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CococoBernard Callebaut



1. Summary 


2. Sustainability and Chocolate


3. Cocoa Sourcing


4. Child Labour and poverty in the cocoa industry


5. Certification of cocoa products and Rainforest Alliance


6. Goals and targets affecting the chocolate industry


7. Certification and the route to sustainability 


8. Clarifying misconceptions


9. Concluding thoughts









If I only read one FAQ (this one!), what is the short story concerning cocoa sustainability, Rainforest Alliance certification, and your products?


Chocolate today is not sustainable because about 60% of the world's cocoa comes from West Africa (Côte d'Ovoire and Ghana) where there are both significant human problems (poverty, child labour) and environmental challenges (deforestation, the effect of climate change on rainforest ecology).  Solutions to cocoa sustainability must address the problems of West Africa but the good news is that many stakeholders today are taking real action.


Cococo is committed to the transparent sourcing of West African cocoa, and Cococo's exclusive and propietary couverture chocolate recipes now use only West African cocoa products that have been certified as sustainable both by Rainforest Alliance (or RFA) and by the manufacturer.  RFA certification standards require both adherance to international labour standards at the farm level and also supply-chain traceability.


While certification programs are not today capable of solving the problems of West Africa and cocoa sustainability - there are no easy or immediate answers to these very complicated problems - third party certification involving full traceability is today a best practice, and certification programs help drive positive change.


As chocolate experts, the Cococo team understands that our customers and stakeholders are entitled to expect Cococo to be a leader in both advocating for and driving toward sustainability, and also in communicating transparently about our cocoa-sourcing approach.


As we say below, and to simplify greatly: if those involved in making and selling the "best chocolate" don't make West Africa their problem and consuming concern, then we can perhaps be rest assured that only those willing to make and sell the "worst chocolate" will find a comfortable home there.



Is chocolate still fun or has it now become yet another serious topic?


It's still fun!  Cocoa is one of nature's miracles. Its botanical name, theobroma cacao, translates to "food of the gods."  That name and meaning reflects the human experience with cocoa: its flavours and ability to nourish are rightly revered.  And if cocoa is a natural miracle, then chocolate is a triumph of human innovation.  So, yes, chocolate is still fun.  It's a human triumph built on a natural miracle.


But is it also more complicated than that and is there also a serious topic involved?  The answer to both questions is yes.  That is why we must work hard and be clear about what we do, so that our customers and others can have confidence.  Although it's great when consumers have the time to educate themselves about complicated supply chain issues, the reality is that modern life is pretty busy and nobody can be an expert about everything.  For our part, we're chocolate experts; that's what we do.




Sustainability and Chocolate


What does "sustainable" mean?


The best answer here is perhaps:  it depends upon who you are and why you are asking the question.


Sustainability is a huge topic.  Most often people talk about sustainability in alphabetical terms, either highlighting the 3 P's (sustainability for people, profits, and the planet) or the three E's (equity, economics, and environment). Click here to leave our site and read the Brundtland definition and we also recommend the book by Jeremy L. Caradonna, Sustainability: A History (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2014).  Whichever letter of the alphabet is used to summarize the sustainability concept, though, the same three points usually get made: (1) sustainability is a human concept and so unless solutions work for people (equity) they lack resonance; (2) sustainability as a work or labour concept recognizes that unless there is profit (economics) in a system, businesses and economies will fail; and, (3) neither people nor profits can exist without a healthy planet (environment) to host them.


But we don't want to get lost in the details.  For most businesses there are key sustainability issues.  And where chocolate is concerned the key issue is cocoa sustainability and there is rightly a big focus on the fairness of the cocoa economy for those who grow cocoa (a topic which includes "child labour").  Cocoa is the defining issue for the simple reason that cocoa is the key ingredient in chocolate.  Cocoa is made from cocoa beans which are found inside the fruit of the cocoa tree.  And most of the cocoa beans harvested in the world come from West Africa where significant problems exist.  Another and overlapping important issue involves various additional threats to cocoa agriculture in equatorial countries, including threats arising in connection with climate change.



What does "sustainable chocolate" mean?


In our opinion, "sustainable chocolate" means:  chocolate produced using only sustainable cocoa products made by a sustainable cocoa economy.


More specifically "sustainable chocolate" will one day exist when farmers are paid fair prices for cocoa around the world, after they have grown cocoa crops using environmentally sound practices.  Today cheap chocolate is ubiquitous (it's everywhere) in the developed world, and emerging economies are demanding much the same privilege - more and better chocolate, priced accessibly.  The demand for chocolate grows with wealth.


The stark contrast that exists today between the comparative luxury of chocolate consumption at cheap prices in the developed world, and the dire poverty of many cocoa growing peoples, especially in West Africa, is what first needs to change before the chocolate economy has any real hope of calling itself "sustainable" for the long term.



Cocoa Sourcing


Where is cocoa grown?


