Tag Archives: Non-GMO Project

Theo Chocolate: Making the World a Better Place One Bar at a Time

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). 

Works Cited:

“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/.

Taza Sets the (Chocolate) Bar for Direct Trade and Ethical Sourcing

Taza Chocolate is a bean-to-bar chocolate company that launched in Somerville, Massachusetts in 2005. Priding themselves on their unique stone-ground processing technique, which grinds organic cacao beans into “perfectly unrefined, minimally processed chocolate,” (Taza Website) Taza strives to provide a special blend of bold flavor and texture through their chocolate products. However, perhaps their most noteworthy trademark as a chocolate company is their commitment to ethical cacao sourcing that features the relationships with the farmers from whom they obtain their cacao beans. Specifically, Taza has formed Direct Trade relationships with five cacao producers around South America and the Caribbean. As documented through their groundbreaking annual cacao sourcing transparency reports, Taza contributes to the global problems facing the cacao-chocolate supply chain by keying in on each level within their supply chain- both the farmers who cultivate the product and the partners who source the cacao. Through their unique methodology and commitment, Taza achieves paying premium prices that reach their partners and promoting fair labor practices.


For chocolate companies, forming strong, healthy relationships with both the farmers and companies from which they source their cacao seems like an obvious solution to the problematic cacao-producing industry, but it is more difficult and less observed in practice. While conventional practice for firms to promote fair labor practices features obtaining a Fair Trade certification, Taza has done an effective job of this using the alternative Direct Trade model. While Fair Trade aims to more justly compensate marginalized producers, it creates unintended consequences. For example, little of the extra money produced by a Fair Trade agreement reaches the developing countries, and of that, less reaches the farmers (Sylla, 2014). One reason for this is the cost to obtain a Fair Trade certification, shouldered by the producers, is the same everywhere, meaning that the poorest countries have the most difficulty obtaining the certification (Sylla, 2014; Martin, 2018, Lecture 9). Conversely, Direct Trade circumvents any fees required for certification and privatizes the contractual relationship so that the producers do not bear unnecessary costs. Taza was the first chocolate maker in the United States to establish a third-party certified Direct Trade Cacao sourcing program (Taza Website). Direct trade is “a form of sourcing practiced by some coffee roasters and chocolate companies with standards varying between produces” (Martin, 2018, Lecture 5). While relationships are often fragile and temporary between chocolate companies and cacao farmers that participate in Direct Trade (Martin, 2018, Lecture 9), Taza has taken notable steps to ensure a healthy relationship that truly benefits everyone, from the cacao farmer to the consumer.

Specifically, as one part of their relationships with their partners through the Direct Trade model, Taza physically visits each partner at least once per year to build trust and compassion. As seen on Taza’s Facebook page through founder Alex Whitmore’s trip to partner PISA in Haiti, Taza places an emphasis on connecting with both their partners and the farmers from whom their partners receive cacao to create a truly interconnected supply chain. Whitmore and company are seen sharing their Taza product with Haitian farmers, a gesture that is representative of their close relationship. By connecting with PISA, Taza, as Whitmore describes, has highlighted the strengths of two entities and brought them together to make something great. While Haiti’s cacao beans are comparable to those found in the Dominican Republic, failure to properly dry and ferment these beans left their exquisite taste to go unrecognized and their cacao to be sold at a heavily discounted price.  PISA specializes in these processes (Leissle, 2013). This relationship has led to Taza sourcing the first ever Certified USDA Organic Cacao from Haiti and PISA and the farmers being paid a premium price for the cacao that they have been able to provide (Taza Website).

