Chocolate – the responsibility behind the delicious treat

Chocolate is one of the most popular treats in the world. In 2019, close to 500.000 tons were imported to Germany [1]. In 2017, the German consumed around 11kg of chocolate per person [2]. Funnily enough, when the Aztecs drank it, it was bitter, without sugar, vanilla, or cinnamon. Only the Spanish introduced the concept of hot chocolate as we know it. Once the drink boomed around European aristocracy in the 17th century [3], more and more European colonies started growing cocoa plantations – all on the back of slaves. Of course, slavery has been abolished, but can we honestly say that keeping people in poverty, paying them almost nothing just so we can have cheap treats, is all that better? That is why, with our love for chocolate, comes the responsibility to treat those people who make it, fair. Human.  

Cacao beans
Cocoa beans are the seeds of the cocoa tree from which chocolate is made. Photo by Alexandre Brondino on Unsplash

Harvesting cocoa beans – From the cocoa bean to bars of chocolate

The process of harvesting cocoa is a long one, but an interesting one nevertheless. In order to understand at least a part of the importance of improving the current state of the plantations, here is a summary [3]:

The cacao plant likes a warm and humid climate. The fruit grows over a timespan of 5 to 6 months, to a size of 15 to 25 centimeters. The cocoa bean we know is originally the seed of said fruit. To harvest it, the farmers open the fruit, and pull out the seeds together with the pulp. This mass is traditionally wrapped in banana leaves (bigger plantations use barrels) and is ready for its fermentation. Aided by the hot weather, the pulp and seeds begin to simmer. The process until they are “ready” will take 4 to 5 days. During that time, the pulp, together with toxins and bacteria, will slowly separate from the seeds. Furthermore, the seeds themselves will be saturated by their own cell sap, which results in the rich flavor. Every 24 hours, the seeds are rearranged to insure an even fermentation.  The seeds then will be called cocoa beans.

These beans are still too moist for transportation, so they are dried, which is often easy due to the hot sun. Though, since the climate is humid, rain is a possibility, which means that the farmers can only seldom leave the beans unprotected. Some plantations just pull plastic film over the beans, others keep them in drying boxes that will be moved inside during the night or rain. This process takes 2 weeks.
There is also the possibility to dry the beans through a ventilation system powered by wood stoves, which takes considerably less time: only 30 hours. Sadly, this particular technique is less ecologic and sustainable than the traditional one.  

After the drying, the aroma and color of the cocoa beans is fully developed. In the next step, they will be bagged and shipped to factories that process the beans.

Afterwards comes another process, but I will concentrate on harvesting more, since few plantations continue the process after drying themselves.

What was the point of me explaining the harvesting process? For you to understand that it involves several steps, that take time. The cocoa plant takes time to grow its fruit. The farmers are very dependent of the weather and natural environment. Most cocoa comes from small plantations; the farmers consist of families. This facilitates child labor. In the west African key growing areas, 90% of the cocoa is produced by small scale farms, on an area of less than 5 hectare [4]. The world price on a ton of cocoa beans was at 2.270,24 $ in May 2020. That is low, it went over 3.000 $ in 2010 [5]. The farmers are paid almost nothing. We can buy a chocolate bar at less than 60 cents here in Germany.

Which chocolate is ethical?

In order to help improve the conditions of life at the plantations, and support sustainable agriculture, we can buy responsibly. There are several organizations that seek to improve social and ecological conditions in the industry. I will show you a selection of the most worthwhile certification marks to look for.

International Fairtrade Certification Mark (TransFair e.V.) [6]

Fairtrade is mostly set on helping small-scale farmers, which is why they guaranty a fair minimum rate of 2.400 $ per ton. The minimum rate is to counter the frankly strongly fluctuating prices of the market. Furthermore, they pay a bonus of 240 $ for fair trade products. They oppose child labor strongly and educate the farmers on their rights and possibilities (like loans).

  • Pros: Very strong social standards, enforced not only through rules, but also education.
  • Cons: High prices, critics mention less ecological and more social concerns.

GEPA – The Fair-Trade Company [6]

This company goes even further in its standards than Fairtrade (which it has adopted) – in case of chocolate, they even ensure that the milk used is fair. Furthermore, they are one of the best concerning transparency. The ingredients and their origin of every product are documented. A very good point for GEPA is their refusal of the concept of mass balance, which essentially means that certified cocoa is mixed with uncertified cocoa – resulting in shams, essentially.

  • Pros: Very strong social requirements; minimum rate and bonus, no mass balance.
  • Cons: high prices, low availability.

Rainforest Alliance / UTZ [6]

Since merging together, these organizations have the highest share of certified cocoa products on the market: around 40%. They, again, support small-scale farmers, although this organization has its original focus on ecological issues like water residue and biodiversity. They have upped the social improvement since then, but critics still say that their approach is more about efficiency improvement than social reforms. They will introduce a new program starting September that will hopefully ameliorate their social work [7].

  • Pros: Education for farmers on more efficient, cost-reducing and sustainable methods. Small bonus to help income.
  • Cons: No minimum rate.

Naturland Fair [6]

This one is small, but notable for sustainability. This organization is mostly focused on organic foods. Their chocolate will be made of not only fair, organic cocoa, but also all its other ingredients will be. Which is why chocolate-wise, it is rare in Europe, where the milk prices (and farmers) are under extreme pressure. They are fairly small, with around 600 products to their mark.

  • Pros: Extremely organic and sustainable, social in the way of buying fair.
  • Cons: Low availability.

These are examples of several certification marks for chocolate. I would like to inspire you to read more about certification marks and to become aware of their meaning, as their degree of sustainability differ.

So far, so good. Very good, indeed, it’s chocolate!
I hope you learned something new today. You do not need to completely stop consuming your favorite chocolate, but maybe try to look at the certifications and sometimes buy something new.

Are you interested to learn about more social issues and how to manage the fuWould you like to deal with sustainability in your studies? Then get to know our Master program Management with sustainability specialization.

Article by Isabel Döngi *IG Intercultural Management (B.A.), 8th Semester


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