Tag Archives: Theo Chocolate

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/.

Theo Chocolate: Trendsetters and Pioneers for Bean-to-Bar Companies and Socially Conscious Consumers Alike

Theo Chocolate is the first bean-to-bar chocolate company that is an organic fair trade-certified and GMO-free cocoa producer in the United States. Based out of Seattle starting in 2006, Theo Chocolate is a pioneer of a shared value for-profit company.  By expanding economic value and social value simultaneously to the cost of the goods they are selling, they are an exemplary leader of how companies can be more socially and environmentally responsible. When they first were founded, they applied creative entrepreneurial solutions to capture a small share of a large market and ultimately forever influenced the way consumers interact with the products they choose to purchase. Consumers of Theo Chocolate better understand the supply chains of the product they are consuming, naturally develop loyalty to brands they trust and faithfully believe in, and shape market perceptions of the fundamental value of chocolate by increasing demand (Butcher 2014). This paper is an ethnographic analysis of Theo Chocolate that will examine their mission as an ethical and sustainable chocolate maker, how that has changed since conception, and how successful the company has been on the basis of their own metrics.

This first section will discuss their founding and original mission statement to focus on their social and environmental success since conception. Theo Chocolate was founded by Joe Whinney, when he wanted to fundamentally challenge the answer to two questions: do chocolate manufacturers bear responsibility for producers of cocoa beans? And do they bear responsibility for how they are produced? As Carol Off describes in her publishing Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, responsibility regarding who should monitor farming practices has traditionally been pushed around between chocolate companies, large corporations, and even the US and African governments where the beans were being produced (Off 2008). There was no general consensus as to how far the orgins of the cocoa bags of beans should be monitored and tracked. Whinney wanted to break this cycle and take on this responsibility while still being a for-profit company. Whinney’s first founding mission was that “the finest artisan chocolate in the world can and should be produced in an entirely ethical, sustainable fashion”(Butcher 2014). His initial aims were to more concretely improve the growing conditions for farmers and to promote fair trade practices for cocoa bean farmers.

Social Work and Responsibility

With regards to the farmer’s role in the chocolate supply chain, he wanted to make sure they were environmentally and sustainably creating higher quality, larger yields, while also raising the farmers standard of living. Whinney after doing much market research felt that the key to higher quality chocolate was the fermentation of the beans. Fermentation removed the acids and tannins that created bitterness. He felt strongly that the farmers should understand and be educated on the role of fermentation. Consequently, he worked side by side with the farmers to help them adopt the best fermentation practices (Butcher 2014). Not only was it beneficial for Whinney to be able to develop a reliable relationship with farmers that were loyal to the quality he wanted, but it also economically was efficient because the higher percentage of beans that were correctly fermented, the higher prices the farmers were able to demand. Selling beans at higher prices meant that the farmers collected more money to sustain their livelihood. It was a welfare-enhancing transaction for both Whinney as well as the farmers, what he referred to as “enlightened capitalism”. Whinney hoped in the future of sustainable and modern cocoa production, the farmers would take on more of a responsible role controlling the quality of their beans, as well as marketing their own cocoa. He believed that if the farmers could adopt this commanding mentality, their livelihoods wouldn’t be so subject to the prices negotiated by larger chocolate companies.

Whinney was a huge contributor to helping develop price transparency. He established a pricing grid which provided complete information for consumers of the chocolate, the retailers selling the chocolate, but most importantly the bean farmers as well. Educating the farmers about prices allowed them to understand what factors are key determinants to price input. It was essential the farmers understand that when they can utilize proper quality tests and post-harvest practices, they create independent value for themselves as well as Whinney. Theo Chocolate reported that in 2009 when most bulk cocoa was selling for $2,000 a metric ton, they were willing to pay $3,600-$6,000 a metric ton for quality beans, which at this time was highly unpopular (Butcher 2014). Theo Chocolate prided themselves on the high quality of organic and fair trade cocoa they brought in and believed it provided real incentivization for farmers.

Interview of Co-founder Debra Music about Theo Chocolate values

Theo Chocolate wanted to ensure that their business reflected their social responsibility, not only to the farmer but toward the consumer as well. They used only organic ingredients, green energy sources in their operations, as well as sustainable wrapping. Theo Chocolate often donated many of their proceeds towards notable causes that aligned with their company’s values. For example, in 2010 after an earthquake in Haiti, a certain portion of chocolate proceeds were donated to CARE, a relief organization fighting global poverty. With the proceeds, CARE delivered 600,000 water purification tablets to make contaminated water drinkable (Butcher 2014). Additionally, Theo Chocolate had a signature Cherry and Chili Bar, whose proceeds were donated to PCC Farmland Trust, the local food co-op where the cherries and chilies were grown in Washington state. Theo’s World Bicycle Relief Sea Salt Bar was created with the proceeds going towards the World Bicycle Relief Program, who donated bicycles to health care workers in Africa. Two featured bars displayed the Jane Goodall stamp. The stamp was a signal that the bars were an ethically and quality produced product coming from the developing world, and the proceeds promoted forest conservation through the Jane Goodall foundation. Finally, it is notable that locally Theo wanted to help the community whom it hired from and interacted with (Butcher 2014). The company often used the factory store as an events space to help support local businesses, hunger, and other community initiatives.

