Over the past several decades, chocolate has become a part of daily life for most consumers in the United States. Once a beverage reserved for consumption by the elite classes in Mesoamerica, chocolate is now a popular commodity among most social classes in our society. Manufacturers combine cocoa beans grown in the equatorial parts of the world – primarily countries in central Africa and South America – with sugar and other ingredients to craft these delectable treats. When choosing which confections to purchase, consumers base their decision on several factors, including price, brand loyalty, and availability. One factor casual consumers often neglect when making their choice is where the cocoa used to craft the chocolate originated. With many cocoa growing regions plagued by questionable ethical or moral practices, should this not be the most important factor in chocolate purchasing? Many smaller chocolate companies believe that it should, and craft their confections using carefully sourced cocoa that meets several standards to help combat these practices. One such company working to eliminate these questionable practices is Theo Chocolate, Inc. of Seattle, Washington. A close examination of the company’s history, certifications, and sourcing and partnerships, reveals the progress Theo is making to promote an ethical chocolate industry that does not need to rely on forced or underpaid labor to maintain its profitability.
As “the first organic, fair trade certified chocolate maker in North America” (“Mission”) Theo has been making great strides in the industry over the past two decades. Founder Joe Whinney began his work in chocolate in 1994 by directing organic cocoa beans from Central America to a host of American customers (“Mission”; Allison). For Whinney, the following decade was a time of learning and discovery. He spent much of the time losing money due to the great cost of each step in his supply chain and the desire to pay the cocoa farmers a fair value for their crops (Allison). After realizing that his current situation was unsustainable, Whinney decided that to maintain his work in the organic cocoa business, he would need to open his own factory for production and cut out several of the later steps in his chain (Allison). Thus, in 2004, Theo Chocolate, Inc. was born.
To create the company that would sustain his passion and allow him to promote his work, Whinney relocated with Debra Music, the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, to Seattle (“Mission”). While Music worked to market and brand the upcoming products, the company’s factory and team of workers was assembled, and, in March 2006, Theo’s first line of chocolate was produced (“Mission”). Throughout the entire process Whinney strove to maintain his standards, and the company remains devoted to these ideals today.
Perhaps the most prominent outward reflection of the values that the company espouses comes in the form of their product certifications. Theo holds four such certifications: Organic, Fair Trade, Non-GMO, and Demeter (“Our Certifications”). The company must meet several criteria to qualify for each of these certifications as explained below.
In order to become certified as an organic producer through Quality Assurance International (QAI), the company who certifies Theo’s products, a company must complete a five step process (“Steps”). First, the company must apply for certification and provide QAI with details about their operations and processes (“Steps”). Second, the company undergoes a thorough inspection similar to the one they will undergo annually if they are provided with the certification (“Steps”). Third, the company experiences a technical review to ensure their operation “complies with all necessary organic regulations” (“Steps”). Fourth, the company receives notification from QAI about the status of their request and the areas of deficiency that need to be remedied to proceed with the certification process (“Steps”). Fifth, the company becomes compliant and deemed certified by QAI (“Steps”). To maintain its certification, and its standards of production, Theo subscribes “to the most stringent definition of organic” (“Our Certifications”). Wherever possible, Theo uses organic ingredients that have been grown using sustainable practices (“Our Certifications”). This commitment to quality exemplifies Theo’s desire to benefit the world as a whole, rather than just their bottom line.
In addition to being Organic certified through QAI, Theo maintains a Fair for Life Fair Trade certification through the Institute for Marketecology (IMO) (“Our Certifications”). The Fair for Life certification requires companies to adhere to a set of social responsibility standards and to provide support through fair trade relationships with their suppliers (“Your options”). “Fair for Life Fair Trade means long-term and trusting cooperation between partners, transparent price setting negotiations and prices,” all ideals that Theo strives to uphold through their sourcing partnerships (“Your options”). This makes this certification perhaps the most valuable for the company from a farmer outreach perspective. Through their work as a fair trade company, Theo is able to provide the farmers from which they source their cacao with wide-reaching benefits, including healthcare and education (“Our Certifications”). Theo’s commitment to aiding the often impoverished cacao farmers of the world is truly an admirable trait for a company in the chocolate industry.
Non-GMO & Demeter
As part of their promise to use organic ingredients, Theo avoids the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (“Our Certifications”). While the labeling of GMOs is not legally required in the U.S. and Canada, Theo feels that “consumers have the right to know what is in their food and have made a commitment to non-GMO certification of [their] products” (“Our Certifications”). There is much ongoing debate about the safety of GMO ingredients. Many companies, including Theo Chocolate, Inc., feel that until these ingredients are deemed safe for consumers, it is not worth the risk to include them in their products.