Cocoa (derived from the fruit of the theobroma cacao tree) grows only in a narrow band 10 degrees latitude either side of the equator.  In its natural state, cacao is an "under-storey crop" in rainforests; it grows naturally in partial shade.  Today it is primarily grown in rainforest plantations.


Estimates vary, but approximately 60%1 of the world's cocoa supply comes from West Africa.  The two most important growing countries are Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Ghana;  this region also includes Nigeria and Cameroon.  However, when people who are talking about chocolate mention "West Africa", most often what they mean is "Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana".


Where does Cococo's cocoa / chocolate come from?


Transparency in our chocolate sourcing is a commitment that we make to our customers and other stakeholders.  ("Transparency" is sustainability jargon for openness and honesty.2)


Most of the time, almost all of the time, in fact, we work with standard chocolate recipes of our devising: one each for dark, milk and white chocolate.  We use these beloved standards when making almost all of our confections, snacks and baking products.  And each of these standards is a chocolate formulation unique to our brands (Cococo® and Chocolaterie Bernard Callebaut®) that has been manufactured to our specifications.  You can't buy it anywhere but through us.  We choose to work with unique Belgian couverture chocolate, and these standard proprietary chocolate recipes of ours are currently produced using West African cocoa. 


To be clear, though, we do sometimes source smaller quantities of chocolate from a variety of other (non-West African) sources from time to time.  Sometimes this is because we are interested in a particular taste profile, and other times it is because we want to offer customers the experience of a particular bean source (country or plantation) or even a special vintage (crop year).  But when we less-commonly source chocolate this way we always identify what we're doing on our packaging both because in such cases that source is really part of the tasting story that we have created, and also because we always want to be clear about our cocoa sources.



Child labour and poverty in the cocoa industry


Is there a link between child slavery and chocolate?


Yes.  In 2000, a BBC documentary3 focused on the world's attention on the problem of child slavery in the West African cocoa trade.  Other investigative media reports have followed since.  In Canada, a very good book by Carol Off entitled Bitter Chocolate (Canada: Random House Canada, 2006) received wide attention, and a documentary based upon that book4 is periodically shown on Canadian television.


Child slavery (including child trafficking), as one aspect of what international law calls "the worst forms of child labour"5, is a real and continuing part of a complex problem facing the world today.  But leading investigators and advocates will generally now agree that where it exists "the worst forms of child labour" is a symptom of a broader and deeper social problem: dire poverty6.  And the "worst forms of child labour" is itself a broader concept than the particularly awful reality of slavery and trafficking.  You can find the technical definition of the term by leaving our site and clicking here, but in essence the "worst forms of child labour" also includes physically dangerous work and work that interferes with school attendance and education.  The idea of a child "working on the family farm" (which everybody accepts as a reality) should not be confused with the technical topic of "child labour".


Slavery is a terrible word and for most thoughtful people there cannot be many things worse than thinking about child slavery and what it means:  the loss of innocence, the loss of even a chance for a better life.  The words are blunt and unpleasant, and many people avoid using them altogether.  But maybe that is why advocates for change use them on purpose.  The issues in West Africa deserve more attention than they get.


The problem of poverty in West Africa and its many manifestations, including especially its overlap with the cocoa economy, is today recognized as being a very complex problem to solve.  It is a problem in respect of which the cocoa and chocolate industry must of course play a leading role.  (In this regard, useful resources are the World Cocoa Foundation and the International Cocoa Initiative.  Click here to leave our site and visit the WCF site or click here to leave our site and visit the ICI site.)  But both domestic and foreign governments, other international organizations, and various players up and down the supply chain are involved in the problem and therefore can and should be part of the solution too.



Who should lead the change?  Is child slavery my problem as a consumer?!


It is a great thing when consumers have the time and interest to become knowledgable about how to make good ("ethical") purchasing decisions, but in the real world few people have the time to become expert about every aspect of their own day-to-day consumption.


Chocolate companies and other stakeholders (including government and interested agencies) should therefore shoulder most of the burden for driving change.  Experts should use their expertise to benefit others and while pursuing the end goal of sustainability.  There is a role for interested consumers, but consumer demand can be positively affected by expert leadership.


At Cococo Chocolatiers, we too are a consumer, albiet a very big consumer of cocoa.  We do not grow or harvest cocoa, nor do we manufacture chocolate except occasionally and on a very small scale.  But we do purchase large quantities of chocolate to use in our confectionary manufacturing - thousands upon thousands of kilograms every year.  And precisely because we are a very big consumer, we have the resources to be expert about sourcing, and we should therefore be held accountable for our sourcing decisions.



How many people are affected by these social problems?


Current estimates suggest that there are perhaps 800,000 household cocoa farms in each of Côte d'Ivoire alone and Ghana, for a total of 1.6 million farms in West Africa overall.  It is thought that perhaps 8.8 million people are engaged in cocoa production in the two countries spread across 3750 cocoa-growing communities7.  A very large proportion of these people are directly touched by the problems of poverty and child labour.