Taza’s 2016 Transparency Report features their combating another major influential factor facing the global cacao-chocolate supply chain: the price of cacao. Daunted by unstable cacao market prices, government control of purchasing and distributing, and supply chain intermediaries squeezing profits, cacao farmers fall victim to extremely low incomes. (Sylla, 2014). In the agricultural crisis in the 1970’s, West African governments used marketing boards and caisse systems to force cacao farmers to sell at prices below the world price and use the proceeds towards industrialization (Martin, 2018, Lecture 7). Today, intermediaries have inserted themselves in the supply chain of these cacao-dependent communities, squeezing profits throughout the supply chain and leaving cacao farmers with the bare minimum. Specifically, they have garnered strong market power through horizontal and vertical integration. At each level of the supply chain, competition has driven many players out, allowing these intermediaries to accomplish horizontal integration. By broadening their responsibilities within the supply chain, they have also achieved vertical integration (Sylla, 2014).

By ensuring a share of the premium prices they pay their sourcing partners reaches the farmers themselves, Taza plays their part in combatting the global lack of cacao farmer compensation. Taza’s Direct Trade relationship with their partners contributes to their communities through paying premium prices for the cacao to the processors and ensuring that the said premium reaches the farmers themselves. Analyzed in their 2016 Transparency Report here, Taza pays their partners at least $500 above the market price- a 15-20% premium, and never less than $2,800 per metric ton for cacao, protecting their partners against extremely low world market prices. For Jesse Last, Taza’s Chocolate Cocoa Sourcing Manager, knowing what they pay their cacao sourcing partners wasn’t enough. In 2016, Last took steps to ensure that cacao farmers were getting a slice of the cake too. Specifically, he updated Taza’s Direct Trade agreement to include a commitment by their partners to “provide documentation demonstrating the compensation paid to farmers and/or employees, as well as facilitate conversation between farmers and Taza” (Taza Website).

When Last visited these farms ensure their shares were received, he found no discrepancies between their reports and the payments documented by their own partners. Furthermore, Last provided an in-depth analysis (5 Steps Towards Understanding Price) within the transparency report that contextualizes farmer compensations received from their origin partners, and found that all but one of their partners is paying above the world market average per metric ton of cacao and “some” by almost twice as much (Taza Website). The extensive effort displayed by Jesse Last and Taza sets the standard that not just bean-to-bar, but all chocolate companies around the world should strive to meet in regard to paying the cacao farmers a reasonable salary. While obstacles, like those previously mentioned, often intervene with guaranteed fair wages for farmers, Taza has taken a uniquely ethical path not only to ensure this but also to strengthen the relationship between their partners and the farmers and to spread this methodology through the transparency report for the world to see. Their effort to affect others in an ethical fashion does not end with their suppliers- it extends all the way to their consumers.

As further part of their Direct trade Commitment, Taza requires all their cacao be USDA Certified Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified, as can be seen on one of their chocolate bars below, providing a healthy blend of ingredients in their chocolate for their consumers. While every Taza chocolate product contains the seal of Certified USDA Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified, they are also Kosher, soy-free, dairy-free, and vegan. Taza’s effort to source organic sugar is especially noteworthy. They have partnered with The Native Green Cane Project, recognized by The World Economic Forum, the Boston Consulting Group, the Union for Ethical BioTrade, and other organizations “as one of the world’s leading examples of innovative agriculture and sustainability’ (Taza Website). The traditional cultivation method of burning sugar cane unavoidably releases toxic gases and substantially contributes to biodiversity loss. The Native Green Cane Project has made a positive environmental impact by designing a mechanical harvester that eliminates toxic gas emissions and saves water that would otherwise be used to clean burnt cane. Furthermore, this practice eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, and pesticides, making for a safer labor environment. Through these organic methodologies, Taza not only provides healthier products for their consumers but also contributes to a cleaner environment while promoting safer working conditions.




