26 minutes walk from Harvard’s Emerson Hall lies a seemingly nondescript 5-story red brick building. This is Taza Chocolate, a chocolate manufacturer founded in 2005 that now reaches 2800 retail stores across the United States (Taryn et al.) and 10 countries across the globe (Taza Tour Guide). Taza prides itself on its “minimally processed” bean-to-bar stoneground dark chocolate, but even more so, it prides itself on challenging the issues which plague the chocolate industry today, from ethical sourcing and recognition of local culture to appropriate advertising (“Taza Direct Trade”). Throughout this multimedia essay, we will trace cacao from the bean picked in the cocoa belt to the finished product as it enters consumers’ mouths; in doing so, I hope to examine Taza as an alternative to the historically problematic practices continued by modern chocolate industry.
The problematic origins of cacao production trace back to the earliest commercial farms, where the Spanish crown’s Encomienda system enabled colonists to abuse local populations as a “labor supply, while avoiding the penalties of slaving” under the guise of Christianization and protection (Simpson). Five centuries later, the worst of cacao production still remains in the form of child trafficking and slavery: “If you work slow or refuse to work, they will beat you,” reports a former child slave in a Cote D’Ivoire plantation (The Dark Side of Chocolate (2010). In an interview with Carol Off, Malian civil servant Abdoulaye Macko recalls some of the horrific conditions on West African cacao farms: “The farmers, or their supervisors, were working the young people almost to death,” continuously perpetuated by “organized groups of smugglers [who] deliver children to their cocoa groves… Cote d’Ivoire police were being bribed to look the other way.” (Off) Macko’s reports reveal the pervasive nature of child slavery in Africa—as we will see, not only is it difficult to uproot due to political corruption but also because of cacao farmers’ dependence on it given financial burdens.
While child slavery may be unethical, for many farmers, it is the best option given the widespread poverty faced by cocoa farmers. Cacao’s price, for example, fluctuated by almost 20% between February and May of 2019 on the British market (GmbH). This is further exacerbated by the skewed distribution of the profits from chocolate: while retailers and supermarkets receive almost 50% of the profits, farmers receive the smallest share, a meager 3%, in part because local cocoa buyers serve as middlemen and can keep local prices low. Thus, for both farm laborers and farm owners, income is “neither guaranteed nor generally regulated” (Leissle), especially since the majority of income from cacao primarily comes from the six-month growing season. This especially poses a burden for farm owners, who must budget their earning stringently as well as fund the upcoming harvest—as a result, farmers have often fallen into high-interest debts, akin to debt bondage faced by farmers in the 19th century (Coe and Coe). While an end must come to child labor and other unethical business practices, we must also bear in mind the repercussions and economic burdens faced by farmers.
How does Taza combat this issue?
“We are chocolate pioneers,” Taza proudly declares, on its “Direct Trade” webpage (“Taza Direct Trade”). And as bold as this claim may be, it does have merit: Taza has developed the “chocolate industry’s first third-party certified Direct Trade cacao sourcing program, to ensure quality and transparency for all,” modeled after the Counterculture direct trade program for coffee (Leissle) (Taza Tour Guide). For Taza, this sourcing program consists of five commitments, meant to ensure high quality cacao while ensuring fair compensation for farmers and fair practices, regulated and verified by Quality Certification Services, a Florida-based USDA-accredited certifier (“Taza Direct Trade”):
Commitment 1: Develop Direct Relationships with Cacao Farmers
In its 2017 Partner Report and 2018 Transparency Report, Taza documents its “face-to-face relationships” (“2018 Transparency Report”) and transactions with its partners in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Ghana, circumventing predatory middlemen and abusive labor practices. Furthermore, Taza provides profiles on these farmers, whether a family group in the Dominican Republic (“Partner Profile”) or a female-led network of organic-certified farmers in Bolivia (“Partner Profile”). As a result, Taza enables transparency by ensuring “no step of the trade exchange, from farm to factory, [is] unknown or untraceable” (Leissle); this enables Taza to guarantee fair labor and accountability that larger companies and certifications cannot (The Dark Side of Chocolate (2010)).
Commitment 2: Pay a Price Premium to Cacao Producers
Taza pays 300$ per metric ton more than the Fair Trade Premium, which is itself already 200$ per metric ton over the NYICE market price (Taza Tour Guide) and sets a price floor of 2800$. Because of Taza’s Direct Trade relationship with farmer groups, Taza ensures this money reaches individual farmers and farming groups rather than middlemen or other intermediaries. This fairer and more predictable pricing alleviates financial burdens on farmers and improves standard of living.
