Chocolate, one of life’s sweetest treats, has the remarkable capability to bring people together from every corner of the world. From chefs working with the finest artisanal chocolates in France to a seven-year-old kid drinking a cup of hot chocolate in Rockefeller Center during Christmastime, chocolate uniquely transcends all ages, backgrounds, and borders. However, what is often unknown or ignored is chocolate’s simultaneous ability to divide people. While so many have the privilege and ability to enjoy chocolate’s delights, it is too often at the expense of the health and wellbeing of farmers and laborers around the world. Child labor, poverty, and food insecurity are only a few of the countless issues plaguing cacao farmers globally. Sadly, many of the major players in the chocolate industry depend on the exploitation of cacao farmers so they can mass produce their products cheaply, which is not a new practice. Amanda Berlan notes, “Because both good practices and labour abuses in cocoa have strong historical antecedents, they cannot be seen as exclusively symptomatic of the modern consumerist era, or simply caused by poverty or rapacious multinationals, as is often alleged” (1094). For the everyday modern consumer, however, the ethics of a company’s supply chain is probably not one of the first things to come to mind when selecting a bar of chocolate from underneath the checkout counter at the grocery store. Nevertheless, there are glimpses of hope in the expansive chocolate industry. Some chocolate companies have taken steps to use humane labor practices, assist cacao farmers in their social and economic endeavors, obtain various certifications, and raise awareness for impoverished farmers around the world. Each individual issue with the current climate of the international chocolate industry ties back into one overarching problem: volatility. The lack of consistency and stability in every aspect of cacao farmers’ professions and lives leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Theo, the chocolate company based out of Seattle, Washington, is a bean-to-bar company that ethically sources cacao to produce delicious chocolate products. By outlining their business model, values, and practices, I intend to show how Theo has played a part in working to solve the numerous issues that contribute to the volatile nature of international cacao production.
Before explaining Theo’s positive social impact in the realm of chocolate and beyond, it is important to more fully understand how severe the injustices at the roots of cacao supply chains are. Cacao is an agricultural good that must be cultivated and harvested, typically on farms. Many countries in Africa and South America have emerged as global producers of cacao; in West Africa alone, there are about 2 million small, independent family farms (Martin). The labor necessary to sustain such farms is extremely taxing, physically and emotionally. Producing cacao requires duties such as clearing trees, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, transporting, and pod breaking, among others (Martin). These tasks cannot be completed without using sharp and heavy tools, handling chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.), bending down for extended periods of time, being around insects and animals, or carrying heavy loads (Martin). To make matters worse, farm laborers often work without access to bathrooms, no filtered water, and no relief from extreme heat; thus, they often suffer various physical maladies ranging from fatigue to malaria (Martin). With such horrendous working conditions, one may think that only people most fit for the job would be employed and that they would be people paid substantially for their hard work. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Because these farms are often run by families, children and people aged 50 and over often must work for their family farm (Martin). People on cacao farms work tirelessly simply to earn enough to survive, yet, as Carol Off writes, “Days of their effort [are] consumed in a heartbeat on the other side of the world” (8). Farms and farmers are the heart of any agricultural production, yet in the domain of chocolate they are undercompensated and undervalued. To complement the remarkably intense labor practices outlined above, farmers usually work without the guarantee of wages or salaries (Martin). The price of cacao is volatile, which means the income of the cacao farmer is as well (Martin). Dealing with input costs like transportation, wages, planting materials, rent/mortgage, and others only further weakens farmers’ abilities to establish a steady flow of income and to invest in their businesses (Martin).
The issues I have outlined only begin to scratch the surface of the problems that fill cocoa supply chains, many of which perpetuate the ability of big chocolate companies to buy cocoa cheaply on the market, which continues to oppress farmers, which leaves them working for survival. The cycle is vicious. So, the question becomes how can this cycle be broken? Whose responsibility is it to make a change? Joe Whinney, the creator of Theo chocolate, believed the responsibility was partly his (“Our Story”). In 1994, Whinney spearheaded what eventually became a widespread movement aiming to supply organic cocoa beans in the United States (“Our Story”). After traveling and working in Central America and Africa, “he recognized an injustice in the way that both were being exploited and wanted to make a difference” (“Our Story”). This desire turned into a decade long campaign to advocate for organic cocoa beans in the U.S. and for Fair Trade practices for the farmers (“Our Story”). Working with co-founder Debra Music, Whinney used his passion to inspire action. In 2006, years of brand building and experimenting in a factory culminated in the creation of Theo organic chocolate (“Our Story”).
