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The Label Fable

I know, "fable" probably isn't the right word for this title, but it rhymed, and rhyming has been a huge thing in my house lately with my daughter being a budding reader :). Now, for the post:
As a craft chocolate consumer and someone always searching for ɡo͝od (ethical) chocolate, I often ask myself how to determine whether or not a chocolate is ɡo͝od. So I start with the basic rule I've been taught in all of my nutrition classes - read the label. When I do this, I see phrases like fair-trade, certified organic, and direct trade. These terms are often used in the chocolate community and should mean a chocolate is "good" for the world, right? But are these labels and certifications really doing any good?
Fair-trade certification should ensure cacao farmers receive a fair wage for the work they are doing - growing the crops that are destined to become beautiful chocolate bars, couverture, and other treats. However, as Megan Giller, author of Bean to Bar Chocolate: America's Craft Chocolate Revolution, writes:
"In reality, fair trade has become a series of boxes that companies can check off, an expensive piece of paper in a long supply chain that often doesn't guarantee that the farmers make any more money, never mind a fair wage."
So in other words, the fair-trade label doesn't seem to be doing its job. So how about the other labels?
Labels like certified organic. This one is an important one, right? This one has to be making a difference, right? Not necessarily. Certified organic is another one of those bureaucratic box-checking exercises and one that a lot of farmers simply can't afford. Chocolate makers Vincent Mourou and Sam Maruta of Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat have spoken out about the complications and frustrations farmers experience when attempting to become certified organic:
"At the end of the day, certification is by definition a bureaucratic exercise, a set of norms put in place, standards to verify the norms are being upheld, and be able to bury any query under a ton of paper. When you're dealing with a family or a farm that is just a couple of acres, has a few hundred cocoa trees, some other marketable crops, a pond for raising fish, a pig or two and some chickens running around the vegetable patch, the whole thing seems absurd," (transcribed from The Slow Melt Makers Series 5: Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat).
So rather than focusing on certifications,  Marou's team works directly with farmers and Marou says they are, "committed to finding a sustainable path forward for the farmers [they] now consider family," (
So this idea of working directly with farmers brings us to our final chocolate catchphrase: direct trade. Now, this one I really hope isn't just a trendy term that chocolate professionals and choco-nerds alike are throwing around because this is something I can get behind. Direct trade is something I can support.
The premise of direct trade is simple: chocolate makers have a direct relationship with cacao farmers. Through this direct relationship, as many middlemen as possible are removed from the supply chain, thus benefiting the cacao farmer (higher prices paid for their beans, training on pre- and post-harvest processing techniques, improvements to their communities, etc.) and the chocolate maker as well (improved product quality, beans that meet their specifications for flavor, etc).
Direct trade usually means more money paid to the cacao farmer than with fair-trade, so direct trade is really fair-er trade for those hard-working men and women on the cacao farms.
The downfall with direct trade, however, is that it is not overseen by a governing body, so any maker can use the term "direct trade" on their packaging and it may not be true. But reputable companies such as Taza Chocolate and Dandelion Chocolate publish reports that provide actual dollar amounts paid for the cacao they source, so it is clear to see that when we buy from these companies, we are buying chocolate made by a producer who values and develops relationships with the farmers from whom they purchase their beans.
So, the final answer about determining the value of all of these labels is: use your bean! (pun intended) Do your research to find out if a chocolate maker can back up their claims of direct trade. Here's a list of questions that can help you select ɡo͝od chocolate makers:
  • Is the maker reputable?
  • Do they have articles on their website (or posts on social media) about their trips to origin to visit farms and meet with farmers?
  • Can you find information that provides at least a small glimpse of the training they are providing for their farmer partners?
  • Do they talk about specific co-ops and name farmers/farms by name?
Please, use these questions as you select the chocolate you purchase so you can support ɡo͝od chocolate makers and the farmers they work with directly. And another big request - please share this post so we can help others learn how to make ɡo͝od chocolate choices. Thanks!
My next conundrum: Is a chocolate bar "bad" if I can buy it in a big box store?

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