How Fair Is Fairtrade Chocolate?

Posted by in Features on March 1 2013 | Leave A Comment

Fairtrade Chocolate

It’s currently Fairtrade Fortnight, a celebration of all things ethically traded, so I wanted to take a little time to explore what that little Fairtrade logo really means when you see it on a bar of chocolate.

In 1994, Green & Black’s Maya Gold was the first product in the UK to have Fairtrade certification. The Fairtrade logo signifies a product has met certain standards and that a minimum price and a premium have been paid for the ingredients.

This is incredibly important for cocoa production. There are countries where the average age of a cocoa farmer is greater than the average life expectancy, so there is a real danger that cocoa farming could simply die out. It’s vital that we invest in the future of chocolate, and that the money gets back to the people who need it the most – the farmers in some of the poorest parts of the world.

It was 2009 when Cadbury added the Fairtrade logo to their Dairy Milk bars. At the time, this was a huge step and Cadbury made a bit of a song and dance about it.

But what exactly does the Fairtrade symbol mean when you see it on a bar of Dairy Milk? Recently I noticed Cadbury had set up a Twitter account to promote their Fairtrade credentials, so I decided to ask them a fairly simple question. At least I thought it was simple:

The response from Cadbury surprised me:

It’s great that Cadbury are investing so much in fairly traded cocoa, and the introduction of the Fairtrade logo on Dairy Milk certainly did a lot to raise awareness with consumers. But what’s going on here? Why can’t they give an exact number?

“Any ingredient that can be sourced on Fairtrade terms must be.”

The answer is complex, but boils down to a couple of factors. Firstly, not all the ingredients in a Fairtrade chocolate bar have to be fairly traded. Barbara Crowther, The Fairtrade Foundation’s Director Of Policy And Public Affairs tells me “The Fairtrade Label means any ingredient that can be sourced on Fairtrade terms must be.”, which includes things like sugar and vanilla.

Cadbury adds other ingredients to their Dairy Milk though. These include milk, vegetable fat, emulsifier and flavourings. The back of a Dairy Milk bar tells me that it is made with “at least 70% Fairtrade ingredients”, but that’s not the whole story.

Mass Balance

The main problem with Fairtrade chocolate is that cocoa is a commodity. It is still bought in bulk from many sources, and the beans get mixed up as they make their way through the supply chain. Fairtrade beans get mixed up with non-Fairtrade beans, and the actual source of an individual bean can get lost.

So the Fairtrade Foundation uses a ‘mass balance’ system when certifying chocolate bars. For any given chocolate bar to be certified, the manufacturer must purchase the equivalent mass of cocoa beans under Fairtrade terms. But those beans don’t have to end up in the bar being certified. Because cocoa beans are often mixed up a long time before they reach the chocolate maker, it’s quite possible that your bar of Fairtrade Dairy Milk contains no Fairtrade beans at all. Conversely, a non-certified bar of Cadbury chocolate may end up using 100% Fairtrade beans.

In effect, you’re making a charitable donation to an ethical organisation, and in exchange, the manufacturer has the right to use ingredients that aren’t themselves ethically sourced. Is this a problem? After all, aren’t Cadbury buying enough Fairtrade cocoa to make all their Dairy Milk?

While that may be true, there’s an issue with transparency. Consumers who buy Fairtrade may be a little concerned to know that there may be no Fairtrade cocoa in their certified chocolate bar at all.

Fairtrade Certified Cadbury Dairy Milk

Fairtrade Certified Cadbury Dairy Milk

But I also think Cadbury is gaming the system somewhat. Take a look at a bar of unflavoured Dairy Milk. Then take a look at one of the ‘sub products’ in the Dairy Milk range.

The chances are, you’ll find that bars like “Dairy Milk Fruit & Nut” or “Dairy Milk With Caramel” lack the Fairtrade logo. While it may be that there are ingredients that can’t easily be certified, it seems like Cadbury might be buying just enough Fairtrade cocoa to cover the regular Dairy Milk bar, but not the sub-brands. Consumers now associate all Dairy Milk with Fairtrade and the marketing machine does the rest.

Going Direct

Many of the issues surrounding Fairtrade chocolate revolve around how cocoa is traditionally bought and sold as a commodity. Cocoa beans generally come from smallholdings and family run farms, but can end up in anonymous, practically untraceable sacks in a warehouse.

Duffy Sheardown won The Academy Of Chocolate’s ‘Golden Bean’ award for the best bean-to-bar chocolate in the world and knows a thing or two about sourcing cocoa beans. “That’s why we started Direct Cacao.”, he told me. “To join you have to commit to farmers a premium for fine cocoa beans. That also keeps the supply chain short so farmers get the extra.”

Direct Cacao is an organisation of chocolate makers and industry professionals who have come together to source cocoa beans directly from the farmers. They not only commit to paying a premium, but the close involvement with the farmer gives them a say in how beans are treated at every stage of the chocolate making process. That means farmers have a vested interest in making sure their beans get the best possible treatment from the moment they’re harvested – and that consumers end up with a better quality, traceable bar of chocolate.

The Direct Cacao Founders

The Direct Cacao Founders

Seventy% founder Martin Christy is another Direct Cacao founding member. He goes further, saying “Few people I’ve met in the fine cacao or chocolate businesses think that Fairtrade works for chocolate. The Fairtrade premium – about $400 per tonne of cacao – is not enough to make much difference to farmers lives and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that not much of that actually reaches the real farmers.”

“Farmers should be paid a decent amount for growing good quality cacao, not cheap bulk varieties used to make candy bars. The price for good cacao is usually way above the Fairtrade price anyway. All Fairtrade does is to take customers away from more genuine projects directly sourcing cacao at a truly fair price and makes consumers think all the problems in cacao are fixed by eating a cheap candy bar with a label that’s become more about marketing than ethics.”

