No matter what holiday you celebrate, we can all agree on at least one thing: December means chocolate. Hot cocoa to sip while ice skating, truffles to bestow upon party hosts, candies stuffed in stockings, coins in a game of dreidel, nuggets hidden in an advent calendar.
When stocking up on your holiday chocolate, chances are good that you’ve noticed the “Fair Trade Certified” label on a few cocoa products at the grocery store. Maybe you’ve never given it a second look, or maybe you always reach for it, but either way, do you really know what it means?
In honor of the beginning of the chocolate season, we asked Elan Emanuel, the Senior Cocoa Supply Chain Manager at Fair Trade USA to give us an inside look at what the Fair Trade label represents.
Can you explain Fair Trade in a nutshell?
Fair Trade is a way for people to live their values through the things they buy. The Fair Trade Certified™ seal on a product--like a bar of chocolate or bag of coffee--signifies that rigorous standards have been met in the production of the item and that farmers earned additional money with every sale. This additional money, called the Fair Trade Premium, is used for investment in important community projects, like healthcare, clean water, and education.
Fair Trade exists to improve the lives of farmers and workers and to protect our fragile environment. The standards have strong social and environmental criteria, such as safe working conditions, no child or forced labor, proper waste disposal, water conservation, and elimination of harmful chemicals.
How long has it been around and why was it founded?
Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization and the leading certifier of Fair Trade products in North America. We were founded in 1998 to help bring producers, businesses, and consumers together to build more equitable and transparent supply chains.
How are the requirements of the certification monitored or enforced on the ground?
Every certified producer group in Fair Trade receives an independent, third-party audit annually. These audits are extremely robust and are comprised of observations, document review, and interviews. In addition, Fair Trade requires formal grievance procedures where farmers and workers can voice concerns at any time.
Why are FT products sometimes more expensive? What is that cost going toward?
Shifting to responsible farming practices takes time and investment. Farms often have to make tangible changes in order to comply with the standards, which means shifting practices and building more sustainable, transparent systems. This is why Fair Trade is a model of shared value. Everyone in the supply chain participates, and everyone benefits. Fair Trade only works when farms commit to meeting the certification requirement, and then are supported by purchases from brands and ultimately shoppers.
How does the certification apply to a product like cocoa? What does FT specifically mean for cocoa growers?
Fair Trade maintains the same core values and principles across every category. The promise is the same whether you’re choosing a banana, a bar of chocolate, or a t-shirt. That said, each product category we work in also has its own set of challenges and opportunities. While every group must meet the same standards, elect a Fair Trade committee, and earn and manage Premiums, not every group chooses to spend that money on the same thing. This is what makes Fair Trade so powerful. It allows each farmer and worker to address their own pressing needs.
In the Ivory Coast, where a lot of Fair Trade cocoa comes from, there are some significant challenges:
- Farmers are aging, and the younger generations don’t want to take over
- Cocoa trees are also aging, and productivity is low
- Poverty is high, and access to education is very low
The cocoa farmers we work with there are using Fair Trade to tackle some of these issues. For example:
A major roadblock to education is a lack of birth certificates, which is a requirement for school enrollment. In the Ivory Coast, if a family doesn’t obtain a birth certificate within the child’s first few months of life, it can be very expensive and burdensome to obtain one later. In response, several Fair Trade cooperatives have used Premiums to help families get birth certificates so that their children can enroll in school. Amongst a group of about 2,000 farmers we certified in the Ivory Coast in 2013, we saw primary school education levels increase from about 65-percent to 80-percent in one year due to the effective spending of Premiums on education initiatives like this one. They also built new schools and started school lunch programs so that kids wouldn’t leave mid-day (and usually not return).
Many groups are using Premiums to purchase fertilizers and new seedlings to increase the productivity of their farms, and ultimately incomes over time.
What kinds of conditions is cocoa typically grown in when it’s not certified FT?
Most of the major challenges in cocoa boil down to poverty. In West Africa, we’ve seen some farmers make as little as $0.25 a day. Because of this, so many other problems arise. Parents are sometimes forced to pull their kids from school to help them work in the fields. Environmental responsibility is easily compromised – they’re just focused on putting food on the table. The list goes on.
Is FT cocoa superior to other cocoa?
It depends on what’s important to you as a business or consumer. If you care about protecting the environment and supporting farmers, helping them stay in the business and build sustainable livelihoods, yes!
Why should consumers consider buying FT cocoa products?
When you choose a Fair Trade cocoa product, your purchase supports social and environmental best practices, fair and transparent terms of trade, and better livelihoods for cocoa farmers. It also sends a signal to companies that you support products made with respect for people and the planet. Every purchase is a vote, and when you vote, companies listen.
Why do some chocolate producers or vendors choose to use FT cocoa?
There are lots of reasons companies choose Fair Trade cocoa, including:
- To strengthen their supply chain and invest in the people who grow product they depend on
- To meet their corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals
- To communicate their sustainability story to their customers
Where can consumers find FT cocoa in the DC area?
Salazon Chocolate is a great local chocolate company. You can also find a wide variety of Fair Trade cocoa products at Whole Foods Market, and many other stores in the area. Just look for the label!
Anything else people should know?
We talked a lot about cocoa here, but many people don’t know just how many Fair Trade products are now available. Look for coffee, tea, sugar, spices, apparel, furniture and home goods, seafood, wine, and more!