What is the risk of not working to solve these problems?


The core issue is that more than half of the world's cocoa production depends on two countries - Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana - and the production of cocoa is under threat in those places.  Cocoa agriculture is very labour intensive.  Cocoa, of course, is made from cocoa beans, and the beans are found inside of cocoa pods (the fruit of the cocoa tree) which are harvested by hand using a machete.  This hand harvesting occurs on millions of small plantations.


Since most farmers in West Africa live in poverty and most cocoa families experience "structural hunger"8 for parts of the year, it is no great surprise that children involved in this fragmented economy are not being drawn into the family business.  The average age of a cocoa farmer is Côte d'Ivoire is 569.  Children are leaving for cities where other social problems may be found.  And so it is a very real question awaiting an answer as to how productivity will not only be maintained but actually increased to meet global demand in such circumstances.  And these tough dynamics are at play on top of predicted effects of global warming which imply a restriction in the physical areas available to grow cacao in the foreseeable future.


There is no cocoa economu as the world understands it today without solutions in West Africa.



Certification of cocoa products and Rainforest Alliance


What is cocoa certification?


Cocoa certification involves assessing cocoa production according to published standards.  The best known certification regimes are the ones advocated by non-governmental organizations that were involved very early on in calling attention to the problems of fair trade in West Africa.  Especially given their early leadership role these organizations deserve considerable credit for progress that has been made.  There are several of these third-party certifying agencies operating today.  Rainforest Alliance is our certificate of choice.  Click here to leave our site and visit the RFA site.  Other leading certifiers are Fairtrade and UTZ.  Click here to leave our site and visit the Fairtrade site for Canada.  Click here to leave our site and visit the UTZ site.


Certification standards vary between agencies but the effect of certification upon cocoa sustainability in West Africa is much the same among them - the agencies are allies in a common cause and critiquing differences makes little sense.


Attractive features of Rainforest Alliance CertificationTM include: a focus upon environmental stewardship; standards that address labour conditions; market penetration in North America; certification standards that do not fix prices but that instead encourage markets to pay more for better quality products and processes; and, a good on-the-groundmarket share in West Africa.


                 0.1.       The Sustainable Agriculture Network


                 The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) is a coalition of independant

                 nonprofit conservation organizations that promote the social and

                 environmental sustainability of agricultural activities ...


                 0.2.       The Rainforest Alliance


                 The Rainforest Alliance is an international nonprofit organization working

                 to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods.  Farms that

                 meet the SAN's comprehensive standards for sustainability, as well as

                 POs* that comply with SAN and Rainforest Alliance policies, are eligible

                 for a license to use the Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM seal and/or make

                 Rainforest Alliance Certified claims for products grown on Rainforest

                 Alliance Certified Farms.


                 Sustainable Agriculture Network and Rainforest Alliance (2015), Chain

                 of Custody Standard.


                 (*A PO is any company, like Cococo, that applies for chain-of-custody



There are also various certifying programs that have been created by cocoa and chocolate companies themselves.  These in-house certification programs offer a corporate approach to certification as an alternative - or as an "add on" to - third-party programs.


Most recently ISO / CEN has been working to produce an ISO standard for sustainable and traceable cocoa10, distinct from the third-party certifiers and also distinct from in-house corporate programs, but capable of being adopted by both.  ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization (click here to leave our site and visit the ISO site) and CEN stands for European Committee for Standardization (Comité Européen de Normalisation) (click here to leave our site and visit the CEN site).



Why is Cococo working with Rainforest Alliance?


Cococo has chosen to work with Rainforest Alliance because RFA certification is best known by customers in the markets served by Cococo, and because RFA certification targets two issues of the greatest concern to Cococo, being agricultural practices and labour certification.


Most broadly Cococo works with Rainforest Alliance to drive demand for certification in the chocolate market as a means to the end of creating the conditions necessary to achieve positive change in West Africa.



Is RFA chocolate more expensive?


Yes.  Farmers who grow Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM products will ideally command a premium when selling their certified crop (but RFA does not set the premium as Fairtrade does, and instead tends to focus more on environment and productivity).  Farmers get a better price.  And Rainforest Alliance also must pay to operate its certification programs.  The costs of better pricing for farmers and the cost of administrative oversight combine to make certified chocolate more expensive.  There are also additional tracing costs throughout the supply chain that have an unavoidable pricing effect.  Chocolate purchasers such as Cococo incur additional costs internally to comply with RFA's certificate-driven traceability rules and related communications rules.



Have you increased your prices to pay for RFA certification?


No, not in a direct sense, and Cococo does not believe in the idea of charging a "certification premium".  The additional cost of certified chocolate is an input cost that Cococo must take into account, just like all its other costs, when managing its business and ultimately setting its prices.  But incurring the extra cost of certification is a baseline principle for Cococo.  There is no question of buying non-certified (less fair and non sustainable) chocolate to save money.



Is the quality of chocolate made with Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa products better or worse or no different?


Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa can be turned into cocoa-based products (e.g., fine couverture chocolate, lesser quality chocolate, "chocolate-like" products, cocoa powder, and cocoa butter) in the supply chain just like any other cocoa.  It can be put to high-, mid-, or low-grade uses.


Because Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa is more expensive, though, consumers tend to encounter it more frequently in connection with premium products, but it doesn't need to be that way.



Does the taste change when chocolate is Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM?


The taste of chocolate doesn't depend directly upon certification in any way.  The taste of chocolate is influenced by many factors: the land, meaning the actual soil, in which the cacao tree is grown (its "terroir"); the species of cacao tree; growing conditions; how the cocoa beans are fermented and then dried; how and where they are roasted; bean grinding; refining and milling; and conching.  In the final analysis, all of these steps plus other ingredients, too, come together as the chocolate recipe itself.


Bean certification doesn't have anything directly to do with this complex process of creating taste, but because certified farms have worked to achieve a good operating standard, those farms may - as a generalization - employ better agricultural practices overall.  RFA farms can probably be relied upon to produce better tastes therefore, on average.



Is Cococo's chocolate made with Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa better?  Does it taste better?


Cococo's chocolate isn't necessarily better tasting just because our cocoa products are Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM, but we do think that our chocolate is a great product.  Our particular chocolate recipes are uniue to us - you can't buy them anywhere else - and they have been created by us working with our manufacturer to create special blends of Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa products (i.e. "cocoa products" here means both (1) "cocoa mass" aka "cocoa liquor" which is the product that results after cocoa beans are winnowed, roasted, and ground, and (2) "cocoa butter" which can be pressed out of "cocoa mass").  And, importantly, our couverture chocolate recipes all contain added cocoa butter which means that our chocolate is couverture.  Fine couverture chocolate melts in your mouth, is made with high-quality ingredients, and experiences only the most exacting (and expensive) manufacturing processes.  In our latest innovation all of our standard Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM couverture chocolate is also free of soya products to benefit especially our customers who have soya allergies and sensitivities.  We now use exclusively sunflower lecithin rather than soya lecithin in our RFA couverture standard chocolate varieties.  Our chocolate is also GMO-free and uses natural vanilla.


Getting back to the original question, is our chocolate better tasting?  As it happens, the widespread opinion seems to be that the RFA version of our semi-sweet chocolate is a distinct improvement over the non-RFA version that it replaced.  It is really a lovely product.



Do you offer other Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM products?


In addition to using exclusively Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa products in all of our couverture chocolate and in our line-up of chocolate confections, we also source Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa powder and cocoa butter as stand-alone products.


Cocoa butter and cocoa powder are produced at large scale in the chocolate industry.  Cocoa beans after roasting and grinding comprise something called "cocoa liquor."  Cocoa liquor may either be combined with other ingredients to make chocolate, or it may be pressed in enormous industrial machines, and two things result from such pressing: cocoa powder and cocoa butter.


Certified Cocoa Powder.  The Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa powder that we source is sometimes called "natural", "de-alkalyzed", or "non-Dutch".  Dutching involves adding alkali solutions such as potassium or sodium carbonite to cocoa.  Alkalizing was invented in the 19th century to make cocoa powder less likely to sink in fluids but it also modifies flavour and colour.  Cococo's certified and natural unsweetened cocoa powder returns to a simpler time of natural flavours and colours.


Certified Cocoa Butter.  The topic of certified cocoa butter is interesting in part because of how the topic of cocoa butter itself deserves to be better understood in the context of evolving trends in the chocolate industry, especially trends concerning "bean to bar" manufacturing and "direct trade" sourcing.


Outside of certification regimes, cocoa butter is effectively a commodity on the world market; it is an undifferentiated product (a plant fat) with not much to recommend one batch of butter versus another.  Nowadays, though, cocoa beans are sometimes made into chocolate by small-scale operators (craftspeople or entry-level chocolate brands) that choose to emphasize the "ethics" of the bean source (and often the source of the cocoa beans is a "direct trade" relationship.  So far, so good.


But then in order to make a more palatable chocolate, small-scale manufacturers may, of course, need to use cocoa butter.  There is nothing peculiar about that, because it is precisely the adding of extra cocoa butter into a recipe that makes the finest couverture chocolate.  However, what is sometimes peculiar is that since small craft manufacturers generally lack the industrial equipment necessary to press cocoa butter out of cocoa liquor, the cocoa butter that the craft manufacturer uses is therefore sometimes just commodity butter bought on the market.  The result can therefore be chocolate made from a mixture of unpressed cocoa liquor derived from specially-sourced ("ethical") beans - perhaps delivered with lots of supportive marketing language - and also cocoa butter derived from completely untraceable (unsustainable?) cocoa beans.  The exercise can thus effectively mix together sustainable and unsustainable cocoa products.  (This same problem sometimes can be seen when chocolate brands mix together certified chocolate with uncertified chocolate, while at the same time delivering brand-supportive messaging that fairly describes the certified chocolate alone.)


