Chocolate – It’s About Dignity and Sustainability

Child with Chocolate

Mmm. Chocolate. Valentine’s Day approaches, and there are many opportunities to indulge in a little piece of delight as it melts at your body temperature spreading across your tongue. Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, chocolate bars, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate nibs, chocolate cake. I adore chocolate.

Once your body chemistry returns to its pre-cocoa levels, or even before you indulge, you might ask where the chocolate came from.

International Fair Trade Certification Mark

A movement toward more ethical consumer choices leaves us asking not just whether what we buy and consume is good for us but whether it is good for all of those who moved it along the way, those who produced, traded, processed, and packaged it.

When I wrote about green certifications in the fall, I was really motivated by the confusing number of eco-seals that I see on products. In some cases, I think the proliferation of seals is just typical of what happens early as the problem has been recognized and the solutions are still many.

There are a couple of agricultural commodities whose labelling systems have matured enough that one or two seals have become recognized by consumers and many consumers even understand what those seals mean. When we buy coffee and chocolate, it is now very easy to learn what fair trade certification means for us and for producers.

Fair Trade Certified Mark

Globally, except in Canada and the U.S., the blue and green International Fair Trade Certification mark identifies a variety of products that meet standards. In Canada and the U.S., look for the black and white Fair Trade Certified mark for now.

Coffee as the Example

Coffee was the first global agricultural commodity to move through a clear labelling process. Because of the maturity of the movement to make consumers aware of their choices with coffee, the issues have been made clear:

  • Fair Trade – promoting broad sustainability for producers by meeting payment, social, and environmental standards
  • Shade-grown – diversity of trees and plants in a forest where coffee is grown traditionally supports diversity of bird life and doesn’t need the chemical inputs that can create toxic runoff.
  • Organic – sustainability in the field and potentially a better choice for consumers’ health.

This isn’t just a nice way to be nice so everyone feels nice. This is a response to the exploitation of small farmers by large coffee companies, paying them less for their coffee than it costs to produce. Debt and poverty that result have clear consequences in the places of production—all so cheap coffee can be shipped around the world.Improve conditions for producers > label the products that come from improved conditions > then educate consumers.

I would like to believe that most people understand their responsibility for the products they buy. A Fair Trade label helps us as consumers to accept our responsibility and choose not to exploit producers.

Which Brings Us to Fair Trade Chocolate

Often following the example of coffee, the movement to label chocolate as Fair Trade has grown in the past decade.

The situation with chocolate production, however, seems far more dire than with coffee. Reports beginning about ten years ago of child slavery in some west African cocoa production helped chocolate consumers become more aware of the conditions of children in cocoa production. It doesn’t appear that much progress has been made during that time except in the movement to shift to fair trade chocolate.

It seems to me that the key is educating the consumers, even the smallest consumers, about where their food and treats come from so they can create more demand for the large producers to improve conditions at the point of production. In the meantime, we can bypass the large producers to reach the farmers who have a measure of autonomy in their work by making sure that when we do buy chocolate (or coffee), we do buy Fair Trade.

Children are often the consumers of chocolate. It’s important to educate them honestly and without fear as a motivator. The fact of child slavery and exploitation of children in the production of chocolate can make this topic more real for a child. In a poll of my two children, 100% of respondents replied that they could easily give up chocolate if they knew it was produced by child labor of any kind, let alone child slaves.

Oh, yes, I still adore chocolate. But the pleasure of the sweet treat is not worth the pain of exploitation. Fair Trade chocolate is the answer if you are going to have chocolate this Valentine’s Day.


  • Global Exchange has a free Fair Trade Chocolate Curriculum available for download. There is also a drawing for teachers who use the curriculum to win fair trade chocolate and educational materials for their classrooms. They are encouraging “Sweet Smarts” in children by teaching them about chocolate, fair trade, and consumer advocacy.
  • New American Dream has a list of Fair Trade chocolate.
  • My old town Buffalo, New York, has a Chocolate Revolution coming up next week. It’s an evening of music and fair trade chocolate, sponsored in part by my old food co-op, the Lexington Food Co-op. Oh! I miss Buffalo. Using a celebration of chocolate to educate the public is a great combination.

Image © Greenland |

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