Thursday, April 27, 2006

Fair Trade? Fair Question...

Because the Bay Area is a wonderful place with lots of concerned citizens, we field quite a few questions about issues of Fair Trade and just general social and environmental equity in chocolate production, and I thought I'd take a few moments here to lay out some of those issues for our online friends.

Fair Trade Certification
FT certification is a wonderful tool for the modern consumer, (see: TransFair, for example), and Fair Trade certified chocolate certainly is available at Bittersweet, although not in the numbers some would like. Why is that? Well, FT certifying bodies generally will only work with groups (collectives & cooperatives), and most folks don't realize that the cost for these certification processes can be a significant burden. If you're a small family cacao grower (the global average size of a cacao plantation is less than 5 hectares, so the vast majority of growers are small and independent), you're simply not likely to have the organizational or financial means to bring in and work with a certifying body. Some of the best, most sought-after cacao in the world (i.e. some of the highest-priced raw material there is) doesn't come from cooperatives, but from small family farms that will probably never participate in the FT process. Does this mean that trade with those growers is inherently unfair? Certainly not. The short answer: non-Fair Trade certified simply isn't the same as unfair trade.
For some more information on FT certified cooperatives in the world of cacao, check out these in Ghana and the Dominican Republic for reference.

Use Your Consumer Power Wisely
So buying FT chocolate is terrific, but the variety in the marketplace at this time isn't that great. What do you do if you still want your consumer power to support the positive side of the chocolate industry? Well, in our opinion, you should shop at Bittersweet :-) This may seem self-serving, but it's a real answer: The vast majority of the problems with social and ecological equity in the world of cacao production occur in the areas of West Africa that provide 90% or so of world cacao to the mass market confection industry. This is the cacao that is rushed to market in order to support hand-to-mouth, unsustainable agricultural practices in places like Cote d'Ivoire, where the cacao market is a race to the bottom and low price is the final and only factor. (See this report for more information on cacao production in West Africa.)
The chocolate producers we use and market at Bittersweet compete for the top 8-10% of the world's so-called 'flavor cacaos', and the growers of those select crops are often achieving 3-4 times the global commodity price for cacao, thereby providing themselves and their families with a sustainable living. These growers also often have multi-year contracts with chocolatiers, and get the benefit of those companies' expertise and assistance in areas like organic growing practices, sustainable agriculture, fermentation, crop health and the like. For an interesting (and contentious) discussion on this topic, check out this thread at (Full disclosure: one of the Bittersweet team is a participant in that online discussion...)

All of us at Bittersweet want chocolate that we can enjoy thoroughly, and that means knowing that it was produced in a dignified and quality way, from grower all the way to chocolatier. We wouldn't have it any other way. Please don't hesitate to keep the questions coming!


Anonymous Rusty said...

I noticed on one of your Yelp reviews that someone won't give you five stars until the chocolates you sell are 100% fair trade :-) Sounds to me like you don't think that's going to happen, so I guess:
Are you ever going to get all five stars?

6:19 PM  
Blogger Bittersweet said...

I guess if that's the limiting factor then I don't believe we'll ever get to 5 stars :-)

Like I said in the post, I don't honestly believe that there's a 100% FT certified chocolate selection in anyone's future...but I don't necessarily think that's a 100% bad thing!

1:43 PM  
Anonymous bittersweet said...

As an update, we now have a Fair Trade & Organic-only section of our ecommerce site:

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Samantha Madell said...

There's some tortured logic happening in this blog post.

On the one hand, you're telling "concerned citizens" that they "should shop at Bittersweet" in order to avoid cocoa grown in West Africa, because you say that West African cocoa "is rushed to market in order to support hand-to-mouth, unsustainable agricultural practices".

But ... according to your own website, Bittersweet Cafe stocks a large number of brands that use cocoa beans grown in West Africa (where pesticide usage and child labor is widespread). These brands include Bonnat, Cluizel, Pralus, Scharffen Berger, Cote d'Or, Max Brenner, Callebaut, and goodness knows how many others that aren't listed on your website.

You say that your comments "may seem self-serving". I agree.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Bittersweet said...

The post specifically calls out Ivory Coast as a problematic country (which it certainly is), but I agree that it makes the case sound too broad on west africa in general. There is some very responsible cacao and chocolate from that region, especially Ghana.

When you come in to Bittersweet, you'll notice that we're very selective not only about which product lines we carry, but also which products within those lines we believe are most responsibly grown and processed. For instance, we do carry Cluizel and Bonnat, but not (for instance) the blended Cluizel line or the Bonnat Cote d'Ivoire bar.

We certainly don't believe that Bittersweet is the only place to exercise good chocolate consumer choice, but is it one good place? Emphatically yes.

