Fairtrade Chocolate – Keep the Faith!

While cocoa can now be enjoyed in an endless array of products around the world, this delicacy has a history that's equally rich and compelling.

Origins in the New World

The Latin name for cocoa—Theobroma—literally means, “food of the gods.”This  valuable crop played a central  role in many ancient South American cultures. In its earliest forms, the Mayans used cocoa to create a ritual beverage that was shared during betrothal and marriage ceremonies, providing one of the first known links between chocolate and romance.

For nearly 100 years after the Spaniards were introduced to chocolatl, the coveted drink of New World inhabitants, they kept the secret of its production to themselves. As Shakespeare wrote his final plays the missionary and theologian, José de Acosta, wrote about cocoa from Peru saying, “It is so much esteemed among the Indians that it is one of the richest and the greatest traffickes of New Spain.”

Chocolate Goes Mainstream

After a century, Spain eventually lost its monopoly on the European chocolate market and by the mid-1600s, the drink made from the little brown beans had gained widespread popularity in France. It was praised as a delicious, health-giving food enjoyed by the wealthy. One enterprising Frenchman opened the first hot chocolate shop in in Queen’s Head Alley in Bishopsgate Street, in the east of London’s business district. London and by the 1700s; “chocolate houses” became a common sight in England.

By the 18th century every country from England to Austria was producing confections from the fruit of the cocoa tree. During this period the introduction of the steam engine mechanized cocoa bean grinding, reducing production costs and making chocolate affordable to all.

Chocolate Today

From Truffles, Sacher torte cake to Swiss chocolate, today, people around the world enjoy chocolate in many different forms, eating over 3 million tonnes of cocoa beans annually. Throughout its evolution, one thing has remained constant—chocolate has never lacked an avid following of people who love the “food of the gods.” The work of the Fairtrade foundation, World Cocoa Foundation and their partners help to ensure that this valuable crop is sustained and enjoyed for _ generations to come.

Is retail fair?

Still I need to broach quite a big question and one that I’ve considered at length: ‘how fair is Fairtrade’? I will also be throwing into the melting pot a question on how relevant Fairtrade is, has it lost its shine?

I want to start this by stating that I am, without a doubt, a supporter of Fairtrade and  all its principles. To some, the idea of  fair trade may present an oxymoron: how can trading, the exchange of cash for goods, be  fair? You only have to turn on the news on  any given day to appreciate how trade contributes  to the widening gap between the world’s richest and the world’s most desperate. That said, the  foundations of paying a fair wage for a fair day’s work to alleviate poverty and create a sustainable supply chain and infrastructure in growing and manufacturing communities is an ethos that we can all buy into. However I do want to shine a light to the current position that the foundation and Fairtrade as a category finds itself in.

The Grocer magazine recently published its  category report on Fairtrade demonstrating how tough 2015 was for the total market showing a decline in both volume (12.5%) and value (3.3%). However Fairtrade is diversifying rapidly with more and more products carrying the mark. We’re all used to seeing bananas, coffee and sugar but juices, biscuits and  preserves are now much more common place in mainstream retail. So why is this? Well, for a start suppliers are waking up to the benefits of having a public CSR programme that can be fulfilled by marks such as the Soil Association, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade. Another reason is that shoppers are much more tuned into the concept of value for money. The economy is on the rise again but we are still very value-conscious, this is very different from being price savvy. Shoppers now have a little more money to spend but they want to make sure that what they’re spending is worth it. An ethical mark adds value to a product ticking a box for both the consumer and the manufacturer.

Great, so let’s all just buy Fairtrade, right? Well, yes and no. I’d like to take you back to a point that I raised a couple of years ago around Mondelez, Nestle and the Fairtrade Foundation: a marriage of inconvenience. It’s great that huge manufacturers are supporting Fairtrade. It’s even better that this has encouraged Mars and Ferrero to follow suit by committing to source 100% of their cocoa sustainably. Brilliant! However, in my opinion, awarding the mark to Mondelez and Nestle was about one thing: cash for the Foundation. According to The Grocer in fact just 21% of Mondelez’s _ cocoa was Fairtrade last year – the other 79% wasn’t and even that 21% was mass balance I wont bore you with my views on that but could this be one of the reasons for the decline in fortune for the Fairtrade category.

To give an example of mass balence, if 10 percent of the total cocoa purchased comes from fair trade sources, 10 percent of a company’s chocolate bars made with that mix of cocoa can include the fair trade (FT) certified label. While the actual cocoa in the actual bar might be 90% conventional, the benefit to farmers who sowed the fair trade cocoa still receive 100% of their premiums. Some certifiers like Fair for Life don’t allow this process and demand full traceability throughout the manufacturing process. Others, like Rainforest Alliance, take a middle-of-the-road approach, permitting the mixing of fair trade and conventional ingredients at a later point in the manufacturing process to ease tracking for product manufacturers while keeping things clear for consumers.

New labelling laws demanding more information on product origin has increased my frustration of being told to isolate _ cocoa by origin would cost me 4x the standard FT price – WHY?

The core shopper is a conscientiousearly-adopter who is well versed on the current affairs and issues. Therefore decisions like this would actively drive them out of the category & leave behind the ambivalent masses. So where have these shoppers gone?

More and more manufacturers are favouring direct trade ethical sourcing over the foundation and they set their own standards. Casa Luker, Duffy Red Star and many others. There are also green shoots with organisations such as Fair for Life driving the sustainability message with a new certification process. Are these core shoppers flying a new flag? There is also a trend amongst artisanal manufacturers for less intermediaries not more with bean to bar, bean to cup and field to fork being prominent trends which gives full traceability removing some of the need for a certification.

So what’s the moral here then? Well the good news is that we still have an ethical conscience in the UK – it still matters. The worrying news is that Fairtrade may have lost some of its shine. That’s not to say that we can’t conjure up some Fairtrade Brasso and scrub away the murkiness until we’re happy to see our reflection in it again. If you’re a core shopper then I’m preaching to the converted and I say ‘well done’ to you. If you’re getting frustrated by being herded around by the ambivalent masses then I would urge you to seek out something new, go and see the fantastic range that Divine Chocolate or Traidcraft hold. Take a look at what Granja Luker, one of the few research centres for cocoa in the world has to offer and support their fight for equality and social justice; they supply lots of artisan chocolate makers and bean to bar manufacturers.

There are still lots of fantastic Fairtrade producers, retailers and shoppers out there so, in the words of a wired all-nighter from Northern England in the late 1970s, keep the faith!

Discover the best in Fairtrade products at the Speciality Chocolate Fair, register here.