How Green is Chocolate?

Nothing says romance like human slavery and deforestation?

Here’s a purely theoretical question just in time for Valentine’s Day: Would you give up chocolate if you knew it was ethically or environmentally problematic?

Because of course it’s both.

When Kevin and I got engaged (as in, we had a calm discussion and came to a satisfactory mutual agreement for future plans), I sneered at the thought of an engagement ring because of the many issues with gold and diamonds. I barely skipped a beat when I went vegetarian and bid farewell to beef chow fun and bacon. But spending the rest of my life without so much as a chocolate chip cookie? Now that makes me quail a little. Fortunately (or unfortunately), giving up chocolate might not be something we have to choose: some experts predict that climate change will drastically reduce cocoa production in West Africa in the next few decades.

Chocolate is fascinating stuff with a colorful history. A couple of my favorite factoids: cacao pods grow directly out of the trunks of the trees; flowers are pollinated by tiny local midges rather than bees; and chocolate was a beverage centuries before it was a confection. The active ingredient in chocolate, theobromine, has a caffeine-like effect on our bodies. Cacao’s Latin name, theobroma cacao, literally means food of the gods. Well-named, right?

But the story of chocolate today — the innocuous, ubiquitous candy bar — is pretty darn sinister. If you’re in the habit of acting out of ethical or environmental concerns, here are 5 things you never wanted to know about chocolate. You’re welcome.

  1. The production of chocolate frequently involves child labor, exploitation, and in the worst cases, human trafficking. A 2011 report from Tulane University found more than 1.8 million children in West Africa (which produces 69% of the world’s cocoa) involved in growing cocoa. The process of making chocolate involves so many people and steps that the industry cannot guarantee bean to bar traceability. Hershey’s has even been accused of using forced factory labor in the US. Fair trade is better, but frankly, with monitoring out of sight and out of mind, it’s hard to be 100% sure that any chocolate is slavery-free.
  2. Growing cacao is responsible for rainforest loss. Unsustainable cacao farming methods have resulted in unproductive land that forces farmers to clear more rainforest.  The ironic thing is that cacao grows much better (and quite sustainably) in rainforests — but farming that way just isn’t as productive or profitable and can’t supply consumer demand in developed countries. We are part of the problem because we expect and buy cheap chocolate.
  3. Cacao farmers often struggle with poverty and poor working conditions while the real profits go to big corporations.  One problem with switching to growing cash crops is that farmers destabilize their own food and water supply. Another problem is that kids in farming families that are just barely making it can’t be spared to go to school.
  4. Chocolate often contains palm oil. So even if the cocoa was fairly traded, the palm oil in your chocolate bar could be responsible for deforestation. The palm oil industry is incredibly dirty. If you didn’t see the recent story about the bounty hunters and the pregnant orangutan, it might just make you a little disgusted at being human.
  5. Chocolate travels a long way from where it is grown, to where it is processed, and to where it is sold and consumed. Like tea and coffee, it comes with a high carbon footprint. I think we’ve forgotten that all of these things are luxuries.
It’s not all bad news: chocolate can be produced sustainably, and we can support the people who are doing it right. But it’s going to cost more, and we’re going to have to eat less of it. The way I see it, knowledge is a responsibility to change. I’ll be researching before reaching for my next box of cocoa powder or bag of chocolate chips. Will you?
How do you feel about chocolate and its associated problems? Would you give it up or change your buying habits?
Photo by miguelpdl

29 responses to this post.

  1. I approach chocolate in much the same way as I approach meat. I only eat free range meat and as this costs more I only eat meat every second day. I aim to only eat fair trade/organic chocolate and I really do treat it as a luxury. Such an approach is also better for the waistline 🙂


    • Hi Nicola,

      I think that’s a generally better approach than the cheap-and-lots-of-it one that mainstream America favors. Appreciating what you consume is definitely the way to consume smarter and greener. I don’t eat animals for ethical reasons, but I find myself wondering: is chocolate (and other luxury goods) really very different?


