The Decider: 5 Ways to Choose Sustainable Chocolate

The Decider looks beyond greenwashing to help you make sustainable decisions.

Ahh, chocolate. It’s silky, rich and melts in your mouth. But the process of getting that deliciousness to your mouth is decidedly less smooth. Cocoa production is linked to child labour, slavery, deforestation, and low wages.

In Ivory Coast and Ghana — where most cocoa is grown — smallholder farmers struggle with extreme poverty in the face of large price fluctuations, and 2.1 million children help tend the crops. These issues are highlighted in the 2018 Cocoa Barometer, a report produced by a consortium of not-for-profits. Meanwhile, palm oil and soy, two common ingredients in chocolate bars, are key drivers of global deforestation.

Cocoa production is linked to child labour, slavery, deforestation, and low wages.

Even though major chocolate companies have taken steps to clean up their supply chains over the past decade, and pledged to source 100% certified ethical and sustainable cocoa by 2020, the Cocoa Barometer says the industry has a long way to go.

“If business as usual continues, it will be decades — if ever — before human rights will be respected and environmental protection will be a basis for sustainability in the cocoa sector,” the report says.

So, with the onslaught of holiday treats upon us, how can concerned chocolate lovers make the most sustainable and ethical purchases? Asparagus Magazine spoke to experts on chocolate sustainability to find out. Whether you’re looking for a gift or a treat for yourself, we present five tips for choosing more sustainable chocolate.

1. Check the label

To start, you can learn about your chocolate by examining the label. But beware of “unsubstantiated” claims, says Hamish Van Der Ven, a professor at McGill University whose book on greenwashing comes out in 2019. Some companies describe their chocolate as “sustainable,” “green,” or “forest-friendly,” but that shouldn’t be considered equivalent to third-party certification, he explains. “Not all eco-labels are created equal.”

Instead, Van Der Ven and other experts recommend chocolate buyers seek out products with Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, or UTZ certifications. To receive these certifications, a company has to apply to a third party that sets standards and conducts audits to make sure that company’s ingredients actually meet those standards, explains Van Der Wen.

Each certification takes a different approach, but they all aim to decrease the environmental impact of cocoa production and improve the lives of farmers.

Cocoa is typically “grown by millions of farmers that have really small plots of land. So it’s difficult for individual companies — especially smaller companies and smaller brands — to keep track of sustainability practices all through their supply chain,” says Kerry Scanlon, senior associate at the Rainforest Alliance.

Each certification takes a different approach, but they all aim to decrease the negative environmental impact of cocoa production and improve the lives of farmers. Fairtrade emphasizes labour standards and poverty alleviation, including a guaranteed minimum price for farmers. In contrast, UTZ and Rainforest Alliance — which are merging and creating a new certification standard — originally emphasized environmental protection. Though they set no minimum price, they focus on increasing farmers’ incomes by helping them improve productivity and quality.

Consumers can choose based on their preferences, says Dietmar Stoian, senior scientist at Bioversity International. He prefers chocolates with both a Fairtrade and organic certification, because of the social and ecological standards the combination promises.

2. Go Dark

Unfortunately, certifications are far from a panacea for problems in the chocolate supply chain. Eating Fairtrade chocolate bars won’t “dramatically improve” the lives of cocoa farmers, says Stoian. Part of the problem is that only about a quarter of all cocoa is certified as either Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ or organic, and farmers who do have certifications are able to sell only a portion of their cocoa as certified, leaving the rest to the regular market. In addition, certifications do little to alleviate the crushing poverty cocoa farmers face. In 2016, Stoian contributed to a study that found that Fairtrade-certified cocoa farmers in Ghana earned only US $36 more than non-certified ones. “That’s not much more than 1% of their overall income,” he explains.

Dark chocolate contains more cocoa, which means more money per bar goes to cocoa farmers.

Poverty in cocoa-growing communities is complex, and Fairtrade is just one part of the solution, according to Fairtrade America spokesperson Kyle Freund. Companies and non-governmental organizations need to collaborate on more solutions to tackle poverty, he says.