To guarantee the integrity of their Direct Trade program, Taza has had Quality Certification Services, a USDA-accredited organic certifier out of Gainesville, Florida independently verify the upholding of five Direct Trade claims, outlined on their website. To verify annual visits to their partners, Taza provides flight receipts or e-tickets. To verify paying their cacao producers a premium rate, they provide annual invoices completed by their Sourcing Manager and the cacao-producing partner. To ensure the exclusive usage of USDA certified cacao, they provide proper certification documentation from their partners and farmers. Taza’s commitment to diminish the problems that have plagued much of the cacao industry for centuries, specifically its producers, can be seen by their initiative to hold themselves accountable in the continuation of these practices that benefit the producers, consumers, and everyone in between.

While Taza has contributed immensely by enhancing their relationships with their origin partners, one way they could improve their outreach is by expanding to West Africa. West Africa produces 75 percent of the world’s cacao, but they have an extensive and continued history of child labor exploitation. Evidence of child slavery in Cote d’Ivore has been recorded as recently as the early 2000’s (Off, 2008). In other countries such as Ghana, children have limited freedom to choose to go into labor (Berlan, 2013). This undeniable evidence highlights deep internal roots that drive these continued unethical labor practices and the need for intervention from outside parties- specifically from local government, international entities, and corporations. However, these entities have had limited effect on changing the scope of West African cacao production over the years. U.S. Representative Eliot Engel drafted a bill proposing the implementation a detailing a labeling system, classifying goods as “slave free” if it could be proved that slavery was not used in their production. However, significant pushback from industry giants like Hershey’s and Mars gave themselves more time to investigate and improve the labor practices behind the production of their chocolate (Off, 208). The Harkin-Engel protocol was then passed in 2001 to eliminate the worst forms of child labor in Cote d’Ivore and Ghana, but the extent of its impact remains in question today (Ryan, 2011).

Taza could potentially break the stigma that West Africa is a poor investment for these artisan chocolate makers. However, considering the obstacles in play, Taza would need to stumble upon a perfect situation- one that might not exist now. Ghana’s Cocoa Board controls exports, limiting the ability of artisan chocolate makers to source cacao from farmers. Taza would likely need to look to other countries, such as the Ivory Coast. The Ivory Coast completely deregulated its market, meaning Taza could directly contact farmers and cooperatives as they do with their five current partners. The problem then would be the quality of cacao. Cacao beans emit varying flavors and textures depending on strain and terroir, and Taza, like most bean-to-bar companies, prides itself on the unique tastes produced by the terroir of the regions from which they source their cacao. Despite being the biggest producer in the world, West Africa is known for producing very few single origin bars. In Christian’s Chocolate Census, the most comprehensive online database for chocolate, 3.8% of 1500 chocolate products contain beans exclusively from West Africa. U.S. chocolate artisan companies like Taza cite bean strain and scale of production for their avoiding West African cacao to source single origin chocolates. Farmers in West Africa predominantly grow direct-sun-tolerant, pest- and disease-resistant hybrid cacao beans, which are usually weak in flavor or bitter (Leissle, 2013). Furthermore, these regions operate on a large scale, making it difficult for small artisan companies to buy beans in smaller quantities. These regions typically will not sell in small quantities even if Taza offered a high premium for their beans. If Taza could somehow find a way into the small community of the Ivory Coast with quality cacao, they could impact that community through their commitment to relationships and premium prices. More importantly, they might open the door for other artisan – specifically bean-to-bar- chocolate companies By showing that it is possible to ethically source quality cacao from West Africa.

Overall, Taza sets a notable example for the chocolate industry by doing their part to combat the global problems facing cacao producers. Specifically, the Direct Trade method of sourcing cacao that Taza has adopted has allowed them to form strong relationships with their partners by connecting face-to-face at least once per year. By circumventing profit-squeezing middlemen present in the more widely practice Fair Trade method, Taza ensures that both their cacao-sourcing partners and the farmers get a fair share of the profits that their cacao generates. Furthermore, their awareness and commitment to uphold these practices is obvious as displayed through their unique transparency reports and third-party certifier. While Taza could up the ante by seeking to take on the most corrupt cacao-producing region in the world, West Africa, they would face many challenges- namely finding a Direct Trade partner and flavorful cacao-beans- that would danger upholding their current model of ethical sourcing. Taza, while only a small bean-to-bar chocolate company, must continue their commitment to ethical partnerships with cacao-producers and to transparency of these partnerships. They set the bar high (100% cacao…just kidding) for other bean-to-bar companies and show bigger conglomerates the potential to contribute to cacao producers around the world.




