Chocolate: The Fairly Traded Difference

Try a sweet, ethical treat this Halloween.

The history of chocolate, “food of the gods,” goes back at least 4,000 years. For most of chocolate’s history, its aficionados enjoyed it as a light, bitter beverage or food additive. Then came a sweet revolution. The once sharp, pungent chocolate evolved into a sweet treat and its popularity soared, and chocolate made its way into the halls of emperors and monarchs as an aristocratic nectar. (Legend has it that 16th-century Aztec emperor Montezuma consumed three gallons of chocolate per day to increase his libido. No one knows if it worked, but really, who would argue with Montezuma?)

Today, chocolate is a $75 billion business. The average American consumes 12 lbs. of the stuff each year, and the appetite for it worldwide is at an all-time high, particularly at Halloween. In 2014, NBC News reported that global demand for chocolate rose 13 percent over the previous five years. In short, these days, it’s good to be a chocolate corporation or connoisseur.

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Unfortunately, it’s not always so good to be a chocolate producer. When you hand out a sweet, savory chocolate bar at Halloween, it’s easy that forget that someone half a world away toiled in the hot sun to plant, grow, and process the beans that brought your chocolate to you.

“It’s possible that the chocolate you are handing out to a little kid comes from cocoa harvested by another child who is not much older,” writes Green America on the organization’s blog.

Chocolate comes from the cacao bean, more commonly referred to as cocoa. Cocoa trees grow in the hot, rainy tropical regions near the equator, where lush vegetation provides much-needed shade for the trees. Cocoa trees are beautiful, blossoming even under a heavy canopy. Its leaves are smooth, oblong, and deep green. Primary growing regions are Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

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Cocoa is a delicate crop, and farmers must be highly skilled and experienced to cultivate it. But for all the work and effort, cocoa farmers around the world often gain very little from a highly profitable international cocoa trade. The industry is dominated by a plantation system, where farmers live and work like indentured servants if they are lucky, and like slaves if they are not.

But food is power, and consumers can make a difference simply by making a choice. The Co-op recommends buying fairly traded chocolate, such as the delicious products supplied by Massachusetts-based, worker-owned co-op Equal Exchange. Here’s why:

The Fairly Traded Difference

Fairly traded chocolate is an ethical, human-focused alternative to the exploitative plantation system. Farmers working in fair-trade cooperatives get a fair price for the products they make. The fair-trade system keeps small-scale farmers an active part of the world economy, and empowers consumers to make purchases that support their values.

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Organic Farming Methods

Small-scale, fair-trade, and organic chocolate producers use sustainable farming methods, without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. It prevents harmful chemicals from entering the ecosystem and water supplies. Also, according to our friends at Equal Exchange, many organic farmers have diverse farms, meaning they plant a variety of cacao trees, tall shade trees, and fruit and vegetable plants. This diversity allows for more diversity of wildlife as well as stronger protection against extreme weather.

No Child Slave Labor

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that hundreds of thousands of children, many of them trafficked across country borders, work as slave laborers on cocoa plantations, particular in the cocoa belt of West Africa’s Ivory Coast. The beans make their way into most of the major chocolate brands you find at mainstream retailers in the west. Unless those brands are fair trade co-ops.

Co-ops like Equal Exchange only source fairly traded cocoa from small-scale farmers who are members of co-ops. Equal Exchange cocoa farmers work in Latin America, on small farms, where fair-trade practices ensure International Labor Organization (ILO) standards on child labor are thoroughly enforced.

Supporting Co-ops

Farmers who work together as a co-op become owners of a business and have economic control over their lives. Just like our co-op, cocoa producer co-ops positively influence their communities. Equal Exchange cocoa farmers, for instance, invest in school supplies, social programs, clean drinking wells, and other community development projects.

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis

Ken is a writer in the Co-op Outreach Department. Email him at kdavis@coopfoodstore.com.
Ken Davis

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