I’ve written before about the problems with some mass-produced chocolate. Like any cash crop, it can be raised in an environmentally-sustainable way, or not. The farmers and countries that produce it can be fairly-compensated, or not. The raising of the crop might involve child labor or not. The chocolate can even be grown organically, or not, though I’ve always found that last designation to be problematic.
Now it’s the sacred season of Peter Cottontail, the bipedal rabbit who died for commercialism and led the Hebrews out of the desert. And we celebrate this with sugar. It’s a long-standing human tradition. When we celebrate anything, and I mean anything, it means either sugar, sugar fermented into alcohol, or, more often, both. But how do we ensure our holiday candy isn’t making us happy at home, while making things worse somewhere else?
I figure there are three obvious ways to do this:
1) Research and ethically source your candy: I mention a few in that earlier article, but the greatest Canadian, David Suzuki recommends Fair Trade (or Transfair) as well as Bird Friendly designations. VISION, the aid and global development NGO, also endorses Fair Trade, and that link provides a sizable list, so I suggest clicking on it. Although the focus isn’t on being organic or more eco-friendly, but on human development, Fair Trade does seem to be more environmentally responsible than not, if only because paying farmers fairly means they can afford to think longer-term.
What about the Rainforest Alliance certification? The Dove chocolate brand, part of Mars, was the first mainstream American chocolate brand to get the certification (we’re always a few steps behind Europe when it comes to corporate progressivism). This is a step forwards. However, there are dissenters, those who argue that the Rainforest Alliance certification just isn’t stringent enough. It’s better than nothing, and I don’t want to choose between an environmental focus and a humanitarian focus (that’s why my own charitable giving is split between organizations of both types). In the end, destroying the world is not humanitarian, either. These issues are closely linked. But I would probably pick Fair Trade over Rainforest Alliance, personally, and look for one that had both, or one that had Fair Trade in addition to Bird Friendly.
I can’t tell you what to do. To me it’s not so clear-cut as to be obvious. There’s a lot of information out there, so sift through it and come to your own conclusion.
2) Buy local: Not just for the sake of your local economy or for minimizing emissions resulting from shipping. That sounds great, but the basic ingredients of chocolate and just about anything with added sugar in it is a luxury item which will be shipping from far away in any case. We don’t grow sugar cane or cacao plants in Seattle or Toronto, to my knowledge. No, shop local so that you can actually talk to the person who makes your chocolate or candy confections. The average person gets everything they buy from a middleman. We hit the farmer’s markets now and again, but most of us don’t have a regular direct supplier for our beef, eggs, or milk. We get it from the grocery store.
If you find a local chocolatier or confectioner, you can find out their philosophy with regards to ethical chocolate, meaning slave free, clear-cutting free, chemical free, et cetera. I think more artisanal candy-makers are going to be thinking about these issues than your typical Chinese factory worker, wrapping up Hershey’s Kisses. So finding an artisan for your sweets supply might well mean finding a person who has done all the research you may have previously struggled with, and determined which suppliers are the best ones to use.
So visit a couple shops, have a few conversations about how they select their suppliers, and make a decision that feels right to you.
3) Make your own: If you make your own sweet treats, you can know exactly where each ingredient comes from. It might be easier to ethically source a few basic ingredients (at least some of which should be grown locally — eggs, flour, milk), rather than a million different companies and products. Heck, I have a friend who recently started bee-keeping as a hobby, while my aunt and uncle, avid gardeners, have been tapping their maple trees for syrup for years. Those are three people who really, really know where their sweets are coming from, and who can do plenty of baking without having any bags of white sugar at home.
This article is all about candy, which isn’t the most health-conscious thing. But one added advantage of making your own treats, be they maple syrup candy, home-made chocolates, cupcakes, cinnamon buns, or just about anything else you can think of, is you now have the opportunity to carefully consider everything that goes into it. Just as starting to cook more for myself taught me that I didn’t require as much meat in my diet as microwave dinners and North American restaurants might suggest, cooking your own desserts might teach you that you don’t require as much sugar as the brand-name candy-makers use, or that quinoa works as well as white flour, or that you can up the fiber, making a dessert more filling and just as satisfying, but less likely to put you into diabetic shock.
Of course, this option is the most work, but there are others who have blazed a trail ahead of you. So if you have any interest in cooking and baking, the rewards could be great.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.