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The answer to that question is more complex than you might think.
Chocolate is undeniably fun, festive, and delicious. So it comes as no real surprise that the average American eats nearly 12 pounds of it each year.
But chocolate is also associated with a handful of environmental and human rights issues that are rarely discussed, but critically important.
Most of us base our chocolate-buying decisions primarily on taste, brand name, quality, and price. Some people will also check out the list of ingredients, perhaps looking to avoid dairy, or seeking a higher cacao or lower sugar content. Occasionally, labels like certified organic, fair trade, or vegan factor in.
But most people don’t stop to think about the human and environmental impacts of chocolate. Not to be a total kill joy, but these are, in fact, important considerations. It’s good to be informed so we can understand the tradeoffs associated with our choices and act accordingly…and in good conscience.
As with most modern-day decisions, there are a number of tradeoffs to consider when buying chocolate. Which is more important, organic or fair trade? And what do these labels really mean?
Ultimately, we reveal our preferences and priorities with our buying decisions. There is no one right answer or one perfect chocolate. But here are some issues to be aware of and to consider in your chocolate purchasing decisions.
1. Labor Practices
Only in recent years has it come to light that child labor, and in some cases, child slavery, are common practices on West African cocoa farms, where 75% of the world’s cocoa is produced. Children on cacao farms may endure long workdays, using heavy and potentially dangerous tools to harvest cacao pods. You can read more about child slavery and working conditions at the Food Empowerment Project, or check out the article It Takes More Than a Vegan Label to Make Chocolate Cruelty-Free.
Significant quantities of cocoa are also grown in Latin America, including the majority of the world’s organic cocoa. Although child and/or slave labor have not been documented in Latin America, it is possible that these practices may be in use on some farms.
Unfortunately, there is still no way to be 100% certain that the chocolate you’re buying has been made without the use of child labor or child slavery. The Fair Trade labeling process isn’t perfect, and can’t guarantee that products are made without the use of exploitive labor.
For now, the Food Empowerment Project has compiled a list of companies that make vegan chocolate products, and categorized them as recommended or not recommended based on whether they source their chocolate from areas where child slavery persists.
Aside from milk, the main ingredient in many chocolate products with major ethical implications is palm oil. From orangutan extinction to deforestation, the human, environmental, and animal impacts of palm oil are significant.
Awareness about this issue is on the rise, with petitions, media coverage, and even studies showing that investment in sustainable palm oil production is good for businesses. But there is still much work to be done. For more information about palm oil, and how you can get involved, check out our in-depth look at the issue: Are You Eating Dirty Oil?
In the meantime, the safest bet is to choose chocolate bars and chocolate-containing products that do not contain palm oil. Our guide to Vegan Products and Palm Oil has more information about specific companies and products.
3. Production Practices
Chocolate is so widespread we don’t really think of it as being exotic. But in reality, the inputs for most chocolate bars have almost certainly traveled at least halfway around the globe. Nearly all cacao is grown in West Africa or Latin America, and additives like vanilla and cane sugar are also grown in far-away places like Madagascar, Indonesia, South America, and Thailand.
The pervasiveness of chocolate in the United States is a product of our global economy. Goods are shipped around the world with incredible speed and regularity, making it possible to stock an impressive variety of chocolate bars at thousands of grocery, convenience, and speciality stores across the country.
Consuming chocolate certainly doesn’t make your carbon footprint any smaller. Until we start growing cacao in North America, perhaps the best we can do (aside from choosing not to consume chocolate) is to try to offset the environmental impacts of all that shipping. A couple of companies, including Chococo and Climate Change Chocolate, are trying to do just that.
Image Credit: EverJean/Flickr