Commitment 3: Source the Highest Quality Cacao Beans
In addition to annual visits with partners who meet Taza’s standards of 75% fermentation rate or more and dried to 7% moisture or less, Taza employees ensure high quality cacao beansthrough regularly recorded results of Taza Chocolate Cocoa Bean Quality Evaluation.
Commitment 4: Require USDA Certified Organic Cacao
Taza’s Director of Cocoa Sourcing, Jesse Last, documents his searches and identification of organically certified farms throughout the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Taza also provides USDA Organic certification documentation from participating farmers. While these certifications do not guarantee absolute quality or abstinence from synthetic pesticide and hormone usage, they go a long way to ensuring quality and worker safety, especially from many of the harmful chemicals used in other farms (Taza Tour Guide).
Commitment 5: Publish an Annual Transparency Report
Taza publishes an annual cacao sourcing transparency report detailing relationship with partners. This not only empowers consumers by providing them with information and awareness about chocolate sourcing but also allows for fair, sustainable sourcing to be adapted by other chocolate makers; indeed, Taza’s model of transparency and standard operating procedures have developed by or shared with other chocolate makers including Dandelion Chocolate, Askinosie Chocolate, and Madécasse Chocolate (“Taza Direct Trade”).
Furthermore, Taza’s Direct Trade Program enables the exchange of farming techniques and sales tactics to empower farmers. Taza has also supported farmer education in recent pairing with the ABOCFA, a Ghanan farmer association and cacao supplier that aims to support both farmer financial literacy and as well as children’s education by combatting child labor and promoting child well-being in cocoa growing communities (“Sourcing Season”). Locally, Taza also partners with local organizations, such as the The Possible Project, a Cambridge-based youth entrepreneurship program designed to train and provide opportunities for high school students seeking to become entrepreneurs (“Taza Partners With The Possible Project”).
Advertising and Culture
Advertising throughout the history of chocolate production has often been highly racialized or gendered. For example, the Rowntree advertisement above is highly problematic; its portrayal of the black “mammy” caricature and usage of African vernacular English disregard the cruel conditions Africans face in producing cacao and instead present them as simple, genial house-warming figures—this latter portrayal also recalls the dynamic of females as domesticated and sweet housewives. Other companies, meanwhile, have turned to chocolate’s origins to sell their products. The Glee Gum Organic DIY Chocolate Kit, below, chooses to focus on the origins of cacao as an advertising tactic. Even as this product offers to educate its consumers on chocolate production (it includes sample cacao beans, contains a pamphlet on the “story of chocolate,” and offers to educate users on the tempering process), Glee Gum’s usage of stereotypical Mesoamerican dress, monuments, and food exploit and oversimplify chocolate’s origins.
In contrast, Taza focuses on spreading the information of chocolate origins and productions, rather than capitalizing on and exploiting them. In conjunction with its transparency report, Taza also focuses on sharing its information, through its website, public tours, and direct advertising of grinding techniques and cacao sources. Taza’s public tours detail the chocolate making process as well as practices and sourcing unique to Taza. And even Taza’s products prove informative to their consumers: Taza Single Origin Bars promote awareness about the country of origin for cacao, while other Taza products advertise that granite millstone grinding and the Oaxacan origins of stone ground chocolate. In this way, Taza’s chocolates promote consumer awareness of sourcing and production methods—in doing so, Taza empowers consumers to consider the origins of the cacao in the chocolate they consume and to be cognizant of those who rely on cacao production for a living, starting at the very beginning of the chain with day laborers in the Dominican Republic or Ghana. As we begin to unveil the unethical practices behind our everyday goods, such as our food, becoming informed enables us to support and promote sustainable and ethical products worldwide.
But what do consumers think?
“I feel like chocolate coats your mouth… but this is a more refreshing burst of flavor,” one tourgoer responded after tasting a sample of Taza’s 50% cinnamon chocolate. Most others in the small tour group I accompanied agreed, commenting on the bold flavors of cinnamon, cacao, and sugar, as well as the sensual aspect of the tasting. Yet Taza is not for everyone: “It’s bitter and gritty,” reported a younger tourgoer, upon tasting a 85% dark sample. Indeed, Taza’s target audience is not the same as is for more commercialized chocolates. Surprisingly, Taza’s best seller tends to be its Wicked Dark Brand—buyers seeking the health benefits of cacao aim for as dark of a chocolate as possible, and while larger chocolate producers produce dark chocolate bars, legally, a “dark” chocolate bar may contain as little as 35% cacao, compared to the 95% Taza puts in some of its most intense bars (Taza Tour Guide; Coe and Coe). This would suggest then that Taza’s target audience tends to consist of more informed consumers-those who are aware of the unethical sourcing of cheaper chocolates or those aware of the benefits of dark chocolate. However, Taza does also target a broader audience-the company website offers story time and scout bingo for children, and products are marketed widely enough (including a new Taza chocolate bark to be released in Costco) to reach out to less informed consumers (“2018 Transparency Report”).
