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Taza Chocolate: A Step in the Right Direction, but Still Room for Improvement

As you have probably discovered when looking through the chocolate display in various retail and grocery stores, five large players dominate the global chocolate market. Their prevalence allows them to dictate the rhetoric and information synthesized by chocolate consumers on a daily basis. However, the industry is fraught with serious issues that these companies are not taking drastic enough steps to solve. Instead, we must look to other companies, although less well known and smaller-scale, that are forging innovative paths to solve these very real problems, in order to learn from them but also recognize where there is room for improvement. One such company is Taza Chocolate. 

 Taza Chocolate is a bean to bar chocolate company based in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was founded in 2005 by CEO Alex Whitmore, who was inspired by the stone ground chocolate he had tasted on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. He apprenticed under a molinero in Oaxaca in order to learn how to make and work with traditional Mexican stone mills. The result of these unique mills and minimal processing is chocolate with bolder flavors and a grittier consistency than the smoothness that is usually expected from more mainstream companies. 

Summary of the Taza Chocolate production process

Taza chocolate can be bought online through its website or at Amazon and can be found at retailers such as Whole Foods. According to the Taza Website, “We do things differently. We do things better. We are chocolate pioneers” (Taza Website: Direct Trade). They are pioneers not just because of their unique production process and flavor, but also because of their commitment to addressing the problems that plague the industry today through supply-chain transparency. 

Problems: Slavery, Economics and Gender Inequality

In order to critically analyze Taza’s attempted solutions, it is important to first understand the problems, which unfortunately are not new but rather have plagued the industry for centuries. Slavery was an integral part of chocolate’s history, and can be traced back to the 1500’s when the Spanish Encomienda system forced natives in Mesoamerica to grow cocoa and perform labor without pay. The terrible working conditions and disease spread by the Spaniards ravished the native population, and Africans were brought in to replace them. From 1500-1900, between 10 and 15 million enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean to grow cocoa and other commodity crops. However, even after slavery was abolished, it continued and continues to plague the industry today, mostly in the form of child labor. The International Labour Organization defines child labor as, “all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery… work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children” (ILO). Carol Off found evidence of such child labor in Cote D’Ivoire, with some farmers or their supervisors “working… young people almost to death. The boys had little to eat, slept in bunkhouses that were locked during the night, and were frequently beaten” (Off, 121). A 2009 study by Tulane corroborated Off’s discoveries when it found that more than half a million children in Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire were working in conditions that violated ILO guidelines as well as national laws on minimum wage and minimum hours (Berlan).

Another prevalent problem is the poverty that many cocoa farmers face, particularly in Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, due to the economics of cocoa farming. Unlike many northern countries where jobs are salaried, wages for day laborers on farms are “neither guaranteed nor generally regulated” (Leissle, 106). Farm owners only receive cash when they sell their crop; thus, they earn 80% of their annual income in the six months of the main growing season, making budgeting for the rest of the year extremely difficult, especially because many inputs are needed at the start of the growing season when farmers are the lowest on cash. This can result in farmers having to take loans or credit, which often have incredibly high interest rates and can be impossible to pay back. The price fluctuations of chocolate also make it difficult to budget, as anything from bad weather to political turmoil can drastically affect chocolate’s price. Lastly, the prices farmers receive are often too low to support their costs. Farmers rarely sell their product directly to the big chocolate companies, instead selling to middlemen who have more negotiating power and can mislead them. Therefore, even if the price paid for chocolate goes up, there is no guarantee that the farmers actually receive this increase.  As a result of all of these factors, many farmers struggle to make a living.

Finally, gender inequality is an important problem that is often disregarded, in part because literature has minimized the role of women in chocolate production. Women are thought of as having only light and non-essential tasks, when in reality “female labor play[s] a central role in almost every aspect of cocoa production and sale… statistics undoubtedly underestimate the role of women” (Robertson, 100/104). But the industry is male-dominant, which has negative effects on women. For example, social norms dictate that even if women grow the cocoa, men are the ones that actually sell the crop and receive the cash (Leissle, 122). This means not only that women have no proof they are getting the right amount of money, but also that men of the household have control of the cash, which they often use to pay for needs they find most important before distributing the rest, if any, to women and children. Consequently, even though women contribute greatly to chocolate production, they have very little power. 

