Fair Trade Cocoa Powder: The Dark Side of the Cocoa Industry

A large cacao pod and dried cacao beans in a metal spoon

Can you imagine a life without chocolate? I don't even want to think about it. Without the cacao bean, we wouldn't have chocolate. So it's safe to say that the cacao bean may be one of man's greatest discoveries. This leads to chocolate ⏤ quite possibly one of man's greatest creations. From raw cacao nibs and organic cacao butter to fair trade cocoa powder and rich dark chocolate, it's safe to say we've fallen in love with anything and everything made from the cacao bean!

Cacao... nibs... fair trade... ⏤ what do all these mean? In this post, Wildly Organic will discuss the difference between cacao vs. cocoa, describe how different cocoa products are made, and explain why it’s best to purchase organic Fairtrade cacao powder.

Before we dive in, let’s clarify some spelling differences you’ll see below. Fair trade refers to products that are produced and purchased following ethical guidelines. There is no regulation on this term, so any brand could use it without actually following fair trade practices.

Fairtrade refers to products that are Fairtrade-certified after meeting rigorous standards and passing meticulous process inspections. Only certified products can claim this accolade. 

Cacao vs. Cocoa

Their spellings are so close you may not see a difference until closer inspection. However, cacao and cocoa are two different products. Whether free trade or fair trade, cocoa powder and cacao powder both come from the same tree pod. Cacao is the term used when the resulting powder is not alkalized, or Dutch-processed ⏤ as in, raw cacao. The bean is cold-pressed and is the most nutrient-dense form of powder from the cacao tree. It is high in essential minerals and still contains copious amounts of antioxidants because it has not been heated. All the enzymes are intact, and the fat is removed (making cacao butter) so it’s a dry product. When researchers tout the benefits of chocolate, they're referring to cacao powder. (Read about the 8 Amazing Benefits Of Cacao to learn more.) 

Cocoa, on the other hand, is the alkalized, or Dutch-processed, version of cacao. It is not still raw since it has been heated. The flavor is vastly different from its raw sibling. If you've ever purchased conventional or fair trade cocoa powder in a dark brown container, this is the product you bought. Because of the high-heat processing, much of the nutrition, including enzymes and antioxidants, are destroyed, resulting in a far less nutrient-rich product. When I refer to cocoa in this post, I am referring to the industry as a whole ⏤ not a specific product. Wildly Organic sells Fairtrade Cacao Powder, not cocoa; yet cocoa/cacao/chocolate are all part of the same industry.

A Quick Background Check on Cocoa

Cocoa beans and broken pieces of dark chocolate on a white wooden surface

Before we delve into the difference between free trade vs. fair trade cocoa powder, let’s walk you through the history and market size of the cocoa industry.

Originating from Central and South America, cocoa was considered one of the most valuable crops ever since the Mayans and Aztecs developed techniques to cultivate it on a wider scale. It was even used as a form of currency and was a status symbol of wealth. To this day, we still clearly value cocoa like it's gold! Cocoa has become a BIG business. We are obsessed. The global chocolate industry was valued at $137 billion in 2019 and $138.5 billion in 2020 

Global cocoa bean production is closing in on five million tons during the 2020-2021 period (source). Most of the cacao plantations are in countries that don't actually consume much of their product. Cacao beans are processed after harvest and often sold as conventional or fair trade cocoa powder in high-income countries. The United States alone is responsible for consuming over 20% of the world's cocoa. Yet, you'll look long and hard to find a cacao tree growing here! With most cacao production taking place in developing countries, buying organic Fairtrade cacao powder is crucial to support ethical business practices in low-income nations.

Production: From Plant to Powder

Cacao production is largely concentrated in Africa, with smaller production output coming from Central America. Collective production from African nations contributes to over 70% of the world's cocoa. The Ivory Coast is the leading producer of cocoa and accounts for around 35% of the world's supply. 

Most of the free and fair trade cocoa powder on store shelves are produced by small family farms in West Africa. The World Cocoa Foundation estimates that 80% to 90% of cocoa farms are actually small-scale enterprises. These farms support the livelihoods of five to six million farmers in some of the poorest nations in the world. Wildly Organic’s Fairtrade cacao comes from the Dominican Republic and, to a lesser extent, Peru.

Producing the cacao bean, then processing and preparing it to become the desired end result ⏤ cocoa powder ⏤ is a time- and labor-intensive process. This process begins with the cultivation of the cacao bean. First, the cacao pods are harvested. Next, the beans are extracted from the flesh of the pod. The beans go through a careful fermentation process that can take several days, and manual stirring to avoid the growth of mold and harmful pathogens. Then, the now-fermented beans are dried. This is also a touchy process and requires constant monitoring. 

To make conventional or fair trade cocoa powder, fermented and dried cacao beans are roasted. Roasting enriches the flavor of the cacao bean and allows for the removal of the rough husk through a process called winnowing. While enhancing its flavor, the roasting process can destroy many of the cacao beans’ antioxidants. Wildly Organic Fairtrade cacao powder and other Fairtrade-certified cacao products, on the other hand, are made from very lightly roasted cacao beans, helping them retain most of their antioxidants. After a light roast at low temperature, the cacao beans are crushed into nibs, ground into liquor, and pressed to separate its fat from solid content. The remaining solid content is the cocoa powder you buy to make chocolate drinks and desserts.

Hopefully, you will appreciate exactly what goes into cocoa production as you consider what is a fair price. While it's easy to conjure a romantic image of a chocolatier working in their white lab coat, singing along with the Oompa Loompas and the quirky Willy Wonka, the reality is far from it.