One way to put more money in the hands of cocoa farmers is buying dark chocolate. Dark chocolate contains more cocoa, which means more money per bar goes to cocoa farmers. Stoian recommends 70% cocoa content or higher, which is roughly double what you find in milk chocolate. “By that token, you give more or less double the price to the [cocoa] producer, irrespective of any kind of certification,” he explains.

3. Consider Direct Trade

Another option for sourcing more ethical chocolate is buying from a chocolate vendor with a direct relationship to the farmers who grow their cocoa, as a growing number of small-scale producers have. Such producers take a “bean-to-bar” approach, working with farmers to produce a more sustainable product, and often paying higher prices for cocoa than the going market rate.

There are no set standards or certification for vetting this approach, but it has the potential to be more sustainable than conventional chocolate. One Asparagus favourite is local bean-to-bar producer East Van Roasters. Google “bean-to-bar” and your hometown to find direct-trade chocolate shops near you.

First-hand knowledge of how cocoa is produced can be as effective or more effective than a third-party certification.

“That first-hand knowledge of how cocoa is produced can be as effective or more effective than a third-party certification,” says McGill’s Van Der Ven. Third-party certifications have loopholes that can be circumvented by unethical companies, he explains. “It’s much easier to keep an eye on what’s happening at a single production area than it is over millions of hectares.”

When it comes down to it, the chocolate trade is unfair, says Johan Six, professor of sustainable agrosystems at Zurich’s technical university. Farmers, who get just 5–10% of the value of cocoa, need a bigger slice of the pie to climb out of poverty, he explains. Direct trade is one way of increasing that percentage.

4. Be an Impact Nerd

Another option is to look at how companies you buy chocolate from report their impact on social issues and the environment, says Kate England, a Vancouver-based ecologist and sustainability consultant who has analyzed cocoa supply chains.

As an analyst, a chocolate enthusiast, and an ecologist, I want to be able to see the company is working towards definitive goals.

Check whether the company publishes an impact report on its website. Next, see whether they’ve set sustainability goals, and if they target issues you’re concerned about. Finally, look at who wrote the report. A third-party analyst is likely more objective, says England, but companies can do a good job in-house, especially if they partner with academics and employ a range of experts like ecologists and anthropologists.

Ideally, a company should “have a holistic perspective” that accounts for a range of issues, including gender equality, labour practices, poverty, and the environment, she adds. “As an analyst, a chocolate enthusiast, and an ecologist, I want to be able to see the company is working towards definitive goals, that they have a vision for what they’re trying to do for the communities they work with and environment that they’re working in.”

5. Advocate for Systems Change

At the end of the day, voting at the cash register has its limits. McGill’s Van Der Ven recommends donating to environmental organizations that “police big cocoa producers.” Groups he recommends include Greenpeace, Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund, and Friends of the Earth. In addition, if you invest in a company that produces chocolate, he recommends making sure they have sustainable production measures.

One way companies could tackle poverty is by producing chocolate in countries where cocoa is cultivated, says agrosystem professor Six. “The biggest problem we have in the whole cocoa value chain is basically all the added value is not made in Africa.”

Voting at the cash register has its limits.

You can also make a difference by letting chocolate companies know sustainability matters to you, says Ivy Schlegel, a senior specialist at Greenpeace USA who focuses on palm oil. Major brands that made pledges to reduce palm-oil-related deforestation — like Hershey, Nestlé, Mondelēz (Cadbury’s parent company), and Ferrero — haven’t met their targets, she says.

“These consumer brands sell chocolate and snacks to everybody all over the planet. If they’re not going to be meeting their promises… it really leaves consumers and everyday people shorthanded,” explains Schlegel.

Contact them and “make it personal,” she advises. “If they think that people will boycott and will buy less, they will change it.”

Clarification: This article has been edited to clarify that the quarter of all cocoa that is certified globally falls under one of four certifications (Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ or organic) and that farmers who do have certifications are able to sell only a portion of their product under that label.

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