Green Tau: issue 26 

11th December 2021

The ethics of chocolate 

One of the many treats we associate with Christmas is chocolate. In the UK we spend about £325 a year, supporting an industry worth around £4 billion. However at the other end of the story cocoa farmers in Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire (the largest producers of cocoa beans) may earn as little as 75p a day – or about half what is needed to cover the essentials of food, housing, health car and education – and some cocoa plantations are known to use child slave labour.  This hardly seems fair! Why is it so?

  • Large cocoa companies buy through a global commodity supply system – a sort of global wholesale market. This system is designed to ensure a stable cocoa supply at the lowest possible price. It is not designed to have regard for the sustainability and well being of individual cocoa growers.
  • Whilst cocoa companies can opt to buy certified eco or sustainable beans. This certification process does not mean that the beans they actually buy is eco/ sustainable but that somewhere an equivalent amount of beans has been so produced. This process lacks transparency.
  • Few large cocoa companies have direct links with the bean growers so there are no shared or common interests. 
  • Global cocoa prices do, despite the global commodity supply system, fluctuate as intermediate  traders buy and sell cocoa options. Such traders operate on a short term basis whilst bean growers must operate on a minimum five year basis: it takes five years before a cocoa tree produces its fruit.
  • Poorly paid bean growers do not have money to invest in fertilisers or to learn new farming techniques so as to improve their productivity. Often they themselves are poorly educated because they too grew up in times of poverty when free education etc was not widely available.
  • The impact of climate change – hotter and wetter weather – damages productivity. The changes in weather allows new pests and diseases to develop which damage the crop. 
  • Large cocoa plantations are focused on the  profit made from their sole crop. Such plantations do not diversify into other cash crops that can be grown along side cocoa trees nor into crops that produce food for the workers. Both of these options could help workers survive poor harvests and down turns in commodity prices. Instead workers from large plantations are  readily sacked when these things happen.
  • Small scale growers do not have the money to invest in new  cocoa  varieties that are more productive and/ or more adapted to the changing climate.
  • Much of the profit derives from the sale of chocolate comes from the value added during the manufacture of the chocolate rather than from the production of the beans. However the economies of many cocoa growing countries is still shaped by the patterns of the colonial era which sees these countries as exporters of raw commodities to the west. 
  • Chocolate manufacturing involves a high level of investment in factories, machinery and transport, including refrigeration. Chocolate manufacture also relies on accessing supplies of sugar and milk which may need to be imported with the possibility of additional tariffs. 
  • Climate change is causing bean growers to move to land at higher altitudes. Here existing forest cover is destroyed to plant cocoa trees.
  • When cocoa tree age and productivity declines, many growers simply plant clear existing forest cover and plant new trees which thrive initially on the fresh soil. Long term however the loss of this forest exacerbates both  the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity which adversely impacts the health and wellbeing of the local population. 

In a recent report, the Ethical Consumer magazine recommends that consumers should check up on the chocolate they buy: 

Does it come from a company where the manufacturer of the chocolate is closely linked to the grower of the cocoa beans?

Is it made from organically grown cocoa and sugar?

Is the production of the beans linked to deforestation and/ or slave labour?

Are the producers of the cocoa beans paid a fair income?

Is the chocolate manufactured in the country where the beans are grown?

The Rain Forest Alliance and Fair Trade are both organisations  set up to ensure the welfare of those who grow the beans and to ensure the environmental sustainability of the farming methods used. They can provide a direct link between supplier and producer. They also provide a certification system which helps the consumer to buy sustainable chocolate products. 

Sustainably  and fairly produced chocolate will cost more than the cheaper alternatives, but this is just  one way in which we can make our money work to improve and protect life on the earth.

For more information watch this informative YouTube programme:

Further reading:

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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