Works Cited:

Berlan, A. (2013). Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana. The Journal of Development Studies, 49(8), 1088-1100.

Leissle, K. (2013). Invisible West Africa. The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 13(3), 22-31.

Martin, C. (2018). (Lectures 5, 8, 9).

Off, C. (2008). Bitter chocolate : The dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet. New York: New Press.

Ryan, Órla, International African Institute, Royal African Society, & Social Science Research Council. (2011). Chocolate Nations (African arguments.). Zed Books.

Sylla, N., & Leye, David Clément. (2014). The fair trade scandal: Marketing poverty to benefit the rich. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

“Taza Direct Trade.” Taza Chocolate, http://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/taza-direct-trade.

Ethical Chocolate: Sweet or Sour?

The concept of the “ethical consumer” was first formally published in 1989 by a UK magazine and has since gained popularity amongst those who view consumption as a moralistic opportunity to translate their personal convictions into pubic action (Giesler & Veresiu). Ethical consumerism is founded on the perception of market-based consumption as a simultaneously economic and political act, a means by which to express one’s fundamentally non-economic values by “voting with dollars.” Through the deliberate moral boycotting of those products that do not meet specific moral or environmental criteria regarding conditions of production, ethical consumers aim to embed the capitalist market within a system of social norms and environmental concerns. The purchasing patterns of these self-proclaimed ethical consumers are thus largely governed by the presence or absence of what has been defined as “values-based labels,” or labels that make explicit claims to be engaged in an “ethical and moral effort to counter unsustainable trends within presently existing capitalism” (Barham 349-350).

In recent years, much light has been shed on the existence of several of these unsustainable trends within the chocolate industry. After many technological innovations of the 19th century allowed for the mass production of chocolate, emerging producers became engaged in a race to conquer this new and flourishing market. Even after plantation slavery had been officially abolished in European colonies across the globe, the success of many of the pioneering chocolate firms became inextricably bound up in imperialistic pursuits. The promise of increasing profits proved too alluring for some members of the chocolate industry to resist the free price of forced labor, and post-abolition slavery remained an integral link in the supply chains of many companies. As late as the early 1900s, investigators backed by the Cadbury company discovered incontrovertible evidence of slave labor on cacao farms on the former Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe. After public outcry erupted, British chocolate firms formally boycotted cacao from São Tomé and Príncipe and relocated their production centers to Africa’s Gold Coast, where cash crop production was already coming to fruition (Martin, “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor”). The seeds were thus planted for the growth of the West African cacao economies, which remain dominant centers of cacao production to this day.

Over the course of the 20th century, cacao exportation became particularly important in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, former British and French colonies, respectively. Today, over 60% of the world’s total cacao production falls upon these two small, developing African nations, with Côte d’Ivoire producing 34.4% and Ghana producing 17.5%. The brunt of this heavy load is borne on the shoulders of agricultural laborers scattered across two million small-scale, independent family farms. These West African cocoa farmers are collectively responsible for the production of 2.8 million metric tons of cocoa per year, yet receive an average per capita daily income of below $0.30 USD (Martin, “Modern day Slavery”).

Given these unsustainable wages, in conjunction with the extremely labor-intensive nature of cacao farming, it is no small surprise that labor conditions on cacao farms are often hazardous and, on occasion, coercive. In response to the increased public visibility of the deplorable working conditions that plague many of the cacao farms throughout West Africa, many chocolate retailers have vowed to sell products made only from ethically-sourced cacao. They have claimed corporate social responsibility by shifting production sources to ethically-certified cacao co-operatives that promise sustainable conditions of production both for workers and the environment (Martin, “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization”). As such, many products marketed in today’s grocery stores now bear the logos for various certifications of ethical production, such as Fair Trade, USDA Organic, Direct Trade, Non-GMO Project, and Rainforest Alliance.