As a Demeter certified company, Theo has committed to maintaining high standards of sustainable farming that will benefit the planet (“Our Certifications”). To achieve this certification, the farms Theo sources from must meet the Demeter Biodynamic® Farm Standard, and Theo must meet the Demeter Biodynamic® Processing Standard (“Demeter”). For more information on these standards, please visit the Demeter USA website here.
Sourcing & Partnerships
As yet another effort to maintain their commitment to high quality, ethical chocolate production, Theo is focused on selecting the best cacao beans it can find. Currently, Theo’s cacao beans are sourced from Peruvian farmer cooperative Norandino and Congolese company Esco Kivu (“Sourcing”). Theo concentrates its efforts in cacao sourcing on providing fair prices to their partners to promote an emphasis on quality propagation year after year (“Sourcing”). Instead of paying the commodity price for cacao beans, Theo has built a structured pricing model that provides a greater price for higher quality cacao to provide incentives to their farmer cooperatives (“Sourcing”). This method benefits both the farmers and the company . By providing an increased price for cacao that goes above and beyond the current commodity market rate, farmers are able to enjoy a greater profit and are better able to provide for themselves and their families. By ensuring that their farmers are well taken care of, Theo is able to maintain a positive relationship with these farmers and can encourage the farmers to make a strong commitment to quality production. As committed Fair Trade producers who provide quality price premiums, full transparency in their supply chain, and third party verification of their cacao purchases, Theo is able “to actively raise the bar for [the] entire industry” (“Sourcing”).
In addition to their commitment to fair trade sourcing, Theo has partnered with the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) to benefit the cacao farmers of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (“Our Partners”). Through this partnership, Theo has the “potential to positively impact more than 20,000 people living in Eastern Congo” (“Our Partners”). The cacao sourced through this partnership is used to craft two chocolate bars, each with its own unique flavor: Vanilla Nib and Coffee & Cream (“Our Partners”). Since their involvement with ECI farmers began, Theo has sourced over 1,600 tons of cocoa from the DRC (“Our Partners”). While aiding farmers in the DRC has brought increased prosperity to the area, it has not been without difficulties. The following interview of Joe Whinney by Stan Emert of Rainmakers TV, details some of the issues caused by the current governmental structure of the DRC along with the efforts being made by Theo in the country.
With many cacao producing nations resorting to forced labor and some of the worst forms of child labor to maintain their prosperity, along with diminished payouts for cacao farmers, it is easy to see that the current state of affairs in cacao production is appalling. In recent years, companies have begun to attempt to source their cacao from ethically run farms, but the response from the industry has left much to be desired. While many larger chocolate producers put their own profits above those of their cacao farming counterparts, many smaller producers are making a commitment to providing consumers with ethically sourced, fair trade chocolate. One such company who is devoted to making strides in the right direction is Theo Chocolate, Inc. of Seattle, Washington. Since its founding in 2004, Theo has endeavored to make an impact on the industry and draw to light the issues that many producers prefer to hide from consumers. An examination of Theo’s history, its certifications, and its sourcing and partnerships, allow us to see just how far the company is willing to go to further its ideals. The next time you are shopping for chocolate, be a conscientious consumer and remember to consider the ethical nature of the chocolate’s source.
Allison, Melissa. “Fair-trade Theo Chocolate fairly booming.” Seattle Times, 04 April 2013. Web. 08 May 2016.
“Demeter Biodynamic and Processing Standards.” Demeter USA. Demeter Association, Inc. Web. 08 May 2016.
“Mission.” Theo. Theo Chocolate, Inc. Web. 08 May 2016.
“Our Certifications.” Theo. Theo Chocolate, Inc. Web. 08 May 2016.
“Our Partners.” Theo. Theo Chocolate, Inc. Web. 08 May 2016.
“Sourcing.” Theo. Theo Chocolate, Inc. Web. 08 May 2016.
“Steps to Organic Certification Process.” QAI : Client Resources : Prospective : Steps to Organic Certification Process. Quality Assurance International. Web. 08 May 2016.
“Your options for certification and verification.” Fair for Life. IMOgroup AG. Web. 08 May 2016.
Theo Chocolate. Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons, 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.
Theo’s Chocolate Logo. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2015. Web. 08 May 2016.
USDA organic seal. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2015. Web. 08 May 2016.
Whinney, Joe. Interview by Stan Emert. Chocolate from Difficult Places. YouTube, 29 December 2014. Web. 08 May 2016.