Fair Trade Cacao, from the Congo to Seattle

      2 Comments on Fair Trade Cacao, from the Congo to Seattle
Colombian cacao

Montes, Pablo Merchán. “MANOS.” Unsplash, 4 May 2017. https://unsplash.com/photos/SCbq6uKCyMY/

In The Real Cost of Cheap Food, Michael Carolan argues that “free trade is rarely fair” for smallholder farmers competing in the globalized food marketplace. The Fair Trade movement has risen in the last decade as a means of leveling the playing field for the developing world in trade relations. Seattle’s Theo Chocolate is a Fair Trade, bean-to-bar chocolate maker that partners with cacao farming cooperatives in the Democratic Republic of Congo – an ecologically fertile country ravaged by conflict despite democratic elections. Theo pays incremental premiums far over market price for organically grown beans based on predetermined measures of quality. Farmers can reinvest the profits within their families and communities. Theo supports long-term initiatives for education and maternal health in particular. Those factors, as described by Lester Brown in Full Planet, Empty Plates, may help Congolese families control births and demographically transition to population stability.

Theo has invested in the development of DRC’s smallholder cacao farms to feed its supply chain for production in Seattle. The resulting chocolate is distributed throughout the US and Canada – but not back to the DRC. Very few cacao producing countries also have chocolate producers; cacao thrives in equatorial nations that tend to be less affluent and unable to afford the equipment for chocolate production. That many cacao farmers have never tasted chocolate is a stark example of the inequities that the globalized food system creates. Further, Theo’s business is just a drop in the bucket of the global cacao market, which is dominated by slave and child labor operations in West Africa. Fair Trade may be a step in the right direction, but to improve outcomes on a larger scale it needs to be the standard, not the exception.


Michael Carolan, The Real Cost of Cheap Food. Earthscan, 2011.

Lester Brown, Full Planet, Empty Plates. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

2 thoughts on “Fair Trade Cacao, from the Congo to Seattle

  1. hpenwell

    I recently found another exception, and exceptional, cacao producer in Vietnam. Unlike to most cacao producers, this company actually produces the chocolate in Vietnam, the country in which the cacao is grown, and sell it in their shop in Ho Chi Minh City as well as export it all around the world. It is called Marou (http://marouchocolate.com/ ) and was founded by two French guys who are trying to rebuild cacao cultivation in Vietnam using a sustainable approach and working with local farmers. In the Netherlands is another fair trade/slavery free chocolate producer called Tony’s Chocolonely (https://tonyschocolonely.com/nl/nl ). They buy cacao from Ghana and Ivory Coast and produce the chocolate in the Netherlands. I think they recently started selling in the US as well.
    While I agree with you that more must be done, I do think that fair trade chocolate has become more standard than you are asserting. A quick Google search results in thousands of results for fair trade chocolate companies and compilations of the best fair trade chocolate products. When I go to the market (I do live in Germany and shop mostly at organic markets) I see many more fair trade chocolate products than not. The message has gotten out and even Hershey is on-board with sustainable production ( https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/jul/06/hersheys-mars-ferrero-cocoa-farming-fair-trade-global-exchange ) and while there is still much work to do in securing fair earnings for farmers, consumer demand is pushing the industry in that direction.

    1. jmwilbur Post author

      Thanks for your comment. It’s true that there has been an explosion of fair-trade chocolate brands, some boutique and some with a larger reach. Demand is growing, to be sure. To put things in perspective, however, according to the ICCO (International Cocoa Organization) as of 2017 Fair Trade cacao only accounts for 0.5% of the total cacao market (https://www.icco.org/about-cocoa/chocolate-industry.html). The Guardian article that you linked to is, at best, cautious about the actual impact of Hershey’s commitment to sustainability – which is not the same as Fair Trade. From the article: “Hershey’s, which had revenues of $7.4bn last year, won’t say how much of its profits have trickled down to suppliers, nor will it say how much business it does with each of its three nonprofit certifiers: Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified.” Hershey’s lack of transparency and the persistence of poverty among the West African cacao farmers it depends on raises questions about this initiative.

Leave a Reply