Fair Trade USA Certification Label
Fair Trade USA Certification Label (Fair Trade USA)

Regardless of the specific nature of their claims, products bearing these values-based labels distinguish themselves from their ordinary commercial counterparts through an emphasis on process and quality, attempting to increase corporate transparency by reconnecting consumers to the conditions of production along the supply chain. With the rise of corporate social responsibility, one of the most eminent values-based labels has become that of Fairtrade International, which first appeared in 1988 on coffee sold in Dutch supermarkets, in opposition to the exploitation of coffee pickers in Mexico. By 2002, Fairtrade International launched their official FAIRTRADE Certification Mark to “improve visibility on supermarket shelves, facilitate cross border trade, and simplify export procedures for both producers and exporters.”  Five years later, Fairtrade became recognized as one of just seven organizations worldwide that had reached the highest standards for defining terms of ethical trade (“History of Fairtrade”).

(“Fair Trade: Every Purchase Matters,” 2011)

However, despite these increasingly abundant claims of virtuous production, in this promise to consumers that “behind every Fairtrade certified label is a rigorous certification process, which means [they] can feel confident knowing that [they] are living [their] values with each purchase,” this video makes clear that the undercompensated laborers on West African cacao farms are, in fact, not the primary beneficiaries of many of these values-based certifications. Despite the fact that global Fairtrade sales have amounted to over $3 billion in the non-profit’s short lifetime, very few of these consumer “dollar votes” to “ensure farmers and workers are getting a fair deal” actually reach the impoverished laborers themselves after traveling through Fairtrade’s expensive bureaucratic network (Martin, “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization”).

As such, many of these values-based certification claims of virtuous production do not seem to hold up in practice. The stark reality remains that, in the $100 billion per year chocolate industry, a vast majority of cocoa farmers remain well below the poverty line. These farmers seem to be of secondary concern to the ethical consumers themselves, whose restless consciences and hesitant pocketbooks can be placated by the knowledge that, when they buy values-based goods, “they are making a choice that means quality products, improved lives, and protection of the environment” (“Fair Trade: Every Purchase Matters”). The construction of the socially responsible chocolate producer thus plays directly into the hands of the emerging ethical consumer, relying increasingly on values-based labeling as a means by which to manipulate this audience into consumption by appealing to their heightened moral sensibilities.

It is evident that, within the Machiavellian context of the capitalist marketplace, consumers must always remain skeptical of the motives and claims made by producers. As such, I decided to conduct a taste test survey in hopes of exploring and evaluating the influence of these values-based labels on consumer perceptions of chocolate’s overall taste and nutritional value, the nature of which can ultimately determine downstream purchasing behaviors.

My experiment was comprised of a two-part taste test of nine different chocolate bars, each of which had range of values-based labels. The chocolate bars and their certifications, or lack thereof, were as follows:

Chocolate bars

  1. Dove Dark Chocolate (Rainforest Alliance Certified)
  2. Endangered Species Chocolate: Natural Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt & Almonds, 72% Cacao (Rainforest Alliance Certified, Non-GMO Project Verified)
  3. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate (None)
  4. Hershey’s Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate Bar, 45% Cacao (None)
  5. Lindt Excellence: 70% Cocoa Smooth Dark Chocolate (None)
  6. Nestlé’s Milk Chocolate (None)
  7. Rescue Chocolate: Pick Me! Pepper Chocolate (Fair Trade Certified, USDA Organic Certified)
  8. Taza Chocolate Mexicano Cacao Puro, 70% Dark (Non-GMO Project Verified, Direct Trade Certified, USDA Organic Certified)
  9. Theo Chocolate: Pure 85% Dark Chocolate (Non-GMO Project Verified, Fair Trade Certified, USDA Organic Certified)