Taza’s Solution: Direct Trade Model

In order to combat some of these issues, according to Taza it developed, “The first third-party certified direct trade cacao sourcing program, to ensure quality and transparency for all.” (Taza Website: Direct Trade). Because it is the first of its kind, Taza published five guidelines and commitments for its direct trade system that it holds itself accountable to. 

  1. Develop direct relationships with cacao farmers:  Taza began by purchasing cocoa from La Red Guaconejo cooperative in the Dominican Republic and shipping it directly to Boston so that there were no middlemen involved. This direct method shrinks, “a commodity chain that is often far-flung, [so that] no step of the trade exchange, from farm to factory, was unknown or untraceable to Taza’s founders” (Leissle, 154). They later expanded their sources to include other producers in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Ghana, all of which they have personal relationships with. Their single origin bars reflect and appreciate the uniqueness of each location. 
  2. Pay a price premium to cacao producers: Taza commits to paying at least $500 per MT above market price for its beans
  3. Source the highest quality cacao beans: Taza emphasizes fine flavor beans rather than bulk beans, and directs resources over the long term to assist producers in maintaining high quality output 
  4. Require USDA certified organic cacao: As part of its commitment to source only the best cocoa, Taza requires its producers to be organic certified. 
  5. Publish an annual transparency report: Taza was the first chocolate company ever to publish such a report. It includes the quantity of beans bought from each individual producer, the price Taza pays for these beans, and an intimate look at the individual producers they partner with. 
Overview of Taza’s Direct Trade Program in 2018

Pros of Taza’s Direct Trade Model

Taza’s direct trade model has improved the economics of farmers while simultaneously promoting transparency in the industry. In paying a large premium (15-20%), Taza ensures that the farmers do not have to worry about not being able to earn enough to survive fluctuations in cocoa price that are entirely outside of their control. This gives farmers much-needed predictability and visibility into future income and improves their standard of living. Furthermore, by publishing the exact prices they buy the seeds at and having all of their numbers and reports independently verified each year by the Quality Certification Services, Taza guarantees integrity and transparency. This is a stark contrast to the rest of the industry; many companies in recent years have introduced “even more ambiguity into the landscapes of its practice” by relying on internal certification and accountability schemes (Leissle, 147). For example, Cadbury recently stopped fair trade certification and instead initiated an in-house sustainability guarantee, which has decreased transparency because, “when a certification scheme is internal to a company, it is more difficult to assess whether they are rigorous and consistently applied. The only option is to take the company’s words that they are” (Leissle, 147-148). The same can be said for craft chocolate companies, who claim to pay several times the world market price for cocoa, yet there is no way for the consumer to verify. In publishing its prices, Taza has set a new standard for the industry, and others, such as Dandelion Chocolate, are following suit.

 Taza’s production process also allows for stronger relationships with producers and greater visibility into the company’s supply chain, ensuring no child labor is used to produce its products. In interacting directly with each of their producers, and visiting at least once a year, Taza can guarantee the use of fair labor. Furthermore, in Ghana, where, as discussed earlier, child labor is especially prevalent, Taza has invested in education programs for children and their family. For example, the local producers Taza partners with coordinate workshops in local schools for students and parents to “educate around age-appropriate farm activities… versus dangerous ones” (2018 transparency report). Additionally, Taza has patterned with the non-profit International Cocoa Initiative and its buyer Tony’s Chocolonely, to “proactively address any instances of unsafe work through a combination of family resources and training that rewards transparency and addresses core issues of poverty and lack of education” (2018 transparency report). 