The role of cocoa butter in the manufacture of chocolate is a topic that is poorly understood by consumers, and this is an area of the chocolate industry where marketing and consumer perceptions seem to have gotten out far ahead of both manufacturing truth and common sense.  But, please:  we are not being critical of anybody in particular.  We know some craft manufacturers who arrange to have their cocoa beans pressed to get the cocoa butter and cocoa powder they require, such that their beans and cocoa butter both come from the same source.  And we know of other craft manufacturers who focus upon taste exploration and food empowerment and who do not make "ethical" claims about bean sourcing at all while using commodity cocoa butter.  But certainly we have seen lots of other marketing stories that blur the line where "ethical" sourcing is concerned by ignoring cocoa butter as a sourcing topic.  Much education is needed in this area.



Goals and targets affecting the chocolate industry


Did something important happen in 2010 in the cocoa industry?  Is something important going to happen in 2020?


After the world's attention was first drawn to the problem of labour conditions in cocoa agriculture, the topic became of legislative interest in the United States.  Two representatives in Congress - Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative Elliot Engel of New York - worked together with a view of possibly legislating protection for children against slavery at the level of product labeling.  There is a good Wikipedia entry that describes this history.  Click here to leave our site and read the Wikipedia entry.


By 2010, the work that began with the Harkin Engel Protocol of 2001 led to the 2010 Joint Declaration and Framework of Action11.  The Joint Declaration (re)committed its signatories to the principles for positive change first established in 2001, and established as an updated target that the "worst forms of child labour" should be reduced by 70% before 2020.



Who measures progress in the cocoa industry?


Many stakeholders are interested in holding the cocoa economy and the chocolate industry to account.


Key players include the U.S. Government's Department of Labour which has been funding studies by Tulane University on the ongoing status of labour conditions in West Africa.  Click here to visit the Tulane site.


At the agency level, the International Cocoa Initiative (click here to visit the ICI site) has emerged as the leading centre for the ongoing international and multi-stakeholder efforts to redress the problems of children adversely affected by the cocoa industry.



Is progress happening fast enough?  Will 2020 targets be reached?


Probably no, and probably not.  The 2020 target to reduce the "worst forms of child labour" by 70% is likely off schedule.


There has been considerable activity especially in the past few years, especially involving the world's major cocoa and chocolate companies (the permanent-member companies that founded and control the World Cocoa Foundation; click here to visit the WCF site).  Still, documented improvements are proving elusive.  Most recently, in 2014, the WCF announced that its framework for action, called CocoaAction (click here to leave our site and read about CocoaAction) that outlines among other things how the various players involved in the cocoa economy in West Africa can measure their results more effectively.  It is worth noting the challenging reality that the major industry players who must pursue the goals of the 2010 Joint Declaration and Framework for Action are also business competitors.  The CocoaAction framework therefore establishes a so-called "pre-competitive" platform to facilitate the independent work of competing companies.


There is widespread agreement now, though, that although lessons have been learned about how to measure change and where it should occur, it is now definitely time for real positive change.  The most recent research update from Tulane University (click here to leave our site and visit the Tulane site) studying the problem of child labour found both evidence of some improvement but perhaps even more importantly an overall worsening of some conditions that were studied.



How do you know that child labour is not being used in your chocolate?


The most honest answer is:  we don't, and we can't.  And no reputabe certifier, chocolate manufacturer, or retailer should answer this question any differently.  Rainforest Alliance cautions against making statements that any product is "child labour free."  And that's the case simply because nobody can know for certain what happens at each and every stage of a value chain.  This logical limitation is not unique to the cocoa industry; the same caveat applies virtually whenever a product is sold that incorporates the work of someone else.


But what we can and do say is that via certification and other work, we do everything that we can reasonably do to ensure that child labour is not part of our supply chain, and, especially, we do what we can to apply supply-chain pressure so that the risk of "the worst forms of child labout" will eventually be driven out of the chocolate industry.



Who monitors?


Rainforest Alliance personnel and representatives are "on the ground" in West Africa certifying and auditing farms.  Rainforest Alliance standards then mandate that cocoa is carefully traced throughout the supply chain to the end consumer.  When you buy and eat chocolate that is certified as having been manufactured using only Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa, you can rest assured that the cocoa source verifiably came from a farm certified by Rainforest Alliance.



Certification and the route to sustainability


Why don't all chocolate companies use certified chocolate to begin with?


Because the market and the environments within which the markets operate haven't required it.