Ever since the company’s conception 13 years ago, Theo has stuck to, taken pride in, and grown the meaning of being a bean to bar chocolate maker. To Theo, being a bean to bar company means, “We negotiate prices directly, provide training on good agricultural practices and offer meaningful quality incentive payments. With our model farmers know how much income to expect from their harvest, enabling them to make financial plans for the future and to invest in their families and communities” (“How We Source”). Theo’s website outlines the company’s mission, which, is “to create a more beautiful, compassionate, and enduring world by responsibly making delicious and inspiring products for everyone.” Theo’s consumers and employees alike value the company’s dedication to betterment, and the video below gives employees the opportunity to share what they like the most about Theo.
I am going to discuss Theo’s sourcing, standards and values, certifications, and products in order to illustrate how they combat injustice in cocoa production.
Although West Africa has emerged as a primary supplier of the world’s cocoa, Theo sources its beans directly from farms in Peru and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (“How We Source”). Theo makes a point to highlight the differences in the beans’ flavors and the contexts in which they are produced. Their Congolese cocoa beans are nutty and comprise the majority of the company’s yearly supply, with roughly 70% of the cocoa coming from DRC annually (“Congolese Cocoa”). Theo has partnered with the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI), which advocates on behalf of the citizens of eastern Congo to promote economic and social wellbeing in an effort to establish strong civil society and to create opportunities for individual and group development (“Congolese Cocoa”). Working with over 4,500 farmers in DRC has fortified Theo’s desire to help, which expands beyond the scope of a business transaction. For example, Theo supported an initiative in 2015 which aimed to educate women in cocoa farming on the importance of pre and post-natal care, which reduced maternal and newborn deaths in the respective health zones from 45 per year to zero (“Congolese Cocoa”). The remaining 30% of Theo’s cocoa comes from the Piura and Bagua regions of Peru (“Peruvian Cocoa”). Similar to their efforts in DRC, Theo invests in the lives of Peruvian farmers through its partnership with the Norandino Cooperative (“Peruvian Cocoa”). Moreover, they have worked to positively impact the environment. Through a collaborative investment in a reforestation program, Theo and Norandino have helped to create 2,500 new acres of forest (“Peruvian Cocoa”). This type of work not only benefits those in need, it benefits the entire world. The figure below shows where each Theo ingredient comes from.
To guarantee that Theo’s product quality and ethical code continues to meet the high standards, the company has undergone several certification processes. Theo is USDA Organic, Fair for Life certified, STAR-K Kosher, and Non-GMO (GMO stands for genetically modified organism) (“Our Certifications”). While fully unpacking the nuances and procedures of each of these certifications is beyond the scope of this analysis, it is worth noting what each means. The USDA Organic seal guarantees that Theo chocolate’s ingredients are “grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation” (Quality Assurance International). Fair for Life falls under the larger umbrella of Fairtrade certifications, and “assures that human rights are safeguarded at any stage of production, workers enjoy good and fair working conditions and smallholder farmers receive a fair share” (Fair for Life). STAR-K Kosher serves as a “a guarantee that food products and ingredients meet all kosher requirements” (Star-K Kosher). Finally, the Non-GMO project aims to certify and promote products that are made without any “plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology” (Non-GMO Project). The point of providing a glimpse into the meaning of each of these four certifications is to display the comprehensive effort Theo makes to eradicate issues at every stage and in multiple dimensions of chocolate production and consumption. Below, the figure outlines each step of Theo’s certified chocolate-making process.
While every food company, specific those selling chocolate, can always make further improvements in their business practices, Theo has social justice at its core, and these certifications show their aim to meet higher goals of fairness and prosperity for all. Two particularly remarkable elements of Theo’s certification and production protocol is that they own and operate their own certified factory and that both the suppliers they work with and the company itself get audited yearly to look at wages, working conditions, and environmental impact to promote accountability (“What Makes Theo Different?”).