However, one main barrier is pricing: Taza’s circular disks, which contain 77g of chocolate, cost upwards of $5 USD. Two Hershey’s Bars weigh almost 90g and cost 60% less. “Cacao is pricey,” the tour guide explains, and indeed, Taza does include a lot of cacao in their chocolate. But direct trade pricing also isn’t cheap, and Taza counts on its consumers willingness to compromise price for ethical sourcing. Another potential point of contention lies in the packaging: Taza’s disks are marketed as “Chocolate Mexicano,” but neither the ingredients nor the Taza owners are Mexican. “It borders on cultural appropriation,” the tour guide concedes, but the tour guide also points to the fact that founder Alex Whitmore apprenticed under an Oaxacan molinero to learn both to hand-carve granite mill stones and to grind and produce chocolate. Furthermore, Taza will eventually replace packaging to market Taza as “Mexican-style” chocolate, recognizing that its grinding techniques, but not its ingredients or founders, come from Oaxaca (Taza Tour Guide).
Finally, although Taza has set a new standard through its transparency reports, more investigative consumers might find themselves disappointed. While Taza prides itself on its Direct Trade Program, it does not report how much its individual farmers profit from Direct Trade, especially given the higher costs associated with organically-certified and ethically sourced cacao. Furthermore, while Taza supports its own farmers through Direct Trade premiums, it has the potential to take up a more active role in empowering these farmers, whether through a formal educational program or by uplifting women in the community (“2018 Transparency Report”; “Taza Direct Trade”). On the grand scale, Taza only represents one small producer in a multi-billion dollar industry that is built upon exploited labor and unethical business practices; while calling for Taza to put an end to these issues is completely unfeasible, using their platform to raise awareness could both promote ethically-sourced artisan chocolates while also supporting the call against the unethical business practices of larger chocolate manufacturers.
Ultimately, Taza represents a step in the right direction as it challenges historically problematic issues of cacao sourcing and advertisement with its innovative Direct Trade model. Taza both better provides for its producers while informing its consumers, all the meanwhile maintaining a transparent model that consumers and fellow chocolate makers alike can learn from. While Taza does have room to grow, both as an organization and in its mission as a “chocolate pioneer” for sustainable and fair chocolate, its current model is a call to action for other chocolate producers, large and small, to begin moving towards a fairer, more ethical chocolate industry.
“2018 Transparency Report.” Taza Chocolate, https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/2018-transparency-report. Accessed 3 May 2019.
Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 1996, https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=9v86CwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT8&dq=true+history+of+chocolate&ots=-aYamQx9_F&sig=hgJoc7IJ3I1CYqszug4FbsEMZkc#v=onepage&q=true%20history%20of%20chocolate&f=false.
Correspondent, Taryn Luna Globe, et al. “Seven Things You Should Know about Alex Whitmore.” BostonGlobe.Com, https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2014/05/10/seven-things-you-should-know-about-alex-whitmore-taza-chocolate/i0cB10YJdMejE58BLkUXrI/story.html. Accessed 3 May 2019.
GmbH, finanzen net. “Cocoa PRICE Today | Cocoa Spot Price Chart | Live Price of Cocoa per Ounce | Markets Insider.” Markets.Businessinsider.Com, https://markets.businessinsider.com/commodities/cocoa-price. Accessed 3 May 2019.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. John Wiley & Sons, 2018.
Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New Press, 2008.
“Partner Profile.” Taza Chocolate, https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/finca-elvesia. Accessed 3 May 2019.
Simpson, Lesley Byrd. The Encomienda in New Spain. University of California Press, 1929.
“Sourcing Season: Growing a New Partnership in Ghana.” Taza Chocolate, https://www.tazachocolate.com/blogs/news/sourcing-season-growing-a-new-partnership-in-ghana. Accessed 3 May 2019.
“Taza Direct Trade.” Taza Chocolate, https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/taza-direct-trade. Accessed 3 May 2019.
“Taza Partners With The Possible Project.” Taza Chocolate, https://www.tazachocolate.com/blogs/news/119899715-taza-partners-with-the-possible-project. Accessed 3 May 2019.
Taza Tour Guide. Interview with Anonymous Taza Tour Guide. 30 Apr. 2019.
The Dark Side of Chocolate (2010) – IMDb. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1773722/. Accessed 3 May 2019.
- Poster’s Photo, Taza Public Tour
- Poster’s Photo, Taza Public Tour