There is no clear information available about how much of the world's cocoa is certified.  Partly that is because there are overlapping models:  in-house (manufacturer) models and also third-party-agency models (RFA, etc.).  The same cocoa may be certified to more than one standard.  It appears that 1.4 million tons of cocoa was certified by one or more than one of Rainforest, Fairtrade, and UTZ during the most recent period for which data is available, but the same cocoa may be doubly- or evern triply-certified within this reported figure, meaning that there may have been only 720,000 - 950,000 tons of certified cocoa actually available.  That tonnage is only 15-20% of the world market.  And, furthermore, of this calculated amount, some 89,000 - 319,000 tons of certified product may have failed to find a market, meaning that the certified cocoa was sold generically and not as "certified"12The market is not pulling hard enough on the certified cocoa supply, and without greater demand, the economic incentive to create more certified and sustainable supply may not exist.


The cocoa supply chain is terribly fragmented.  There are millions of participating individuals with whom most cocoa and chocolate companies may yet have no direct commercial contact at all.  The task ahead involves weaving the threads of this supply chain together in a fair way.


And ultimately the biggest players in industry - the cocoa companies and the chocolate companies - need market demand to create and manage supply.  The chocolate economy is in transition and in a critical state.



Some chocolate companies say their chocolae is "sustainable" but don't explain what that means.  Is there any general standard called "sustainable"?


No there isn't.  The word "sustainable" can mean or imply many different things when used by different people.  In general, if a company doesn't identify a specific certification standard (RFA, UTZ, Fairtrade, etc.) either in its communication materials or on its packaging, then it's probably safe to bet either that no third-party certification exists to support it or that third-party certification of products is not comprehensive within the business in question, and in either event there is presently no sanction (except by consumers) to prevent or correct sustainability misstatements when they occur.  And certification, of course, is only one part of sustainability, a means to an end.


A chocolate company that doesn't offer third-party certification of its cocoa products might nevertheless be selling chocolate that it considers "sustainable" under some corporate in-house program or based upon some "direct trade" initiative.  The only way to judge whether or not sustainability claims are progressive when they are made but not backed up by third party verification standards is to ask informed questions and get more information.  The best players offer transparent information even before they are asked questions.



What does "traceable" mean, and is "mass balancing" the same thing?


Traceability is a key goal of most third-party (agency) verified certification programs.  The traceability requirement applies special pressure upon the supply chain by necessitating administrative measures to follow agricultural products all the way from the cacao tree to the chocolate product.  The ability to trace means that cacao beans are subject to control measures between the farm and gathering point, and then from there on into the modern cocoa economy.  Some of the required infrastructure to do all of this may be the early framework upon which a more professional, sustainable, and humane agriculture can eventually be built.  Infrastructure is largely missing in many of the cocoa plantations of West Africa.


Mass-balancing programs take a different approach.  In a mass-balancing program, a producer sells as "certified" out of the production side of its business only the same quantity of cocoa products that have been "certified" as inputs, but inputs and outputs are not specifically of consistently linked.  At the level of the chocolate bar, for example, this means that only a permissible percentage of a manufacturer's chocolate bars can be sold as certified, with that percentage matching in proportional volume the certified cocoa inputs used to make them.


But there would be no way of saying, in the case of a particular chocolate bar, whether the cocoa used to make it was or was not grown via certified practices at the farm level.


Both traceability programs and mass-balancing programs are progressive developments.  Anytime a certified product produced by either approach is sold, such a sale can meaningfully increase demand for certification at the farm level.  But, in general, critical advocates for change prefer traceability programs because they apply greater pressure upon the supply chain - both because they are more inherently verifiable (and have more stringent processes up and down the supply chain), and also because they are more intuitively acceptable at the consumer level.  They sell better, as they probably should.  A chocolate product produced under the traceability program came from a certified farm; a chocolate bar produced under a mass-balancing program may not contain any particular percentage of cocoa from a certified farm at all.  And the idea of eating a chocolate product that carries with it a definable risk of having been produced using agricultural products that were produced in a non-fair way might understandably not be appealing to a consumer trying to make an ethical food-purchasing decision.


Most in-house "corporate" certification programs today offer only mass balancing.  Certification methodologies today may, in fact, be in the early days of a transition phase - away from their origins which involved only the social activism of traceability / certification standards, and toward a point where corporately managed mass-balancing certification will supplant traceability as sustainability standards become the eventual norm.  Forthcoming ISO / CEN standards may facilitate such a transition.



What does Cococo purchase - traceable cocoa or mass-balanced cocoa?


Traceability.  But while also encouraging in-house programs thay may rely upon mass balancing.


Cococo's purchasing strategy encourages corporately-driven mass-balancing programs while considering them still to be insufficient, standing alone.  Major producers should be lauded for the steps they take to incorporate verifiable sustainable practices into their operating cultures, but until the transition to sustainability is more complete, Cococo considers that it would be premature today to rely only upon the world's dominant manufacturers to drive change.  To at least some extent, since the major manufacturers are competitors with one another, they are in truth poorly positioned to impose real pressure upon themselves as change advocates.  Pressure need to come as well from market conditions.  Today, therefore, Cococo's purchasing strategy is to purchase only bulk couverture chocolate that has been certified under both Rainforest Alliance (traceability) certification standards and under in-house (mass-balancing) certification standards at the same time.  Cococo believes that this required combination of overlapping certification standards tends to drive demand for additional certified supplies at the agricultural level in the most effective way possible at this time, and also tends to send the most encouraging signals back to West Africa.



