Can Chocolate Be Sustainable?

This is post number 2 in my series, the Love Conversation About Conservation (Loco About Conservation for short). The idea is that you tell me what you love, and I will tell you how to green it. Dorothy responded to my Facebook request by saying, simply, “Chocolate.”

The subject of growing and processing chocolate in a sustainable manner is anything but simple. What does “sustainable” mean in this case?

  1. Does it mean organic? (That should mean the cacao trees grow in shade, which is natural for them.)
  2. Does it mean fair trade? (The latter should avoid forced child labor, and the farmers should earn a living wage.)
  3. Does it mean the chocolate is processed a certain way in its country of origin and is processed a certain way in the United States or other countries where the beans are made into chocolate?
  4. In the case of cocoa powder, does processing with alkali destroy its green credibility?
  5. Would it be best for consumers to eat only dark chocolate and avoid the problems with dairy products? (I’m referring to dairy factory farms, not lactose intolerance.)
  6. Would it be best to eat “local” chocolate? (That is, chocolate that is made into bars and other products in the city or state where the consumer buys it.)

There are many chocolate companies that make organic chocolate bars. Green and Black’s, founded in the UK in 1991, sells bars and hot chocolate mix made from organically grown beans. All their products are organic. I have not done enough research to say that they were the first company to market chocolate that was organic and fair trade certified, but they were one of the first.

DAGOBA, founded in 2001 in Oregon, sells only USDA-certified organic chocolate.

But,

  • Green and Black’s was bought by Cadbury’s in 2005, which was bought by Kraft in 2010; then Kraft was bought by Mondelez in 2012. Here is the co-founder of Green and Black’s lamenting the sale.
  • Dagoba was bought by Hershey’s in 2006.

When a small organic company is bought by a large mainstream company, I begin to question whether the product will suffer. But that hasn’t stopped me from buying DAGOBA.

Hershey’s announced in 2013 that all its chocolate will be fair trade certified by 2020. It is already halfway to that goal. But does certifying so many farms so quickly raise the incomes of farmers? In some cases, yes, according to the Guardian‘s reporting on Hershey’s progress. Guaranteeing a minimum price for the farmers may be less effective than training them to be better farmers.

Certification programs—organic or fair trade—are expensive, and many farmers cannot afford them, especially if they are not supplying cocoa to a large international company. Direct Trade, mentioned in the article above, may be a better solution than fair trade.

According to this page on the Ecole Chocolat website, farmers may not be able to afford chemicals either. Perhaps growing cocoa without chemicals was the default mode in the past, at least until larger companies got involved? That is a question for another day.

As I said above, the sustainability of chocolate is a complicated subject, but we chocolate lovers will not easily give up our treats.

Here is my best advice based on the small amount of research I did: Find a local chocolate maker. Look at their website and see where they get their chocolate and how they process it. If they use organic and/or fair-trade-certified chocolate, great. If not, do they have other things going for them?

If you buy local, you will be contributing more to the local economy. If you would like to have a wider impact, consider buying Green and Black’s, DAGOBA, Equal Exchange, Endangered Species…

Dorothy, feel free to ask me another question about some aspect of this subject.

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I have a confession to make. I allow myself to have hot chocolate at home four days a week. Sometimes I have it three times a day. So I buy the cheapest cocoa I can, processed with alkali, because I haven’t wanted to spend $8 every week or two on a package of DAGOBA cocoa. And I mix it with milk or cream and raw sugar. I promise, I will start buying better cocoa. I may buy Hershey’s, since they are getting certified, but I dislike their all-plastic packaging.