The first half of the experiment consisted of a blind taste test, in which each of my seven participants tasted samples of the nine different chocolate bars, given in a random but consistent order to all participants, with no visual cues or background information regarding the chocolate itself or the company that produced it. After each sample, I prompted participants to answer a series of three questions, the first of which asked them to score their overall enjoyment of each undisclosed chocolate bar on a scale of 0-5 (based on flavor, texture, aroma, etc.), where 0 indicated no enjoyment and 5 indicated strong enjoyment. The second question then asked participants to answer how many calories they thought one serving of each chocolate bar contained relative to other brands of chocolate. I provided them with the USDA nutritional breakdown for a general “Sweet Chocolate Bar,” which contains 208 calories per 41 g serving, as a standard reference for this subsequent evaluation (“USDA Sweet Chocolate Bar”). Answers for this second question were also given on a scale of 0-5, where 0 indicated that they thought the chocolate in question contained many fewer calories than the standard given, and 5 indicated that they believed it contained many more calories. The final question asked participants to rate, again on a scale of 0-5, how frequently they thought each chocolate bar should be consumed compared to other brands of chocolate, where 0 indicated much less frequently and 5 indicated much more frequently.

(Pleasantly?) surprised taste testers!
(Pleasantly?) surprised taste testers!






In contrast, the second half of the experiment was an informed taste test, in which I first provided the participants with a brief description of all the different values-based certifications represented by the chocolate brands, including Fair Trade, Direct Trade, USDA Organic, and Rainforest Alliance. Before re-tasting each sample, I presented participants with background information about the producer as well as the product itself, paraphrased from the packaging and company website. The participants were also told the ingredients and given a complete list of any of the aforementioned certifications received by each bar. I then had them taste each of the nine chocolate samples again in alphabetical order, after which they were then asked the same series of three questions in the same order, regarding overall enjoyment, relative caloric content, and proposed frequency of consumption.

When all participants finished both parts of the experiment, I compared the results from the answers given during the blind taste test versus the informed taste test, analyzing any significant trends or notable changes. A comparison of the answers given for the first question concerning overall enjoyment of each chocolate bar, as they changed from the blind test to the informed test, can be summarized by the following graph:

Overall Enjoyment Results
Overall Enjoyment Results


These results reveal that consumer enjoyment of each chocolate was indeed somewhat impacted by awareness of the product and producer, as overall ratings did not remain constant between tests for any of the nine samples. Because the intrinsic, objective factors (i.e. ingredients, presence or absence of conching, etc.) contributing to the chocolate’s overall quality, flavor, texture, and aroma were unchanged across both tests, it can be deduced that some extrinsic factor was affecting the subjective personal experience of these qualities. This extrinsic factor can be assumed to be contained within the information provided to participants during the second, non-blind taste test. In this case, consumer satisfaction and experience of chocolate quality might have been influenced by awareness of brand name, company background, or ingredients, as well as sensitivity to product description or values-based certifications.

In both the blind and informed taste test, the Dove Dark Chocolate came out on top, with 24.5 and 27.5 points, respectively. The fluctuations in overall enjoyment appear to be more correlated with whether the chocolate bars were of the milk chocolate or dark chocolate variety, rather than with the knowledge of the company mission or values-based certifications. Both milk chocolate samples tested (Hershey’s and Nestlé’s) received much lower ratings in the non-blind test, while enjoyment increased for all the dark chocolate bars. Initially, in the blind taste test, Nestlé’s Milk Chocolate received 20.5 points, but only half of that number in the informed taste test, falling from fourth to last place. Similarly, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate ratings declined to 13, placing it eighth out of nine in the second test. In contrast, enjoyment of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate bar increased from 22 to 27 points, bringing it from third place in the blind taste test to second place in the informed taste test. This observed trend may in part be due to the fact that dark chocolate is often perceived as being of higher quality and purity than milk chocolate. The ability to discern visual indicators of this presumed superior quality, such as the dark color of the chocolate bar itself or the percentage of cacao contained within it, may have caused participants to perceive the dark chocolate bars as being of higher quality in the second test.