How long have you been using RFA chocolate?


Cococo first purchased chocolate made with Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa in March 2014 and began purchasing such chocolate exclusively in the spring of 2015, after several years' collaboration with suppliers to identify recipes and to resolve supply-chain complications - and all with a view to ensuring our ability to supply our customers with the best tasting products reliably.  Before 2015, for about three years, we purchased our exclusive chocolate recipes while relying upon certification offered by a manufacturer's in-house program.  And before that ... we didn't exist as a business.   Cococo had its first key meeting with suppliers about certification, child labour, and fair trade issues within the first 30 days of when we opened our doors, having acquired the going-concern assets of another chocolate business out of receivership.



How does certification work, step by step?


Farmers are recruited by certification agencies and others by the hope that a certified standard will help improve their economic livelihood.  They are trained in certification requirements and educated about practices necessary to achieve the standards.  Initial audits are conducted to certify a farm's initial status and entry into the system, and then status is maintained by periodic inspections.  Farm-level certified products are then traced through the value chain and at each step certification must be provable.  Within Cococo's manufacturing activities, we are required to adopt operational practices that ensure full traceability all the way to the level of individual products.




Clarifying misconceptions


If your chocolate comes from Belgium, and there is no rainforest there, how does this all work?  I am lost.


The history of chocolate is closely linked to a history of colonialism, manufacturing advances, and agricultural change.  The human story of chocolate emerged in areas that we today call Mexico and Central America, but the agricultural supply has migrated from one equatorial region to another over time.  The value-added activity of refining cocoa beans into products like chocolate, cocoa powder, and cocoa butter is an activity that has occurred almost exclusively in the industrialized countries of Europe.  So the historical reality - and one that many people criticize today - is that the agricultural production of cacao is in most cases almost entirely divorced from the value-added process of chocolate manufacture.


Like other European countries (such as Switzerland), Belgium developed special expertise in manufacturing chocolate especially in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The legacy of "fine Belgian chocolate" derives from that history.


The simply stated geographic reality is that chocolate comes from cacao plants that only grow in equatorial areas, but almost all chocolate is manufactured elsewhere today.  The manufacturing base has broadened away from Europe over time, but it is still true today that the activity of growing cocoa tends to happen in underdeveloped parts of the world, whereas the activity of further manufacturing cocoa tends to happen in countries with greater economic advantages.  A further relevant point is that quality chocolate, which melts easily, is better (more easily) manufactured and handled in cooler climates.



I hear people talking about direct trade?  What is this all about?


Direct trade is a label that may easily confuse or distract.  Typically a direct trade message signifies that there is an immediate connection of some kind being claimed between somebody manufacturing a product and somebody supplying a raw ingredient.  But now always.  Some manufacturers who claim "direct trade" status work with brokers.  And even when a manufacturer has a direct relationship with a supplier, much is often left to the imagination.  What is that relationship?  How educated is the manufacturer?  Does the manufacturer really know what a "fair price" is?  Why (in some cases) is a potentially economically inefficient direct-trade relationship (e.g. one that involves small air-freight shipments of agricultural products, and regular visits to other countries by privileged westerners) better than a "non-direct trade" alternative?  How honest are all of the players involved?


Much direct trade is undoubtedly very good and progressive.  And many of the people involved in direct trade surely have good motivations, and the best direct-trade efforts are also presented with real transparency to back up whatever claims are made.  But as a general statement "direct trade" is just a label that is currently being applied to many different sorts of activities.


The biggest issue, perhaps, is that since self-labeled "direct trade" initiatives are not a big part of the cocoa industry in West Africa, and since West Africa is where the principal problems are, the paying of pricing premiums and the creation of small direct-trade "cocoa bubble economies" elsewhere in the world won't necissarily do much to help solve the problem where it exists most acutely.


Paying a farmer in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic (for example) more for cocoa beans to service a premium brand may be right and fair, but that price and that market do not exist in a vacuum.  The failure of the cocoa economy in West Africa would be a tragedy for that region and would no doubt wreak havoc on the rest of the cocoa economy around the world, too.



Is organic the same thing as RFA or fair trade?


No.  Organic certifications are different from certifications that focus on fair trade and other issues.



Are organic certifications and direct trade responses dealing with the core issue?


Very little direct trade or organic certification involves West Africa. The fractured supply chain, political instability, and other social and medical problems (such as the Ebola outbreak that has affected the region since 2014) in West Africa combine to make such initiatives difficult (particularly since many such initiatives involve smaller companies seeking an ethical market position).  And one irony is that much cocoa production is effectively organic by default; the farmers who grow the product in West Africa are too impoverished and detached from agricultural learnings to implement meaningfully non-organic alternatives.


