Saturday, May 13, 2023

Sustainable chocolate is unsustainable

Up to half of all chocolate these days claims to be from sustainably-sourced cocoa (cacao). It's a marketing sine qua non for chocolate companies, and one that has been very good to the $140 billion a year chocolate industry. The confectionary divisions of the Big 4 - Hershey, Lindt, Mondelez and Nestlé - have made nearly US$15 billion in profits over the last three years, an average annual increase of 16% since 2020.

The reality is, though, that "sustainability" is a vaguely-defined and slippery concept, and most certified farmers in West Africa and elsewhere still earn much less than a living income. It is a scam and a scandal that has flown for years below most people's radar.

Most of the cocoa that goes to make our cheap chocolate bars comes from West Africa: Ivory Coast (39%), Ghana (15%), Cameroon (5%) and Nigeria (5%). The other large producer is Indonesia (15%). South American countries like Brazil (5%) and Ecuador (5%) are surprisingly small players (who knew?). All are tropical countries, of course, and almost all are poor developing countries. 

Most cocoa-producing farmers exist at or below the poverty line. For example, more than half of cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast earn less than the official national poverty line of US$3 a day (by Fairtrade International calculations, 88% earn less than a "living wage"). Many poor cocoa farmers have never been able to try chocolate, and do not even know what the final product tastes like. Most farmers only use fertilizers when they feel they can afford it (maybe every three years), and yields are inexorably falling as soil conditions degrade.

Given the pressure to produce more to try and escape the low wage trap, child labour is endemic in the industry. An estimated 1.5 million children are working in the cocoa farms of Ivory Coast and Ghana alone. 

Producing countries are also competing against each other to some extent, deliberately keeping their prices low to attract investment. Internal political considerations also play into the equation: for example, the price Ivory Coast farmers were offered for their cocoa mysteriously increased just before a recent election, only to mysteriously fall again right after the election. The farmers themselves are just expendable pawns in this game, and most have no idea how prices and payments are calculated. 

Climate change, droughts and hurricanes, as well as pandemic-related inflation and general market chaos resulting from the war in Ukraine, have all taken their toll on cocoa farms in recent years. Just to make things worse, bandits armed with Kalashnikovs have been hijacking cocoa truck in some areas.

Fair trade organizations like Fairtrade International and Rainforest Alliance were established to advocate for farmers and to negotiate with producing countries and manufacturers to help ensure farmers receive a "living income". 

The fair trade system is supposed to ensure that cocoa farmers are paid more, and that their farms adhere to labour and environmental standards. And they have had some limited success in that respect, and their system of third-party verification and certification has been a model for the industry. 

The establishment of local selling cooperatives has also given farmers some limited power over the prices they can charge, although they are still very much at the mercy of industry forces, and only a small percentage of producers are represented by coops anyway.

However, many large chocolate producing companies have established their own corporate in-house sustainability programs. This maybe sounds like a good thing, but they tend to be much less transparent than the likes of Fairtrade International, and commercial pressures and their divided loyalties typically do not encourage improvements in the lots of local farmers, rather setting off a "race to the bottom", while at the same time allowing the companies to claim sustainability on their marketing labels.

The raw materials provided by cocoa farmers only represents around 7% of the cost of a bar of chocolate. So, chocolate producers - making those huge, and increasing, profits, remember - could easily afford to, say, double what they pay to the farmers.(although, by some estimates, their incomes need to be tripled or even quadrupled to bring them up to a living wage).

The word "fairtradewashing" has not made it into general usage - in fact, I just made it up as far as I know - but I'm sure you know exactly what it means. The whole industry needs a lot more regulation, a dirty word in globalized corporate circles. But without it, those struggling farmers will continue to struggle, and they never get to try a bar of chocolate. Think of that!

And check those labels: make sure it is certified by Fairtrade International or another non-profit organization, not by the producing company itself.

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