To Fair Trade, or Not to Fair Trade?

Alert reader Aubrey had this Fair Trade Chocolate question:


I enjoy “dark” chocolate.  Lately I’ve been buying Lindt 85 or 90% cocoa bars.  I’ve read some strong statements the company has made, claiming that their beans are carefully sourced to avoid environmental and human rights problems. However, they do not have a Fair Trade certification.

Can I keep eating this chocolate with a clear conscience?  If not, what would be a good substitute?

Thanks for your help.

Fair Trade Chocolate
Does it really? You decide.

Dear Aubrey,

Thanks for a great question! We struggle with this kind of decision all the time…

First off, for those readers who don’t know what Fair Trade is, you can read our article on Fair Trade chocolate here.

The basic idea is that people who work to produce goods and services ought to be paid a fair wage for those services, and should enjoy decent working conditions. Unfortunately, working conditions in many third world countries are deplorable. This includes countries where cacao is grown.

So, what’s a consumer to do? One option is to choose chocolate that has been certified as Fair Trade. This way, you know the folks who made it are getting a fair shake.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple. Why?

Several reasons:

1) Availability. Although Fair Trade chocolate is becoming more widely available, it might not be readily available where you live.

2) Quality. Fair Trade chocolate is invariably more expensive, but the quality isn’t necessarily better. We’ve had some outstanding Fair Trade chocolate (e.g. Green and Black’s) and some mediocre stuff (e.g. Endangered Species). You shouldn’t have to pay more for something that tastes worse.

3) Cost to the farmer. Sometimes, the cost of being certified Fair Trade is prohibitively expensive for the farmer. At a minimum, he or she is looking at about $1800 for the initial Fair Trade registration cost. This prevents some chocolate from being labeled as Fair Trade even though it might be ethically produced.

4) Does it matter? In at least one study, economists determined that Fair Trade coffee didn’t necessarily benefit the people who were growing it in Latin America. Granted, that’s coffee and not chocolate, but it does make one wonder.

So, does that mean we’re not fans of Fair Trade? Not at all. We think it’s a great idea, but we’re more concerned with how a company does business than whether they have the Fair Trade logo.

We try to make a habit of reading the company’s website and determining whether they are in control of their production all the way from the source, or whether they at least purchase cacao beans grown in a sustainable and ethical fashion.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether to believe a company’s promotional material, but you could just make it easy on yourself and opt for Fair Trade chocolate every time.

And, in answer to your question, Aubrey, you might give Green and Black’s a try.

Thanks for writing to ask about Fair Trade chocolate!

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