  2. Posted by Storybook on 01/30/2012 at 15:08

    I agree chocolate is a sinfully delicious, ugly thing, and I carry the guilt of eating, drinking and loving it! I do buy only Ghirardelli which rids me of slavery and palm oil guilt (as far as I know) but not the other environmental underpinnings. Your article puts back into focus what my taste buds want me to forget…


    • Hi Storybook,

      Is Ghirardelli fair trade? I am a huge fan of baking with their chocolate chips (that and Scharffen Berger’s), but I don’t know enough about their policies. I’ll have to look into it. I bake with chocolate more than I eat it plain, for some reason. Writing this post has given me a chocolate craving, though.

      I wish our tastebuds did agree with our ethical and environmental considerations! That would make things so much easier.


  3. Luckily I rarely eat chocolate, but ask me to give up coffee… I definitely make up excuses for my coffee consumption. While working at a local coffee roasting business, I learned that most specialty coffee is by nature organic, shade grown, and free trade. One coffee plantation supposedly does support an entire community. But then it has to be shipped half way across the world before it makes it to my home. I imagine that the coffee that most people drink, however, (the beans that Folgers comes from) is not particularly sustainable and causes similar environmental and human rights damages as chocolate.


    • Hi Emily,

      See, I don’t really get coffee, but I am a devoted tea drinker. The day I have to choose between tea and chocolate is going to be a rough day! There are carob trees in my neighborhood, though, so I guess I could start cultivating a taste for super local carob and saving the real stuff for special occasions.


  4. This post is a bit of a bummer. I’m all for being green until, that is, it requires painful sacrifice on my part, and then I become your typical greedy American consumer. I can’t help thinking, what difference will it make if I give up “chocolate/coffee/driving/meat” when everyone else still does it? Why should I be miserable when it’s not going to make a difference?

    But since this is probably what most people who don’t want to change something think, I’m really only perpetuating the status quo. How do others make themselves make painful changes for the sake of the environment?


    • Hi Candi,

      The whole idea of sacrifice is a terrible turn-off, isn’t it? I think Cat has said some choice words on this subject before. 🙂 I’m always caught between thinking, yes, we’ll have to make some real changes, some hard changes — and the fact that there is no way a green movement based on this idea will ever be an easy sell. I think the most likely scenario is that we will start treating chocolate like the luxury it is when our climate starts putting sharp limits on how much can be produced.

      As for the motivation thing…I definitely see where you’re coming from, and it’s one of the reasons I still have my car. But for other issues, it’s not (for me, anyway) about sacrificing for the planet so much as making decisions my conscience is more at ease with. Giving up meat was something I did because I didn’t want to be personally responsible for slaughter. I must also confess that I’m not a die hard chocoholic, so the idea of paying more and eating it less often to reduce my share in human slavery doesn’t appall me. I’m not ready to swear off chocolate for life, and I don’t think I need to.

      There are definitely things that I am not willing to sacrifice to be lower impact. My cat, my pottery, my internet connection. I think the key is to first let go of what you don’t enjoy or need — there are so many aspects of our lives that we can green without feeling any pinch — and then work on making the high impact things you do love as green as possible.


  5. I use to eat chocolate all the time, but not much anymore for the above reasons and because of the caffeine. If I do have chocolate it is always organic and fair-trade! Thanks for the info!


    • Hi Good Girl Gone Green!

      Sorry about the delay in posting your comment. Akismet has been overzealous lately. I think that’s a great way to go green — find something better, but also enjoy it less often. I find that just a little really good chocolate satisfies me more than a Snickers bar. I do get caught if someone brings in a big bowl of M&Ms at the studio or gives me something I wouldn’t normally buy…and I’m also finding that it’s a bit harder to find fair trade certified cocoa for baking (chips, powder, etc.).


  6. Wow. That’ll make you think twice before indulging won’t it? Fortunately, chocolate is a rare treat for me… as in maybe once every other month or so. Guess I’ll try to be a more conscientious consumer when I do choose to indulge.