Amongst those chocolates with several values-label certifications, Taza Cacao Puro enjoyment remained relatively high and stable across both tests, while enjoyment of Rescue Chocolate, Endangered Species Chocolate, and Theo Chocolate was relatively low, but increased slightly in the informed test. This finding becomes of particular interest, when taken with the results from the following question, in which participants were asked how frequently they thought each chocolate bar should be consumed compared to other chocolate brands:

Proposed Consumption Frequency
Proposed Consumption Frequency

With the exception of the Lindt chocolate, which is marketed as a premium chocolate, the recommended frequency of consumption for chocolate brands that lacked any values-based certifications showed a marked decreased over the course of the two taste tests. Conversely, for those chocolate brands that did have values-based certifications, the recommended frequency of consumption increased conspicuously in the informed taste test compared to the blind taste test. When taken with the previous observation that enjoyment of these same chocolate bars was lower than most other conventional bars and did not increase significantly, such a finding suggests that it is the consumer’s active promotion of those social or environmental causes that are represented by these values-based labels, rather than an improved tasting experience, that is motivating them to recommend more frequent consumption when their knowledge of the product increases.

The final question touched more directly on my main inquiry and motivation for conducting this taste test survey–that is, whether claims of ethical production would promote a “halo effect,” a long-established phenomenon in social psychology whereby “an initial favorable impression promotes subsequent favorable evaluations on unrelated dimensions” (Schuldt, Muller, & Schwarz 1). Participants were asked to score relative calorie content of each chocolate sample, a higher score out of 35 total points reflecting that participants tended to think that the chocolate sample contained more calories than most other brands of chocolate, while a score on the lower end indicating the general perception of the chocolate as lower calorie than most other chocolate brands.

Proposed Calorie Content
Proposed Calorie Content

These results demonstrate that those chocolate brands with several ethical production certifications were ranked as being significantly lower in calories in the informed taste test. In contrast, all of the bars that lacked any explicit claims of ethical production methods were perceived as being much higher in calories after the second taste test. Consistent with the logic of health halo effects, consumers appeared to be making positive and negative health inferences on the basis of the presence or absence of socially ethical food production practices, respectively, which bear no nutritional connotation whatsoever. Previous research has already demonstrated the existence of significant “health halo effects” based on claims of USDA Organic certification, whereby consumers judge organic foods as being lower in calories than their non-organic counterparts, regardless of the fact that organic certification does not have any direct bearing on calorie content. For example, people tend to judge Oreo cookies made from organic flour as containing fewer calories than do regular Oreos, despite the fact that the two products have equal nutritional value (Schuldt, Muller, & Schwarz 2).

With the growing obesity epidemic sweeping the nation, this health halo effect that accompanies values-based labeling is of imminent concern, as consumers are being led to make to unfounded assumptions about the nutritional value of the foods they are eating

Sucrose for Comfort (Mother Jones)
“Sucrose for Comfort” (Mother Jones)

Over the past 30 years, the percentage of adults who suffer from obesity has more than doubled from 15% to 35.7%, causing the incidence of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses to skyrocket. Increasing rates of obesity have been shown to be directly correlated with annual per capita sugar consumption, which has soared to over 132 pounds in the United States, or the equivalent of 31 teaspoons of added sugars per day (Taubes & Couzens, Albritton 343). This exponential sugar increase in the American diet can be largely attributed to the rise of industrial food corporations, which, driven by competition in the capitalist marketplace, seek to maximize profits by minimizing production costs; however, this self-seeking mentality is often at odds with the best interests of the American population, as lowering production costs often means pumping food products full of empty calories. As a direct consequence of the contemporary capitalist food industry, “junk foods,” or those foods that tend to be very high in calories relative to nutrients, abound to such an extent that 50% of the average American’s daily caloric intake can be accounted for by fat and sugar (Albritton 343).

