Fair trade chocolate: Towards a sustainable cocoa production

Fair trade chocolate: Towards a sustainable cocoa production

Exploited workers, child labour and shrinking rainforests are the price of our excessive chocolate industry. Fair trade initiatives can mitigate the bitterness of chocolate production by supporting the cocoa farmers, putting pressure on the big companies and raising awareness in the western societies.

We all love chocolate but it would taste much worse if we get an insight of the cocoa industry. For many millions of farmers in the Global South (especially in western African countries that provide 70% of the world’s cocoa) cocoa is the main source of income.

Most of these farmers are underpaid and exploited and many of them do not even earn the absolute poverty minimum of 1.25 US dollars a day. In addition according to shocking estimates 40% of cocoa is slave grown and 15.000 child slaves are working in the African cocoa farms.

Cocoa industry in a nutshell

Cocoa bean is the primary ingredient of chocolate, together with cocoa powder and cocoa butter. Cocoa fruits grow on cocoa trees and every fruit contains up to 30 seeds that are called cocoa beans. The fruits have to be cut from the tree by sticks without being hurt, then the beans need to be taken out also by hand, then fermented, dried, cleaned and packed. All in all growing cocoa is a labour intensive hard manual work.

The cocoa plantations do not only require manpower but are also very sensitive to weather as they only grow in hot, rainy tropical environments with lush vegetation to provide shade for the cocoa trees. The gap between the leading chocolate companies with their fancy and expensive products and the African farmers who do not have the basic human rights clearly shows the huge inequality within the industry. The farmers gain very little from the highly profitable cocoa trade.

Farmers are also vulnerable to the insecure and always fluctuating price of cocoa that are dictated by intermediaries. The prices of cocoa beans are insecure and volatile because of crop diseases, the unpredictable yield due to extreme weather conditions such as droughts and also the often political and economical instability of the producing countries. Both an economic, social and environmental crisis hit the farmers that make the cocoa industry unsustainable in the near future.

Fair trade chocolate: The Fairtrade label Fairtrade is a non-profit organization whose aim is to provide a fairer trading system for the global cocoa industry. Products with the Fairtrade label can be found in bigger supermarkets and usually go along with the bio and ecological labels. Farmer organizations that do not exploit their workforce and do not have child workers can join Fairtrade. Fairtrade provides a minimum price which means when the price of cocoa drops it cannot drop below the Fairtrade minimum. In addition for every ton of cocoa sold on Fairtrade terms the farmer organization receives an additional amount of money called the Fairtrade premium. The premium has to be invested in the cocoa business or in the social services of the community such as health care, clean drinking water and education.

Is Fairtrade really the best solution?

Obviously there are communities that have received a lot of support from Fairtrade, but we have to acknowledge that Fairtrade is not always a fairytale. There are studies (such as this one) showing that the system of the minimum price and the premium are not efficient in many cases. Thanks to the minimum price, the farmers have no incentives to grow better their crops and improve the quality of their cocoa beans because they would be paid anyway.

The even worse scenario is that the farmers do not ever get paid more than the minimum price. There are systemic problems with the premium also. Fairtrade only pays a premium to organizations not to independent farmers. The farmer organizations are the perfect institutional environment for corruption, which is already a huge issue in the western African countries. All in all Fairtrade is a two sided coin that may help certain communities whereas harm others.