So although much work in the arena of direct trade and organic certification is no doubt laudable (deserving of credit), Cococo Chocolatiers believes that the way to pursue positive change in West Africa is not to abandon the region and to seek a cocoa source for its chocolate derived from regions the world where the problems are perhaps not as difficult.


The worst forms of child labour is an issue for the cocoa industry almost exclusively in the countries of Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana.  So anybody who makes a special point of stating that their supply chain is kept free of child labour problems while sourcing cocoa from places other than West Africa is perhaps a little uninformed or being facile; its really not very hard to avoid a problem where it doesn't exist.  And similarly the organic claim may be a good one for many reasons, but likewise that claim may today have less to do directly with the people part of the people/profits/planet sustainability challenge in West Africa than might be supposed. A core issue is that the world's cocoa economy depends fundamentally upon West Africa today, and if participants in that economy do not confront that reality with their specific purchasing decisions, then the result effectively abandons to others an economic problem in the third world that the first world substantially created.


To simplify greatly: if those involved in making and selling the best chocolate don't make West Africa their problem and consuming concern, then we can perhaps be rest assured that those willing to make and sell the worst chocolate will find a comfortable home there.



Concluding thoughts


Is certification the answer?


Yes for now, but in the future, probably not, or at least probably not as certification operates today, meaning certification that focuses mainly on the value of certifying labels (logos) from agencies like Rainforest Alliance.  Ultimately, though, certification is one commercial activity that can drive change now and it is perhaps the best available tool.  But change is needed elsewhere, too.


Governments of both exporting and importing companies should act to define acceptable standards.  Industry players must work to develop a mature and fair supply chain, and hold one another accountable to standards (CocoaAction) in their trading and commercial activities.  People must talk more openly and with better information about the real issues.  And when these things occur free markets can eventually do what they always do best.  Competitors will respond to the new reality and the most efficient solutions will win.  Prices may rise.  Productivities (kilograms of cocoa beans per hectare) may be increased.  Or, more probably, both of these things may (and must) happen.  In a world beset with the challenges of climate change and shrinking rainforests, though, it is frankly somewhat hard to believe that price increases at the farm level will not be part of the solution if the problem of dire poverty in cocoa production is ever to be overcome.  And only when that problem is addressed will its worst symptom, the "worst forms of child labour," be certified out of existence in the sense intended by the 2010 Joint Declaration and Framework Action.



What is your role at Cococo Chocolatiers?  How can this complicated problem get better?


Cococo believes that it can be most effective by doing four things:


  • Cococo can drive demand for positive change today by purchasing exclusively certified cocoa products derived from West Africa.
  • Cococo can be a change agent becasue we have the expertise, interest, and resources to keep ourselves educated, and then to communicate with others, about this complex topic.
  • Cococo can be an advocate for change, working with other stakeholders, and also in communication with government.
  • Cococo can help set standards tha consumers are entitled to expect by insisting upon and offering stakeholders transparency in its response to a very serious and challenging topic.



Where can I go to get more information?


Here are some useful links.  In addition to those below, we would suggest that perhaps the single best link is to the work of the non-governmental organization Voice Network, where Antony Fountain is a leading European thinker confronting these issues:


At present there is no comparable voice of which we are aware speaking in North America.















Note 1: See World Cocoa Foundation, CocoaAction Progress Report (March 2015)., ish.pdf


Note 2: Kristine Schantz, Tackling supply chain sustainability through transparency and collaboration, Erb Perspective Blog (ERB Institute, University of Michigan), May 11, 2015.


Note 3: See Liz Blunt, The bitter taste of slavery, BBC News (online), September 28, 2000.


Note 4: CBC - The Passionate Eye, Chocolate: The Bitter Truth.


Note 5: See Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, ILO Convention No. 182.


Note 6: The International Cocoa Initiative, Strategy 2015-2020: Child labour is correctly seen as both a symptom and a self-perpetuating cause of the poverty that is faced by many cocoa farmers.


Note 7: The International Cocoa Initiative, Strategy 2015-2020, Footnote 4 on page 02.


Note 8: Remark by panelist Antonie Fountain at the World Cocoa Foundation 2015 Partnership Meeting and Cocoa Sustainability Trade Fair, July 1, 2015, Washington, D.C. (Defining and Amplifying CocoaActions Impact on Community Development).


Note 9: As reported by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Krista Harden at the World Cocoa Foundation 2015 Partnership Meeting and Cocoa Sustainability Trade Fair, July 1, 2015, Washington, D.C. (Remarks by the U.S. Department of Agriculture).


Note 10: See 351-jack-steijn.html (The CEN Initiative on Sustainable and Traceable Cocoa, Abidjan, November 21, 2012) downloadable by leaving our site if you click here.


Note 11: The Declaration and Framework can be found online. Click here and click here to leave our site and read the documents.


Note 12: Data in this paragraph appears in Fountain, A.C. and Htz-Adams, F. (2015) Cocoa Barometer 2015 USA Edition.