Eating an estimated 660,900 tonnes of chocolate a year, which is an average of 11kg per person; it is safe to say Britain is a nation of chocolate lovers. So, it only seems fair to extend this love to the hard workers involved in cocoa bean production, enriching their communities, and safeguarding their livelihoods. If we truly care about supporting these agricultural communities, we also need to consider the environmental implications of mass consumption of chocolate.
Regenerative businesses have the potential to make this industry as sweet as its products; by caring for People and Planet we can bring Positive waves to the shores of the world’s biggest cocoa bean producers.
The Sacred Cacao Plant
At the time the Spanish conquistadors began bringing cacao back from the “New World”, the ancient Mayans and Aztecs had already been cultivating the valuable crop for around 4000 years. The South American cultures attributed divine origin to the cacao tree, which they believed was delivered unto them by their god Quetzacoatl. The sacred plant served a ritual purpose: it was fermented into a beverage called “chocolatl” which was then consumed from golden cups. The cacao beans were so precious to these civilisations that they were widely adopted as a currency, and bestowed upon warriors as gifts of honour. Nowadays, cacao is a core component in millions of products, being cultivated in various locations around the globe. However, if the plant is truly sacred, the Mayans and Aztecs may consider the modern-day chocolate industry blasphemous.
Capitalism and the Chocolate Conglomerates
Ivory Coast is the world’s largest cocoa producer, and although this brings opportunity in the form of agricultural exports, this has taken a toll on the local environment. Since 1960, the West African country has lost more than 85% of its forest cover, with 47,000 hectares lost in 2020 alone. Figures like this pose tough questions, like can the planet handle our sweet tooth? The simple answer is no: at our current rate of consumption, which is expected to increase as other low-income countries continue to grow, agriculture has detrimental effects on the environment. If we truly want to eat chocolate guilt-free, cocoa farming must evolve. Farmers need the resources to transition towards more sustainable and intensive cocoa production - a shortcoming which can only be sorted by sustainable finance and redesigning global capital flows.
On top of this, expanding harmful agricultural practices are contributing to climate change, which in turn is affecting cocoa production. In 2015 the Rainforest Alliance investigated how Indonesian farmers are being impacted by climate change. Their findings were pretty shocking: severe droughts in recent years had halved the yields of farmers who had been in the cocoa business for 15 years, causing higher mortality rates for seeds and young trees. In a time when agricultural workers are feeling the brunt of climate change, the global supply chain is holding them down, rather than lifting them up.
The chocolate industry has a rather dark history, and the stories coming out today are not much brighter. With its roots in colonial-era plantations, the modern-day cocoa industry is dominated by conglomerates which established this exploitative system under the guise of trade and market liberalisation. The industry has come under fierce scrutiny for its continued failure to eliminate child labour, despite having introduced the Harkin-Engel Protocol which sought to do this by 2005. A damning 2017 UN report stated that in Ghana and Ivory Coast, one in three children living in cocoa-growing areas work in unacceptable conditions. Not to mention, a Fairtrade report from 2020 stated that the average female cocoa worker earns 23 pence a day and is often landless, in stark contrast to her male counterpart.. Therefore, the solution to the cocoa conundrum lies not only in paying fairer prices to producers, but also empowering female workers and tackling gender inequality within these communities.
However, it's not all bad news; change is coming, and in some cases, it is already here. At the forefront of this change is Regenerative Cacao, an organisation which has created a manual to help companies clean up their act, bringing back sanctity to the crop which they call the “Food of the Gods”. Already, there are some amazing changemaker businesses which are bringing the guiding principles of Positive into the industry.
Divine Chocolate started in Ghana when local cocoa farmers grouped together to form a co-owned chocolate company. From there, they launched the first farmer-owned chocolate product, and began reinvesting Fairtrade premiums in community projects and social programs. For example, Divine has an incredible commitment to the UN’s Fifth Sustainable Development Goal which aims to empower women and fight gender inequality. They are working with Kuapa Kokoo, a Fairtrade-certified cocoa farmers organisation in Ghana, to provide useful programs such as numeracy and literacy classes.
Tony’s Chocolonely is also part of this change in the chocolate industry. The Dutch confectionery company has been more than vocal about the issues of child labour and modern slavery in cocoa production. To ensure the industry remains slave-free, they are adhering to their 5 Sourcing Principles: traceable cocoa beans, higher prices, strong farmers, long-term outlook, and improved quality and productivity.
The Australian chocolate brand “Loving Earth!” is leading the way in its cacao procurement practices. They pay above Fairtrade prices for wild-harvested cacao from an indigenous community in the Amazonian region of Peru, while also guaranteeing payment for the community’s entire yearly harvest. In addition, the company uses a biodegradable inner sleeve and 97% recycled cardboard packaging, drastically cutting their ecological footprint.
Alter Eco are redefining how to cultivate cacao; they are pursuing experimental agroforestry techniques which are improving soil quality, reducing pests and diseases, and increasing biodiversity, all while increasing farmer revenues. Incredibly, the company has discovered that the productivity of their cacao trees within agroforestry is higher than within monoculture practices; eliminating the trade-off between profits and the planet. Not to mention, all their products are certified fairtrade, organic, and non-GMO, and they use compostable, non-GMO, non-toxic wrappers.
Imlak’esh Organics is a sustainable superfood brand which knows a thing or two about regenerative sourcing. The company purchases its cacao from small Peruvian producer co-ops which participate in ethical harvesting and traditional sun-drying processes. On top of this, the company pays living wages and invests 5% of its profits into community projects with environmental and socially-driven goals.
There is no doubt about the unsustainable nature of the current ecological and social strains in this industry. However, by fostering a Regenerative model we can begin healing the damage done, and redirecting the profits of export-led growth to the agricultural communities who deserve them. By understanding People, businesses are able to work with farmers to understand their concerns, safeguarding their livelihoods while fostering economic empowerment. If we care for Places, agricultural communities can gain the recognition they deserve; no longer seen as simply the starting-point of a long production process. With Planet and natural capital on the books, companies can account for the future wealth of communities which goes beyond financial income. Without Partners the chocolate industry would not be able to kickstart meaningful Fairtrade initiatives or movements to tackle issues such as gender inequality. Of course, we cannot forget Purpose: that which elevates chocolate companies’ roles to something more than producing unhealthy treats. Knowing that chocolate brings prosperity, security, and a brighter future, makes the taste that whole bit sweeter.