From the point of view of the capitalist food corporations, the “ideal food ingredient for profit purposes is something that is cheap and that consumers crave,” (Albritton 344). Many big businesses have found the perfect profitable candidate in chocolate, which exploits the addictive quality of sweetness and requires relatively low input costs. Today, mass-produced chocolate bars are ubiquitous across the nation, lining the aisles and countertops of every grocery and convenience store, supplied primarily by the chocolate industry’s “Big Five”–Hershey’s, Mars, Nestlé, Cadbury, and Ferero Rocher (Martin, “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market”). These corporations reap the profits of the American obesity epidemic, aggressively pursuing marketing strategies that enforce ‘brand loyalty from cradle to grave’ for those products that exploit the human craving for sugar, fat, and salt.

However, these large chocolate corporations are not the only ones responsible for pursuing profit-maximizing ends at the expense of consumer health. Rather than competing directly for the same consumer base as the Big Five industrial chocolate powerhouses, emerging “socially conscious corporations” have adopted the aforementioned alternative, values-based marketing strategies. It is in these companies’ best interests to pursue such values-based marketing strategies, as their success is likely enhanced by the evocation of these problematic health halos that accompany claims of socially ethical production. However, by capitalizing on the unsustainable working and environmental conditions that tarnish the reputations of bigger chocolate corporations, socially conscious corporations are selfishly bolstering sales to the detriment of the health of their “ethical consumers.”

In order for ethical consumption to become an authentic and meaningful institution capable of affecting actual positive change, consumers must become more than superficial values-based label-readers. They must view these products with the same skeptical eye with which they would view any product of the capitalist food industry, seeking to further educate themselves not only about the benefits of ethical production, but also about its shortcomings that impact those at home and abroad. Only in this way can ethical consumption truly live up to its potential to become an agent of social and environmental transformation.

Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” Food and Culture. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2013. 343-52. Print.

Barham, Elizabeth. “Towards a Theory of Values-based Labeling.” Agriculture and Human Values 19 (2002): 349-60. Kluwer Academic Publishers. Web. 1 May 2015.

Fair Trade: Every Purchase Matters. Fair Trade Certified, 2011. Youtube. Web. 3 May 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7K4G5-ydhS0&gt;.

Fair Trade USA Certification Label. Digital image. Logos & Labels. Fair Trade USA, 2015. Web. 5 May 2015. <http://fairtradeusa.org/resources/logos-labels&gt;.

Giesler, Markus, and Ela Veresiu. “Creating the Responsible Consumer: Moralistic Governance Regimes and Consumer Subjectivity.” Journal of Consumer Research 41.3 (2014): 840-57. Chicago Journals. Web. 2 May 2015.

“History of Fairtrade.” Fairtrade International. Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, 2011. Web. 3 May 2015.

Martin, Carla. “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization.” AAAS 119x Lecture 18. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 4 Apr. 2015. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Modern day Slavery.” AAAS 119x Lecture 15. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 25 Mar. 2015. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market.” AAAS 119x Lecture 13. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 11 Mar. 2015. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” AAAS 119x Lecture 11. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 4 Mar. 2015. Lecture.

Schuldt, Jonathan P., Dominique Muller, and Norbert Schwarz. “The ”Fair Trade” Effect: Health Halos From Social Ethics Claims.” Social Psychological and Personality Science (2011): 1-9. Sage Publications. Web. 1 May 2015.

Taubes, Gary, and Cristin K. Couzens. Sucrose for Comfort. Digital image. Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies. Mother Jones, Nov.-Dec. 2012. Web. 05 May 2015.

“USDA Sweet Chocolate Bar.” HealthGrove. N.p., 2015. Web. 2 May 2015.