11:54 PM  
Anonymous Samantha Madell said...

When you say that "there is some very responsible cacao and chocolate from that region, especially Ghana", I wonder what exactly you mean by that?

For instance, child labor is very common on Ghanaian cocoa plantations.

Also, the Ghanaian government carries out mass pesticide spraying of cocoa trees every year - and, Ghana is still using some pesticides that are banned in Europe because of the dangers they pose to human health and the environment. By contrast, according to ICCO, the entire Cote d'Ivoire cocoa industry is currently in the process of converting to organic!

One very illuminating study on the Ghanaian cocoa industry is "Child Labor in Ghana Cocoa Production" by Mull and Kirkhorn (2005).

I doubt that cherry-picking "acceptable" products from unconcerned chocolate manufacturers does anything to help the child slaves in Cote d'Ivoire, nor the pesticide-drenched children in Ghana (not to mention the child laborers in Ecuador, etc etc).

6:31 PM  
Blogger Bittersweet said...

As far as Ghana goes, one example is the Kuapa Kokoo cooperative. Ghana also has an aggressive organics campaign, and if the concern is pesticide-oriented, then focus your spending on the organic chocolate market. It is developing quickly, and we believe that organics will have a very beneficial longterm effect on the chocolate and cacao market, from production to consumption. (All the bean-to-bar chocolate we currently produce at Bittersweet is either certified organic or pesticide-free.)

On the issue of child labor (defined as children from 9-16 participating in the cultivation and harvest of cacao), you have to keep in mind that cacao is predominantly a family-farmed crop, and that children working within the family context is a natural feature of agricultural communities. I'm not saying there's no such thing, but in the main, child labor is simply not the same as forced labor. My cousin (growing up in rural Minnesota) worked from 10-16 on a dairy farm down the road from his house mornings before school. Would I still drink the milk he helped to produce? Sure. I think as the developed economies of the world have moved so quickly (often within a generation) away from the realities of agricultural production, we've simply lost touch with the realities thereof.

As a side note, if you're really worried about the "pesticide-drenched children in Ghana", consider lobbying the countries (such as the US, UK, France, Australia, Germany) that continue to produce organic chemicals (like methyl bromide and DDT) that they have banned within their own borders, but continue to export to the developing world...

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Samantha Madell said...

In your original post, you state that people who are concerned about "social and environmental equity in chocolate [...] should shop at Bittersweet". The reasons you give are that all of the chocolate makers whose products you sell use only "flavor" beans, and that they all adhere to high environmental and ethical standards. You provide no evidence to support your claims.

However, according to your own website you sell:

* Scharffen Berger chocolate: a blended product containing "bulk" (not "flavor") beans from Ghana. Ghanaian cocoa plantations are subject to mandatory pesticide spraying by the government, and child labor is very common on Ghanaian cocoa plantations. All child labor (not just slave labor) is prohibited under Fair Trade certification schemes. Of course, Scharffen Berger is now a subsidiary of the chocolate giant, Hershey, which is not renowned for its high environmental and ethical standards.

* Divine chocolate: made with beans grown by Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana.
Kuapa Kokoo growers use pesticides because, according to Divine, "organic cocoa farming is considered high risk". Furthermore, according to this article in the UK Guardian, Kuapa Kokoo growers actually use DDT - one of the most dangerous pesticides ever made.

* Callebaut: an industrial giant that buys much of its cocoa from West Africa, including Cote d'Ivoire - a country notorious for its child slave labor.

Chocolate consumers have the ultimate power to effect change in the cocoa industry. But they can't use this power wisely unless they are fully informed.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Bittersweet said...

Realistically, you need to visit one of our stores to clarify your impression...for instance, we do not sell Scharffen Berger's blended bars, only their limited editions--none containing cacao from west africa.

All products are clearly labeled as fair trade or organics are available, and our baristas are well educated on these issues, but are also clear that these aren't the end-all, be-all standards that some would like.

You say "Chocolate consumers have the ultimate power to effect change in the cocoa industry. But they can't use this power wisely unless they are fully informed." We fully agree, which is why consumer education is a core concern for us in all aspects of cacao and chocolate.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Bittersweet said...

It's well worth checking out Michael Niemann's blog for more on this discussion:

12:07 PM  
Blogger Bittersweet said...

One more comment...

Having just come back from an origin trip, we saw firsthand the dynamic of a fairtrade-certified coop that has a bloated and inefficient management structure and takes substantial advantage of its farming members. (Remember that the fairtrade premium the coop gets is not necessarily the same as the price the farmer gets.)

It was a good reminder that fairtrade certification is certainly not the be-all, end-all solution to inequality in the world of cacao production. We need dramatically increased transparency in the system at large...

11:53 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home