What's the Big Deal About Fair Trade Chocolate?

Published: 08th February 2010
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Why fair trade chocolate is important
Few of us dislike chocolate, which explains its relative popularity as well as the growing interest in fair trade chocolate. As a confection that figures into most major holidays, and as a treat that's enjoyed by young and old year-round, its effect on the planet and the communities that produce it is significant. As consumers gain an understanding of the serious social and environmental issues associated with conventionally-grown chocolate, Fair Trade Certified and organic chocolate is gaining a loyal following.

But what is fair trade chocolate, what why is it important? Child slavery, unfair working conditions, and unsustainable farming practices all play into the concerns of a growing group of chocolate-lovers.

Child slavery
Fair trade chocolate is definitely a social issue, especially in regions like Africa where most of the world's chocolate is grown. According to the organization Global Exchange, the US State Department recently reported that 15,000 children aged 9 to 12 were working as enslaved laborers in plantations that grow chocolate, cotton, and coffee. In addition to the child slaves, as many as 284,000 children are working on cacao farms with their parents because their parents cannot afford school.

Working conditions on these farms can be quite hazardous. Dangerous tasks like working with machetes and applying toxic chemicals like insecticides and pesticides without protective gear are common. These children also work long hours at very strenuous tasks with little nourishment. And amazingly, although these children work with cacao for years, they have never tasted chocolate.

Unfair pricing
Yet children aren't the only ones suffering without fair trade certifications. Adult farmers see a disproportionately small amount of profit for their labors and are also forced to work in unfair and unsafe conditions. Non-fair trade chocolate companies have refused to establish stable and sufficient prices for cocoa, and as a result, prices fluctuate and are often well below production costs.

According to Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, only one penny from a typical candy bar will go to the farmer. This forces cacao farmers to adopt additional industries to support their families, like raising livestock or growing alternate crops.

Environmentally unsustainable
To add insult to injury, most farmers feel obligated to use chemicals to control pests and spur on the growth of their chocolate. These pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers pollute their soil and water and make the farmers themselves ill, feeding into the problem of poverty.

Additionally, non-organic chocolate often requires that a farmer clear the trees in their area. This leaves them vulnerable to topsoil loss, reductions in water retention, increased rates of flooding, and other devastating environmental conditions that further trap them in the cycle of poverty.

What sustainable chocolate looks like
So what is Fair Trade Certified chocolate and how can organic chocolate growers benefit from different farming methods?

Direct trade
Fair trade chocolate is one of the ways to help farmers get out of poverty. By using a direct trade system, farmers enter into contracts with cocoa buyers that guarantee them a minimum price for their beans. This helps farmers maintain a stable income that is sustainable for providing for their family's needs.

Fair labour conditions
When selling to fair trade chocolate companies, cacao farmers are prohibited from employing children-whether they are child slaves or their own offspring-from working on the farm until they are 18 years of age (although some work is allowed by blood relatives if it does not interfere with schooling). This ensures the community's children are getting a good education and are not working in harsh and unhealthy conditions.

Community development
In addition to the above benefits associated with fair trade chocolate, farmers often work together with their buyers to conduct community development projects. Some of the money made by the farmers is pooled and re-invested in the community to establish scholarship programs, conduct training in organic chocolate cultivation, or providing health care programs.

Environmental sustainability
Finally, farmers who are able to sell to fair trade chocolate companies are also encouraged and/or required to use environmentally-sensitive cultivation methods. In general, they are discouraged from clearing virgin forests or other ecosystems of high value and using or handling pesticides and fertilizers. Organic chocolate is often also made with Certified Organic dairy, which ensures it is free of hormones commonly administered to cattle to stimulate milk production.

Types of Fair Trade and Organic Chocolate Certifications
Today, there are several well-known fair trade certification systems used around the world to ensure you receive a product that is third-party verified to be better for the farmers and better for the planet.

TransFair US
TransFair USA is one fair trade certifier that ensures you get a consistent fair trade chocolate product every time. A nonprofit organization, this group encourages fair prices, fair labor conditions, direct trade arrangements, community development projects, sustainable chocolate growing methods, and other socially- and environmentally-aware practices. They operate under the umbrella organization Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International.

Rainforest Alliance
Understanding that forests in tropical regions are being cut down to cultivate chocolate, the founders of the Rainforest Alliance certification program established a set of standards to protect these valuable ecological areas. Farmers must abide by standards for ecological preservation, soil and water conservation, humane working conditions, integrated crop management, waste management, and so on.

USDA Certified Organic
The USDA Certified Organic label is another sign of sustainably-produced chocolate. Certified Organic chocolate must be grown without pesticides and fertilizers and is usually shade-grown, meaning it doesn't require the chopping down of valuable trees.

Fair Trade chocolate facts

Fair trade chocolate and organically-grown chocolate equals sustainable chocolates. Purchase them when you can to support farmers and a healthier planet. In the meantime, consider these interesting organic and fair trade chocolate facts.

Countries producing Fair Trade and Certified Organic cacao
* Belize

* Bolivia

* Brazil

* Cameroon

* Columbia

* Costa Rica

* The Dominican Republic

* Ecuador

* El Salvador

* Ghana

* Guatemala

* Haiti

* Honduras

* India

* Ivory Coast

* Mexico

* Nicaragua

* Panama

* Peru

Quantity of chocolate eaten by average American
The average American eats approximately 12 pounds of chocolate every year.

Quantity of certified organic chocolate sold in the US
Sales of fair trade and organic chocolate are gaining market share, with 2006 growth in this market at about 49 percent.

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