    The thing that really got to me about this post was the tidbit about how the cacao actually grows better in the rain forest, but since it’s harder to harvest that way, they just chop down the forest, so they can keep up with “consumer demand.” UG.

    For me, so much of this boils down to two things. 1 – There are too many people on this planet. and 2 – Our culture has lost track of what a “luxury” is. I mean, think of it… if there were only a billion people on the planet instead of 7 billion, and people regarded chocolate as a rare treat that they got to enjoy every once in a while as opposed to something they can have as much as they want of whenever they want it, at least 90% of the problem would go away.

    But I guess most environmental quandaries could be solved that way, and I don’t see any evidence of either thing happening. Sigh.


    • Hi Cat,

      Yeah…a whole lot of things would be easier to fix if our population were significantly smaller and/or our consumption habits were significantly smarter. The million dollar question is: how do we get there?

      I’m with you on chocolate. I enjoy it, but I don’t typically crave it, and can easily go a month or two without realizing that I didn’t have any. However…writing this post paradoxically made me want chocolate, so I dug some out of the cupboard. Hmm. Not quite the effect I was hoping for.


      • Ha! Well, it also caused me to go scarf down one of the last remaining brownies from the batch I made last week. Guess there’s great power in suggestion!


        • Don’t crave chocolate? What? How? The boyfriend and I are constantly swearing off candy at the weekend grocery trip, only to cave mid-week. I blame my mother for naming me candi (and you thought that was just an internet name. ha!)


        • I think perhaps I just don’t have the chocolate gene. As a kid I HATED chocolate. I though it was the most disgusting thing ever created. At Halloween, I’d trade my brother all of my chocolate for all of his hard candy.

          I’ve come to a place where I like a little chocolate now and then, but I still can’t stomach chocolate ice cream.. yuck!


  7. Chocolate is my one HUGE vice. I don’t drink coffee. Hardly drink alcohol. Am a lifelong vegetarian. Grow much of my own food. But chocolate? Well, its bad. All that I can say is that I am trying to cut back. I really am. And at least replace it with other sweets, baked from something local and made with organic cane sugar or, preferably, honey. I’d been doing pretty well until today – when I ate chocolate chips WHILE reading this post! :O


    • Hi Green Bean,

      I think there’s some wiggle room for our vices! I certainly think you’ve done your part (and more) in many different ways that you don’t need to beat yourself up over the few things you love but aren’t green. If you’re aware of the issues and trying to do something about them, you have my kudos. (Not that you need them!)


  8. I buy Chocosol ( raw chocolate… my favourite is their 5 chili flavour, which almost burns my mouth as it melts… and I’m glad that it was fairly traded for at sustainable cacao plantations. I’m also glad that the beans are stone-ground using pedal power right here in Toronto, and delivered to farmers’ markets and stores by bike, too. But I can’t change that it’s coming from Central America. However, as you pointed out in one of your replies to a previous comment, I too am a tea drinker, and that stuff travels WAY farther and isn’t always sustainably grown or free of bad labour practices. And I consume way more tea than chocolate and would have a hard time giving it up, having taken up the habit after giving up coffee! You just can’t win. 😦


    • Hi Andrea,

      Wow, that sounds awesome. I’m given chocolate more than I buy it, so I sometimes have stuff of questionable sustainability around. I really only buy stuff from my favorite local chocolatier. She grows her own raspberries and makes them into the most amazing dark chocolate raspberry truffles. I like supporting her independent local business, but now I’m wondering a bit if the chocolate she uses is slavery free. I am looking up Guittard right now and they state that they are not yet exclusively fair trade. Hmm… 😦 Maybe I’ll talk to her about it next time I’m there.

      I haven’t fully looked into the sustainability of tea, but I’m sure it’s not too pretty, either. Sigh.


  9. Last year my fourth grade son did an Africa unit at school. The kids each chose a country to report to the class on in depth. My son fairly randomly chose the Ivory Coast, thinking he would emphasize soccer, his favorite sport. I helped him gather a number of chapters and articles about the Ivory Coast and I stuck one in on the Chocolate industry there and their use of child slaves.