Entrepreneurial Strategy: Owning the Chocolate Niche

Theo Chocolate developed a unique business marketing and entrepreneurial strategy to generate profits. Their first success as a company came when they understood the market they were dealing with and saw the unrealized opportunity. Whinney observed very early on that they were in a growing market, and that high-quality product would be the future for profits. In 2010, premium chocolate sales, premium chocolate being chocolate that sold for more than $.50/ounce, were about $2.1-2.4 billion total (Butcher 2014). From 2006-2009, the sale of premium chocolate had grown 5 times the rate compared to regular chocolate, and in the US market, there were not many players. When Theo Chocolate was founded there were only approximately only 15 chocolate producers. Most were confectioners who purchased blocks of chocolate and remelted it to make their own chocolate products (Butcher 2014). No bean-to-bar chocolate maker had ever been Fairtrade, organic, and non-GMO. Theo’s quality was certainly the finest as well as the most socially responsible. Whinney was able to recognize many changing chocolate trends and take advantage of them at the forefront. He implemented exotic flavors, savory inspired flavors, raw cocoa, and upscale packaging to be at the forefront of the changing market.

Whinney was a firm believer that chocolate needed to taste extraordinary or else nobody would buy it the second time: “Without having amazing products nothing else matters” (Butcher 2014). His chocolate bars had higher quality cocoa percentages and while expensive to produce, the quality was uncontested. A huge competitive advantage that Theo Chocolate had being a bean-to-bar company rather than a confectioner was full control over the quality. They essentially had full vertical control of the entire chocolate making process from bean sourcing to the chocolate manufacturing. This was essential to keep up with the fast-paced consumer preference changes and trends, allowing them to flexibly adapt to their consumer demand.

Examples of their current, more non-traditional seasonal flavors

Theo chocolate did something never before done in chocolate wrapping marketing in the United States at the time, they received multiple certifications and displayed them on the wrapping of every chocolate bar. Theo Chocolate was the first bean-to-bar company to do this. Currently, on their website, they promote 4 certifications: USDA Organic, Fair Trade for Life, Star-K Kosher Certification, and Non-GMO (Theo Chocolate 2019). Theo Chocolate states on their website: “Trust is fundamental to every relationship, including our relationships with our customers and suppliers. We believe transparency is an important component of trust and employ third-party verification for the claims we make” (Theo Chocolate 2019). Since conception, they have held true to this honest standard, and were the first ones to adopt using this marketing strategy for being fair trade and organic simultaneously. These certifications symbolize that Theo Chocolate prioritizes holding themselves to the highest standard and wants to foster such accountability towards their customers. They also demonstrated by their popularity that the marketing model works, as many more chocolate companies have sought out these very same badges.

Finally, Theo Chocolate is at the forefront of distribution. Premium chocolate has historically been and still is, sold through company-owned stores, specialty stores, and websites. However, they foresaw that organic food would become more sought after in the mid-2000s and correctly predicted there would be more demand for grocery stores that stocked organic chocolate. Theo Chocolate, in as early as 2008, partnered with Whole Foods to provide chocolate bars in their grocery stores. It has been a symbiotic relationship with the two companies because Whole Foods needs suppliers whos incentives aligned to provide the same quality products. According to Whole Foods, “Organic products have grown on average more than 20% per year over the last 7-10 years, making it the fastest growing segment of agriculture”(“Whole Foods UK” 2019). In many ways, Whole Foods acts as a middleman that is able to efficiently match the product produced to the consumer’s growing need. Theo Chocolate positioned themselves strongly within the growing Organic Industry, as well as in the responsible gourmet chocolate industry to catch two rising trends simultaneously and significantly boost demand for their product.

All of these marketing strategies are an indication that Theo deeply understood the new audience they were working with and trying to cater towards. On one hand, they pioneered the socially responsible chocolate, which you now see today in marketplaces as being much more commonplace. On the other hand, they also changed the way consumers think about responding to social responsibility, by developing this consumer consciousness in the typical millennial that is now commonplace. Theo Chocolate created unprecedented change on both the supply, as well as the demand side of organic fair trade chocolate.

Theo Chocolate and the Future

What does the mission statement look like today? Has it changed or strayed from its original intentions? Currently, they proclaim: “As a company rooted in cocoa, our mission is to create a more beautiful, compassionate, and enduring world by responsibly making delicious and inspiring products for everyone” (Theo Chocolate 2017). They are aware of the success their chocolate has received globally. Currently, they are now focusing on further developing the existing built connections between entities and people to make them stronger. One way they are doing this is by turning toward their internal operations to care for the employee base. Theo Chocolate has a strong commitment to developing their employees professionally but also educating them about the strength of social responsibility so each employee can hopefully go out one day and make a substantial impact one way or another.

Video of employees reflecting on company values

Ultimately I conclude that not only are they exemplary at the amount of social impact they have effectively brought about, but Theo Chocolate is one of the first shining examples within the American chocolate industry that could generate outstanding profits because they marketed such social responsibility. They sold America not only their product but their vision. Theo Chocolate made being a bean-to-bar company trendy while also on the consumer-facing side making socially conscious purchases trendy and feel good. Their small share in the chocolate market has set a rippling precedent for American markets to promote corporate social responsibility on any level of scale.

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Works Cited

Butcher, Alva Wright, and Paula A. Wilson. “Theo Choloclate-Doing Well By Doing Good.” Journal of Case Studies 32, no. 1 (2014): 19-36.

Off, Carol. 2008. Bitter Chocolate. New York: The New Press.

“Our Certifications – Theo Chocolate”. 2019. Theo Chocolate. https://www.theochocolate.com/blog/our-certifications/.

Tedxseattle – Debra Music & Joe Whinney – 4/16/10. 2010. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQUaUirxnwo.

Theo Chocolate Values. 2019. Video. https://vimeo.com/235404979.

“Whole Foods UK”. 2019. Wholefoodsmarket.Com. https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/mission-values/organic/growth-organics-industry.

2018 Heart Of Seattle Winner – Swanson’S Nursery. 2019. Image. https://vimeo.com/265462272.

2019. Image. https://www.theochocolate.com/product/lemon/.

2019. Image. https://www.theochocolate.com/product/grapefruit-ginger/.