All of the hard work put into creating Theo chocolate could not effectively empower cocoa farmers or reshape the industry if consumers did not like final products. In such a saturated market, it is important that Theo stands out to the average consumer who may not be well versed in food ethics, and thus may be focused solely on the flavor of the chocolate rather than the farmers who helped produce it. Therefore, it is no surprise that Theo chocolate tastes as amazing as the mission behind it is. Exotic flavors like Ghost Chili, Root Beer Barrel, Bread and Chocolate, Salted Black Licorice, and Turmeric Spice make Theo chocolate bars jump off the shelf, while Sea Salt, Coconut, and Mint are exciting yet classic flavors.
Whatever range of flavors a consumer is looking for, they can find it in a Theo product. Theo does not exclusively sell chocolate bars, as they boast an impressive selection of ganache candies, caramels, and marshmallows on their website (Theo Chocolate). I have personally tried the Salted Toffee Dark Chocolate bar, and yet I did not know about Theo’s mission when I tried it. Producing delicious high-quality chocolate helps Theo to reach the average consumer, and to at least begin a dialogue with them about the importance of building up and sustaining fair farm practices around the world. It is, after all, in the nature of the Fairtrade movement to bring people’s attention to those who are often pushed to the side. As Kristy Leissle notes, “We must credit Fairtrade with a different kind of achievement, which has been to promote awareness that people living in the Global North enjoy luxuries like chocolate thanks to the labor of materially poor farmers” (145).
Theo chocolate is unique in a lot of ways. It is a company that wants farming to be a viable and profitable career for people, not just a temporary, volatile job geared towards survival; it is a company that wants to make the planet fruitful and aims to preserve its resources; and it is a company with a mission manifested in delicious chocolate products. From its beginning, Theo has addressed injustice head first, and the world has become a better place because of it. Also, Theo wants to make its customers feel understand the part they play in bettering the world, and they clearly outline on their website how and why each chocolate bar purchase matters. All in all, I believe Theo is doing a great job of using its business model to continuously spread the importance of equality and justice in chocolate. They have successfully built a brand centered on ethics, which is a framework I hope many companies use in the future. In The Fair Trade Scandal, Ndongo Samba Sylla writes, “The fair and the sustainable are now ubiquitous,” and with companies like Theo influencing the chocolate industry, this is not too far from the truth (56).
“About For Life and Fair for Life.”Fair for Life – About, http://www.fairforlife.org/pmws/indexDOM.php?client_id=fairforlife&page_id=about&lang_iso639=en.
Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” Journal of Development Studies, vol. 49, no. 8, Feb. 2013, pp. 1088–1100., doi:10.1080/00220388.2013.780041.
“Congolese Cocoa.” Theo Chocolate, 22 Feb. 2017, http://www.theochocolate.com/blog/congolese-cocoa/.
“Getting Certified Archives | STAR-K Kosher Certification.” STAR-K Kosher, http://www.star-k.org/articles/getting-certified/.
“Home.” Theo Chocolate, http://www.theochocolate.com/.
“How We Source.” Theo Chocolate, 29 June 2017, http://www.theochocolate.com/blog/how-we-source/.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.
Martin, Carla. “Modern Day Slavery.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 2019, Cambridge.
Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. The New Press, 2006.
“Our Certifications.” Theo Chocolate, 27 Mar. 2017, http://www.theochocolate.com/blog/our-certifications/.
“Our Story.” Theo Chocolate, 22 Jan. 2017, http://www.theochocolate.com/blog/our-story/.
“Peruvian Cocoa.” Theo Chocolate, 22 Mar. 2017, http://www.theochocolate.com/blog/peruvian-cocoa/.
“Quality Assurance International (QAI).” Quality Assurance International (QAI) Organic Certification, http://www.qai-inc.com/.
Sylla, Ndongo Samba. Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Ohio University Press, 2014.
“What Is a GMO?” Non-GMO Project, http://www.nongmoproject.org/gmo-facts/what-is-gmo/.
“What Makes Theo Different?” Theo Chocolate, 29 May 2017, http://www.theochocolate.com/blog/what-makes-theo-different/.