Ethical Chocolate Sweetens the Deal

04/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chocolate just became an even more socially conscious food choice, now that Green & Black's -- a UK-based company whose entire range of premium bars is already 100 percent organic -- has committed to going 100 percent Fair Trade this year.

It's a natural step. The "Green" in the company's name is meant to signify sustainability. Green & Black's Maya Gold bar was the UK's first-ever Fair Trade Certified product. After establishing that landmark fifteen years ago, the company has steadily increased its international profile as a food-justice trendsetter.

"Most people buying chocolate don't honestly give a lot of thought to where it came from and what's in it," Green & Black's senior brand manager Katie Butler told me this week. Nonetheless, her company does give it a lot of thought.

"Altogether, we expect that the farmers in the Dominican Republic from whom we buy our cocoa are going to receive over $6 million in Fair Trade premiums over the next ten years," Butler said. "I can't even tell you how good this feels." Announced on January 27, the Fair Trade commitment signifies an investment of more than $485,000 each year over the next ten years.

When farmer groups join the Fair Trade network and become Fair Trade certified, they receive economic stability in the form of a guaranteed minimum floor price for their goods, plus an extra premium for growing organic produce on which harmful agrochemicals and GMOs are strictly prohibited. Taught sustainable farming techniques and eligible for interest-free loans and pre-harvest credit, each farmers' coop decides democratically how to allocate its additional income.

The Dominican Republic is the Caribbean's second-poorest country, next only to destitute Haiti, with whom it shares the large island of Hispaniola. Forty-two percent of its population lives below the poverty line, and 16 percent lives in extreme poverty. Tens of thousands of rural farmers there grow cocoa, but cocoa growers' income is notoriously unstable, as it is linked to the volatile price of cocoa on the New York and London stock markets. In 2000, the New York price fell to a 27-year low of $714 a ton. It then soared to a 28-year high of $3,275 in the summer of 2008, then plunged below $2,000 that fall, thanks to the global financial crisis, according to Stacy Geagan Wagner of TransFair USA, a nonprofit that is the United States' only third-party certifier of Fair Trade products.

Green & Black's is buying cocoa from the 9,500-member National Confederation of Dominican Cocoa Producers, aka CONACADO -- which chooses to use most of its Fair Trade premium dollars on education, Wagner said. "They've used some of it to do repairs on five existing schools and they've built a whole new school. Low-income students receive scholarships and free schoolbooks."

CONACADO's executive director, Isidoro de la Rosa, offered the following statement when Green & Black's made its announcement: "With Fair Trade income we were able to implement a fermentation program to improve the quality of our cocoa and to convert our production to certified organic. This improved our position in the export market. The Fair Trade market is a very important market for the survival of our associates."

CONACADO is also using some of the money to establish a clinic in a remote area whose residents previously had no immediate access to healthcare, Wagner said. And now, with Green & Black's entire line going Fair Trade -- packaging is expected to begin appearing with the FAIR TRADE mark by late 2010, once all current labels have been exhausted to avoid waste -- buying candy is a multilayered process. Granted, Green & Black's dozen-plus different bars are lushly flavorful, employing sophisticated tweaks on classic combinations: The cherries in its cherry bar are a tart-sour Eastern European variety; the nuts in its new peanut-milk-chocolate bar are caramelized and spangled with sea salt; the crystallized ginger in its ginger bar lends a sly, wry bite to gorgeously mellow dark chocolate.

"These days, if two chocolate bars are in front of you, you can ask, 'How was this one produced and how was that one produced?'" TransFair USA's Wagner says. "And if you find out that one of them was produced more sustainably and ethically, then you can say, 'Yes, I choose this one because I don't care just about how my chocolate tastes, I also care about people in other countries and I care that my dollar can go further to help them.' It's a 'we-volution,' and our mission is to improve the lives of farmers, so the more products we can sell, the more money goes into the hands of marginalized producers around the world."