Fair Trade Chocolate: A Myth?

Nowadays, most stores have a “health food” or “organic” section, but thinking you can simply pick up the first chocolate bar marked “fair-trade,” and walk away with a clean conscience, isn’t the case.

As February begins, red hearts and sappy cards crowd the shelves. But the question on the minds of many other conscious consumers is not which glittery red gift to purchase, but the difference this holiday could make if people chose to purchase ethically-sourced chocolate.

For products like bananas and tea, fair trade is mostly a question of insuring that small farmers get a fair price for their products, but when it comes to cocoa the issues are even more serious.

Slavery, child labor, kidnapping, injuries from unsafe working conditions, beatings and, at its worst, murder, are all in the mix. Knowing where your sweet treats come from means going beyond symbolic certifications.

Surprising Fair Trade Facts
The Good News About Chocolate
Socially-Responsible Chocolate Companies

Surprising Fair Trade Facts

– There is not a universally accepted definition of what “fair trade” means.
– There are a number of different organizations that are allowed to certify items as “fair trade” each with their own process and level of oversight.
– Becoming certified as “fair trade” can be a costly process that some small growers are unable to afford.
– Because of the difficulty in policing farming practices, items marked as “fair trade” may still contain cocoa that was produced using slave and child labor or under unsafe working conditions with inadequate or no pay.

In theory

“Fair trade is a trading partnership… that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers… Fair trade organizations, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade”
Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International

Or, from a different fair trade organization:

“Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world… Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives.”
– Fairtrade Foundation

As you can see from these two definitions, the overall implication of this certification is that farmers are paid a fair price and reflect this in how they treat their workers and the communities their work supports. But as stated above, this does not guarantee either of these realities when it comes to chocolate produced on the Ivory Coast.

Here’s something interesting though; the reverse is true as well. Just because a product is not marked as fair trade does not mean that their cocoa is produced through slave labor, under unsafe conditions and bought for a price well below market value.

The Good News About Chocolate

– There are a number of fair trade companies that are serious about sourcing their chocolate ethically.
– The majority of organic chocolate is grown in Central and South America where slavery has not been an issue. Because of the limited supply of organic chocolate, most farmers receive a fair price.
– There are a select number of farms in West Africa who receive a fair price for their chocolate and are slave and child labor free.

If you’re confused now about which companies to trust, you’re not alone. For some, refusing to buy chocolate from companies that source from the Ivory Coast – no matter their certifications or promise of due diligence – is the only option. Other consumers choose to buy chocolate from the select companies that are attempting to address the slave trade issue directly. These companies purchase their supplies from farmers or farming co-ops on the Ivory Coast who do not participate in the slave trade. Below you’ll find a list of companies in both categories, so the decision is up to you.

No matter what chocolate choices you make, remember that food is power. And as consumers our greatest weapon is what we “choose to consume.” Just because we’re used to grabbing items off the shelf without thinking doesn’t mean we should be. There is a story behind each item we purchase, from the underpaid migrant workers who picked the oranges piled high, to the children enslaved and maimed for each Hershey’s kiss. Do your research and take back your power to change these practices.

Socially-Responsible Chocolate?

We chose to link to the Food Empowerment Project’s Chocolate List because of the amount of research, time and follow-through that went into creating this list. Some companies on the list are completely vegan, but some make both vegan and non-vegan chocolate, so make sure to read the labels before purchasing.

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© Gentle World 2023. Gentle World is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) educational organization, helping to build a more peaceful society by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making the transition. EIN: 59-1999433