“We don’t believe mass balance is the best solution.”

Of course, the Fairtrade system isn’t broken for everyone, and there are chocolate makers doing great things with certified chocolate. Divine Chocolate, for instance, is 45% owned by Ghanaian cocoa co-operative Kuapa Kokoo. All their chocolate products use traceable Fairtrade certified cocoa from their own farmers and it doesn’t get mixed with non-certified beans.

During a recent online discussion about empowering smallholder farmers and fair trade practices at The Guardian, I asked Divine Managing Director Sophi Tranchell if the mass balance system was the fairest and most transparent solution.

Sophi Tranchell At The Kaupa Kokoo AGM - © Divine Chocolate

Sophi Tranchell At The Kaupa Kokoo AGM
Photo © Divine Chocolate

“We don’t believe mass balance is the best solution.”, she replied. “All the cocoa we buy for Divine is Fairtrade and from Kuapa Kokoo. So we know the quality and taste of the cocoa we’re buying is due to the good practices of the Kuapa farmers. We think consumers would expect no less.”

“If we don’t do something, we’ll start to lose much of the best cacao.”

There is no doubt that Fairtrade does a lot of good, and I will continue to buy certified products regularly. But it seems that the current system is broken and being taken advantage of by giants like Kraft and Nestlé. With a little sleight of hand, consumers are led to believe their £1 bar of Dairy Milk is just as ethical as an artisan bar costing many times the price, so why would they pay more?

“If we don’t do something, we’ll start to lose much of the best cacao – and maybe the bulk stuff as well.” says Martin Christy. “If you do the the maths backwards from a £1.30 100g Fairtrade bar there’s no way, once you’ve taken off all the margins, that the farmer is getting enough to live on.”

I don’t know if the future of ethical chocolate lies in reform of the Fairtrade system, or in something entirely different like Direct Cacao. What I do know is that we all need to be paying more attention to where our chocolates come from, and organisations like Fairtrade need to be more transparent in explaining exactly what we can expect when we see a bar with that little round logo on.

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Comments On This Post

  1. Utzless

    I also think the fairtrade has weaknesses, which should have been improved. But on the other side the initiative is good and I hope it does provide some good other than feeding the fairtrade organization. So in this perspective it is good that the big companies also contribute.
    It is also easy to forget that running such big scale as Cadbury is a different story than small artisan shops buying from maybe a single farm. I would not be surprised if the 16,000 tonnes Cadbury buys equals more than 10,000 farms (how big is an average cocoa crop?) so there is obviously a challenge to follow up this in the supply chain.

    Have you checked out the UTZ-initiative? My perception of that is similar to Fairtrade, but has more focus on giving the farmers the knowledge to produce better quality and bigger crops and through normal market mechanisms giving them bigger earnings. In my opinion the logic in that sounds more viable than just paying more, a “better-for-all” anglesounds more sustainable. The utz has been bigger within the coffee, but it is now expanding into cocoa.

  2. Anna

    Really well-researched, interesting and thought-provoking piece.

    My current vice is G&B’s 85% (yes that chocolate fair, and your patience, turned me onto dark chocolate!) which has the Fairtrade logo, but now I’m wondering how fair it is…

  3. A really interesting article, I am always telling people to avoid the sugar-loaded chocolate you find in most off licenses, for this reason and others. The guys at Chococo in Swanage are also championing single-source cocoa and their products are just being introduced in stores like Lakeland. I think it’ll probably become increasingly important to attempt this in more chocolate products, but Fairtrade is better than nothing at all!

  4. Very interesting article. If you don’t mind, we’ll be sharing this on Twitter. :)

  5. To declare my interest first, I run a company supplying Chocolate Couverture throughout the UK & beyond. I have very specific views on Fairtrade since the day that Fairtrade International (FLO) allowed the use of mass balance.

    The aims of the Fairtrade movement are laudable, however it is vital that product labelling cannot be compromised, and in the case of mass balance, I believe the consumer is being misled. There is enough “shock, horror” about the scandal of horsemeat in burgers, but personally I feel that allowing mass balance compromises the bond of trust between the manufacturer and the consumer in an equally unacceptable way.

    The mass balance system was introduced to allow companies that claim to be unable to segregate and separate Fairtrade products through their supply and manufacturing chain, to buy a quantity of Fairtrade products, like sugar or cocoa, and use this in production. They can then label an equivalent quantity of finished products with the Fairtrade logo, although the end retail product may not contain 100% Fairtrade cocoa or sugar – in fact, the retail product may have none at all!

    The thin end of this particular wedge is that small chocolatiers, who championed Fairtrade from the outset, have now had the rug pulled from under them.
    Fortunately Organic beans do have to be segregated and the supply chain is sound and auditable from farm to consumer, which does beg the obvious question as to why FLO waived the rules for the multinationals. Of course Origin beans are also segregated as a matter of course!

    There are plenty of Farm to Chocolate producers who do not subscribe to the FLO version of Fair Trade as their models and miles fairer and provide true investment in farmers, farm workers and all other employees and their families involved in the value chain which remains in the country where the cocoa is grown. Check out Luker Cacao (Colombia), El Rey (Venezuela), Grenada Choc Co, Robert (Madagascar) and loads more in South America and elsewhere.

  6. I was able tto find good infrmation from your articles.

  7. Kathy

    How frustrating! I live in rural Australia (or near enough) and the nearest bean-to bar chocolate source is an 8-plus hour drive from where I live. I took comfort in the fact that Green and Blacks while now owned by Cadbury was fair trade (or reasonably so, regarding the source of cacao) so I could get a “fix” of chocolate that was moderately ethical, now … I dunno, its better than no fair trade stuff at all but the system obviously needs fixing from within at the very least.