The Dark Side of the Cocoa Industry

A person with open hands holding cacao beans

Unfortunately, beneath the rich deliciousness of chocolate lies the dark side of the cocoa industry. We need to know what goes on in the cocoa industry as we strive to make ethical, sustainable choices for our families. Holidays such as Valentine's Day, Easter, and Halloween are very chocolate-focused. Perhaps we need to reconsider our chocolate-buying habits. Below, we will discuss why it’s important to buy Fairtrade cocoa powder.

In the poor African countries where most of the world’s cocoa is produced, the cocoa industry is susceptible to child exploitation, environmental degradation, and social injustices (source). Volatile weather conditions, civil unrest, and ongoing child labor exploitation have presented huge challenges for the Ivory Coast's cocoa industry (source). Furthermore, workers on cocoa farms struggle to earn a living wage. A changing climate, variable crop yields, fluctuating demand for conventional and fair trade cocoa powder, diseased trees, and rising production costs cause unstable cocoa prices. Consequently, this only perpetuates the poverty cycle many farmers find themselves stuck in. 

Along with ensuring poor farmers are paid fair prices for their crops, buying organic Fairtrade cacao powder can also help reduce child labor in cocoa-producing nations. Child-slave labor is the most prevalent problem tainting the cocoa industry. Many of these stories of child labor are coming from cacao farms in West Africa. Across the Ivory Coast and Ghana alone ⏤ where the greatest portion of cocoa is being produced ⏤ a U.S. Department of Labor report concluded that over 1.5 million children are working in cocoa production. 

The International Labor Organization reports that many of these children have been trafficked and consequently, are less likely to receive an education. Many children working in cocoa farms have been sold into slavery by their parents with the hope of securing paid work and funneling money back to the family. When you buy non-Fairtrade cocoa powder, you may be indirectly supporting child slavery. These children are often forced to work 12-hour days and are frequently beaten (source). They work under hazardous conditions using machetes to split cacao pods in their hands and spray pesticides without protective gear.

Fair Trade Cocoa Principles

A young African man smiling and holding a wooden basket on top of his head

Cocoa products can and should be Fairtrade-certified. What does Fairtrade-certified cocoa powder mean? Fair trade is a trading partnership that seeks greater equity in the global cocoa trade. As an advocate for disadvantaged producers, fairtrade works to secure better trading conditions. The Fairtrade logo is displayed on certified products like Wildly Organic’s Fairtrade cacao powder to help consumers quickly identify a product that has been produced in an ethical manner. 

When you see Fairtrade cocoa powder, it means the cocoa producer has complied with 

a rigorous set of standards relating to social, economic, and environmental criteria to become Fairtrade certified. These criteria include securing better labor conditions, advocating for a higher price for the producer, and eradicating child-slave labor. The Fairtrade America principles include:

Fair Prices

Producers receive a guaranteed minimum floor price (or the market price, depending on which is higher) thereby eliminating some of the volatility found in the commodity's trading price.

Better Labor Conditions

Child and slave labor are strictly prohibited under Fairtrade Certification. Furthermore, farmworkers are provided with safe working conditions and sustainable wages. Therefore, buying Fairtrade cocoa powder supports the ethical and humane treatment of farmworkers in poor countries.

Transparency and Democracy

Transparency is required for Fairtrade certification. Therefore, farmers are able to democratically decide together where their premium funds are spent.

Community Development

An African woman drying cacao beans out in the sun

Farmers and workers are able to invest in education, training, and organic certification because they receive a fair price for their Fairtrade-certified cocoa. Therefore, when you buy products like Wildly Organic’s Fairtrade cacao powder, you are helping some of the most underdeveloped communities in the world to thrive and prosper.

Environmental Sustainability

The use of GMOs and agrochemicals are strictly prohibited under Fairtrade standards. Farmers are educated and encouraged to adopt more sustainable farming practices. Buying Fairtrade-certified cocoa powder reduces the environmental impact of cacao farming, preserving valuable ecosystems for future generations. Despite all of this, Fairtrade-certified products still only capture a small share of the overall market at around 0.5%.

Direct Trade

Importers of cocoa products can purchase directly from Fairtrade producers, eliminating the unnecessary middle man. Thus, more money is funneled back to the original producer, empowering them financially in the marketplace as a result.

Are Wildly Organic's Cacao Products Fairtrade-Certified?

YES! Wildly Organic's famous Chocolate Syrup and Fermented Cacao Powder proudly display the Fairtrade Certification logo. Furthermore, our organic certification guarantees the best quality Fairtrade cocoa powders available, while helping small-scale farmers, supporting sustainable farming practices, and promoting fair labor standards. Wildly Organic is dedicated to ensuring that our cocoa farmers receive a fair price for their quality products. We love chocolate just as much as anyone, so we hope to provide you with high-quality, sustainable, and fair cacao products!

From dreadful working conditions to child slavery, many poor people suffer to produce your favorite feel-good food. Fortunately, you can reduce the injustice that takes place in the cocoa industry by making more ethical purchasing decisions. Buying Fair Trade cocoa products will allow you to enjoy your beloved comfort food while supporting human rights in the world’s most vulnerable communities.

If you want to buy Fair Trade cocoa powder, you’re in the right place. Wildly Organic offers a large selection of ethical cacao products for the ultimate feel-good experience. Shop our Fairtrade-certified cacao products and get free US shipping on orders over $49.

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