    My son was shocked when he learned kids his age were slaves in “his country” (kids quickly take so much ownership of their project topics). He decided there and then never to eat Hershey’s chocolate again (it’s now going on a year and 1/2) and, in my opinion best of all, he focused on the Chocolate industry when he presented the Ivory Coast to his class. He said many of his friends were as shocked as he was.

    I learned from this that whenever we can show our own kids the lives and situations of other kids their ages, they are much more likely to take the new knowledge in. And if there is an area of interest included (chocolate or soccer for example) they are that much more likely to learn the details, however difficult.


    • Hi Suzita,

      I’m absolutely with you that educating kids is essential to creating a more sustainable future. Good for you for bringing that article to your son’s attention, and good for him for educating his classmates! It’s sad that plenty of adults will hear the same news, shrug, and continue buying Hershey’s. At the same time, it’s hard to educate without coming off as preachy and judgmental — especially when the chocolate was a gift from a family member or friend who meant well. I don’t know how I would begin to have that conversation!


  10. I actually found that once I switched to the “good” stuff (fair trade, organic, and not available for 89 cents at the local Walgreens) for a significant enough period of time, cheap American chocolate no longer holds any real draw for me. I never thought it could happen, but it did…

    The other way to look at the whole question is this: rather than thinking “I won’t buy chocolate from non-fair-trade sources,” I try to think “I will buy only fair trade organic chocolate, and support the businesses that are supporting healthy trade.” Same with coffee–consumer demand creates supply, so if we buy the good stuff, there will be more companies producing it. I hope.

    Chocolate? Ugly? Naah, chocolate is a beautiful thing. And thus deserves to be treated with honor, love, and respect. And enjoyed.


    • Hi Jenn,

      I agree, good chocolate is much more intense (and intensely satisfying) than the stuff that’s mostly sugar anyway. Our tastebuds are definitely capable of being re-educated into agreeing with our ethics. To some extent, I also agree that shifting consumer demand will create healthier and more humane systems for production. At the same time, I wonder if the amount we want to consume of these unnecessary luxury items like coffee, chocolate, and tea — however ethically produced — is still more than the planet can ideally handle. I imagine that even growing chocolate sustainably in rainforests causes some loss of biodiversity and animal/plant life, and in any case, that method doesn’t produce enough to meet global demand. I think consumer demand needs to not only be shifted towards the ethical and sustainable, but also decreased when it comes to things we simply don’t need.

      I love the last line of your comment. If we treated all the things we use and enjoy with that much love, I think we and the planet would be infinitely better off for it.


  11. My chocolate heart is broken, indeed. I just think of the little children who are slaves and cannot get past that. I teach my kids about fair trade, and only buy fair trade. Now my son yells across the store. Mommy! This one! This one is fair trade! I smirk as 5 shoppers take notice… If a 6 year- old can know the difference and choose better – why can’t they?

    Chocolate has alway been an impulse buy for me. If fair trade is not available I just skip it now. I keep some fancy fair trade bars deep in the cupboard at home. Sometimes I sneak it when no one is looking so my stash remains undiscovered… 🙂


    • Hi Sherry,

      That’s great that your kids are already making better choices than most adults. I think as we get older we come up with more excuses and rationalizations to continue doing whatever we want to do. I mean, look at the whole climate change thing. We have enough scientific evidence to know that our current behavior is a problem and is already resulting in some pretty serious issues, yet as a species we seem determined to stick our heads in the sand.

      A secret stash of fair trade chocolate in the cupboard sounds like a great idea! Did this post make you crave chocolate, too? 😉


  12. […] Unfortunately, the farming and transport required to produce chocolate in the United States takes a heavy environmental and social toll, including deforestation and unfair labor practices.  So what’s a chocoholic to […]


  13. […] But if you must, always look for fair-trade/organic chocolate and if you are wondering why read this. […]


  14. […] But if you must, always look for fair-trade/organic chocolate and if you are wondering why, Jennifer from Not easy to be green explains it all. […]


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