Bittersweet: The High Cost of Cheap Chocolate
There’s a great Valentine’s-themed story by chocolate expert, Ari LeVaux, called “The Dark Side of Chocolate.” It will probably come as no surprise that chocolate, like every other major cash crop in the world, can have great power for good or for evil, depending on what kind of farming and labor practices we endorse.
The story talks about a recently successful campaign against Hershey’s child labor in Africa (Hershey has pledged $10 million towards their African operations with respect to labor conditions). But there are also environmental impacts to consider. Chocolate can be grown in large plantations, which often means rainforest are cleared beforehand, but it can also be grown in a much more sustainable way, beneath the rainforest canopy.
The comparisons to coffee are obvious, and the growing popularity of both the Fair Trade and sustainable farming movements (for example, the popularity of the Rainforest Alliance certification) suggests that a growing number of people are willing to pay a little more to know that neither farmers nor ecosystems are being exploited for their cup of java.
Of course, this trend started in upscale coffee shops like Starbucks, Second Cup and independent cafes, which already charge close to five dollars for a latte. What about the rest of coffee drinkers? McDonald’s has recently switched over to Fair Trade in a number of its shops in parts of the Eastern United States and that’s hopefully just a start.
Those same upscale shops were also the first place I’d seen Rainforest Alliance-certified chocolate, which suggests chocolate may follow the same pattern. It tends to be pricier, which is fine for those who spend more on their chocolate to begin with. Just as with coffee, there are the everyday chocolate-eaters and the connoisseurs. The connoisseurs again are the first to become aware of the nitty-gritty details of where their product comes from.
I’ve become a bit of a chocolate snob myself. It wasn’t at all intentional. But where I would eat anything chocolatey as a kid, I recently tried eating one of those incredibly cheap chocolate bunnies somebody picked up from Wal-Mart and immediately regretted my one bite. I discovered after that I didn’t even enjoy regular mass-market chocolate bars anymore. Somewhere along the line my tastes changed. It’s not enough to be chocolate, it has to be good chocolate. Now, when I find I absolutely need chocolate (still a major weakness of mine), it has to be a high-quality dark, and I cry a little when I fork over the money.
Of course, the plus side is that it’s easy to do both Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance when you’re purchasing a luxury item to begin with, which is why that seems to be where it starts. If you’re already buying the good Swiss stuff, you might as well make a point of buying from a responsible company like Laederach. And avoid Belgian, since LeVaux says they’re the worst.
But real success, both for human rights and the environment, will be when Hershey and Nestle hold themselves to the same ethical standards as some of the high-end chocolatiers. It’s all well and good for LeVaux to steer us towards one luxury brand over another, but it’s of little avail to either exploited farmers or ruined ecosystems if chocolate for the average consumer isn’t held to the same standard.
The vast majority of chocolate exports go into Kit-Kats and Snickers, not hand-made truffles. Ethical chocolate will have its greatest impact when it follows the path of Fair Trade coffee, to convenience stores everywhere.
Photo credit: Medicaster