Ethical chocolate can be difficult to find. There are labels to look for, like “fair” or “direct trade,” but these only tell us so much, and the process for obtaining those marks can be expensive for chocolate-makers, not to mention that brands who are careful about where their cacao comes from aren’t for sale in every supermarket and drugstore. One could say ethical chocolate is a lot like ethical meat: To choose correctly, it’s best to know and trust the producer.
Why the need for ethical chocolate?
What most people know about chocolate is that child labor is broadly used on the Ivory Coast of Africa, where most of the world’s Theobroma cacao is grown and sourced. One good rule would be to abstain from buying bigger brands whose sourcing lacks transparency—but that would include pretty much every chocolate item available in the checkout line at the grocery store, unless that grocery store is a fancier one.
Most chocolate is opaquely sourced and made using low-paid or slave labor because, in the United States and Europe at least, we’ve come to think of it as something common and not worthy of consideration—simply a snack or a treat that can be picked up anywhere. But that understanding leaves labor and land open to exploitation and has resulted in less biodiversity in cacao, which leaves the crop open to disease and extinction.
Chocolate has been made ubiquitous in much of the world despite the fact that it is a commodity that requires care, both as a crop and as candy. The first step toward making more ethical choices when it comes to chocolate is treating it like something unique and indulgent—it’s become cliché to say, but regard it like a special bottle of wine.
That doesn’t mean a life of super-dark chocolate without “inclusions”—what the craft industry calls the nuts or puffed rice we’ve become accustomed to finding mixed into bars on shelves. Take Tony’s Chocoloney, a Dutch company that recently launched an initiative called “Sweet Solution” bars. Their bars are packed with swirls and bits and wrapped in brightly-colored papers that remind the buyer of classic chocolate candies, but are made with transparently sourced cacao.
The company, which has a goal to make chocolate “100% slave-free,” launched these to bring attention to the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which was established in 2001 by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Eliot Engel to eradicate child slavery from the cocoa trade, and decided on protocols in 2010. This was a landmark decision involving chocolate producers in the U.S. and Europe to change the conditions on the Ivory Coast and in Ghana to support education and other wellness initiatives.
But according to an October 2020 report by NORC at the University of Chicago, “children engaged in hazardous child labor in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana cocoa growing regions increased by 13 percentage points over a 10-year period (from 2008-09 to 2018-19). The increase coincides with a 62 percent growth in cocoa production across the two countries.”
What it means is that the more the chocolate industry grows, the more hazardous child labor occurs, and it becomes ever more important to regard one’s bars and bonbons with more consideration.
How to find ethical chocolate
Luckily, there are chocolates out there for every taste and budget. The aforementioned Tony’s Chocoloney has its “5 Sourcing Principles,” which includes using 100% traceable cocoa beans, engaging in long-term direct trading partnerships, and focusing on cocoa quality and productivity to optimize cocoa yields. The bars are modeled on approachable flavors that appeal even to kids, like a milk chocolate bar that’s 32% cacao, as well as bars that contain wafers, nougat, caramel, and popping candies.
For those looking for more intricate flavors, Raaka Chocolate, based in Red Hook, Brooklyn, makes their bars and baking discs with cacao purchased directly from growers, and publishes the price they pay on their website. Cru Chocolate, in Sacramento, California, focuses on drinking chocolate and works with cooperative growers in Guatemala and Honduras. For vegan truffles and other chocolate-based confections, Lagusta’s Luscious in New Paltz, New York, sources their chocolate from Republica de Cacao, based in Ecuador.
While the world of chocolate may seem big and daunting, the principles of finding a maker to feel good about supporting are simple: Seek out those who are transparent about where their cacao comes from and ask some questions if those answers aren’t easily found. Ethical chocolate tastes better, on every level, and it’s worth the effort.