign/

Figure 5: Neptune, Bobby. “Turning Cocoa Beans into Chocolate.” Flickr, 4 Dec. 2013, https://flic.kr/p/jy7EfA

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