Finally, Taza’s single origin bars promote consumer awareness about the countries where it sources its chocolate. Each bar, according to the website, “is minimally processed to let the bold flavors and unique terroir of our Direct Trade Certified beans shout loud and proud”  (Taza website: Origin Bars). 

Taza’s single origin chocolate bars

By indicating where the chocolate is grown, these single origin bars can help consumers learn that the taste of chocolate differs from place to place, and “invite shoppers to consider the politics and economics of exporting cocoa… By offering a range of chocolate experiences that can change even day by day, single origin chocolate reminds us that there are real people, institutions, and power structures behind every bar” (Leissle, 170). A more informed consumer is likely to make more informed decisions in the future, which can help promote sustainable, ethical chocolate production by creating demand for such products. 

How Taza can Improve

Although the Taza model has many strengths, there are areas where it is still lacking. For example, the prices listed in the transparency reports indicate the amount paid per metric ton to producer organizations, but they do not indicate the farm gate price, or how much the individual farmer receives. The farm gate price is distinctive from the price paid to the producers, but by not including both, the reports can mislead the consumer into thinking the listed price is entirely received by the farmers. In only one year, 2016, Taza reported the price that was actually received by farmers, which ranged from 51-76% of the price that was received by producer organizations (2016 transparency report). However, no other transparency report published these numbers, and this percentage could have changed substantially in the years since, especially because a few of the producer organizations they work with have changed. While Taza is exemplary in its transparency, there is room to be even more transparent by consistently publishing the farm gate price in its reports. 

Additionally, even though gender inequality is an important problem in cocoa production, Taza does not explicitly address it in its transparency reports. Photos of women farmers have been featured in some of the past reports, and the number of women farmers is included in each report (ranging from 15% to 45% of each producer organization). These inclusions are important in disproving the misconception that women are not involved in cocoa production. However, there is no reference to the struggles women face due to the power dynamics of the industry. Taza had the opportunity to do so in its 2018 report, when it mentions that its partner in El Majagual, Dominican Republic donated his chocolate factory to an association of local women. However, they do not even name the women’s association or delve into what it does, and it seems as though the sale was a decision made independently by the producer with no help or influence from Taza. This is an area where Taza can really improve and learn from organizations such as Kuapa Kokoo, a Ghana based company that sets gender quotas for elected representation at the community and district levels of governance and organizes conscious-raising women’s groups and women’s literacy programs (Leissle, 149). An essential next step for Taza is to acknowledge the unequal distribution of power and wealth due to gender, because according to field work and research by Kristy Leissle and Stephanie Barrientos , “Apart from explicit, well-directed efforts to empower women, most assistance…[goes] directly or indirectly to men” (Leissle, 173). 

Conclusion

In summary, Taza Chocolate is changing the way chocolate is sourced, produced and consumed. In addressing the economic problems farmers face, ensuring its producers do not use forced labor, and investing in programs that combat child labor, Taza is making a positive impact on cocoa production. However, there are many areas where Taza can still learn and grow— the transparency reports would be greatly improved if they included farm gate prices, and just as the company has invested in programs to fight against child labor, it should invest in programs that are actively looking to support women.  That being said, Taza’s direct trade program is truly innovative, and its transparency reports are challenging other companies to improve their own practices. Although the direct trade model is not feasible for the larger scale companies that dominate the industry, consumers must demand the same level of commitment to ethical production that Taza demonstrates.  

Works Cited

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, 2013, pp. 1088–1100. 

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018. 

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of The World’s Most Seductive Sweet. The New Press, 2006.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: a Social and Cultural History. Manchester University Press, 2013.

https://www.ilo.org/global/standards/subjects-covered-by-international-labour-standards/child-labour/lang–en/index.htm

https://www.tazachocolate.com

https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/2016-transparency-report

https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/2018-transparency-report

Images Cited

https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0974/7668/files/Taza_Chocolate_Making_Process.pdf?10043542871181577895

https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/taza-direct-trade

http://www.tazachocolate.com/collections/bars

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.

TazaPartners

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.

TazaBar

TazaCertifications

 

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.