Fair Trade Cocoa: 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 the manufacturing of chocolate – quite possibly one of man's most significant achievements. From raw cacao nibs and organic cacao butter to fair trade cocoa 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 purchasing organic, ethical chocolate powder is the best option. 

Your Cocoa Glossary

Before we dive in and talk about fair trade cocoa, 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 within the cocoa industry could use it without following fair trade practices.

Fairtrade refers to products that are Fairtrade-certified after meeting rigorous standards and passing meticulous cocoa processing 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, 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 undergone heat. 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 manufacturing chocolate, they refer 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 unheated sibling. If you've ever purchased conventional or fair trade cocoa in a dark brown container, this is the product you bought. 

Because of the high-heat cocoa processing, much of the nutrition, including enzymes and antioxidants, is destroyed, resulting in a far less nutrient-rich product. 

When I refer to cocoa in this post, I am referring to the cocoa industry as a whole – not a specific product. Wildly Organic sells ethical cocoa 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, let’s walk you through the history and market size of the 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! Manufacturing of chocolate has become a BIG business. We are obsessed. The global cocoa 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 2022-2023 (source). 

Where Are All the Cacao Plantations?

Most cacao plantations are in countries that don't consume much of their product. Cacao beans are processed after harvest and are often sold as conventional or fair-trade cocoa 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 happening in developing countries, buying ethical chocolate is crucial to support ethical business practices in low-income nations.

Nations That Produce Your Favorite Sweet

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

Most free and fair trade cocoa on store shelves comes from small family farms in West Africa. The World Cocoa Foundation estimates that 80% to 90% of cocoa farms are 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.

Production: From Plant to Powder

The manufacturing of chocolate, from producing the cocoa bean, then processing and preparing it to become the desired result – cocoa powder – is a time- and labor-intensive process. This process begins with the cultivation of the cacao bean.

  1. First, farmers harvest cacao pods. 
  2. Next, they extract the beans from the flesh of the pod. 
  3. The beans go through a careful fermentation process. Fermentation of cacao beans can take several days, and manual stirring to avoid mold and pathogen growth. 
  4. Then, the now-fermented beans are dried. This dehydration step is also a touchy process and requires constant monitoring. 
  5. Fermented and dried cacao beans are roasted to make conventional or fair-trade cocoa. Roasting enriches the flavor of the cacao bean, allowing for the removal of the rough husk through a process called winnowing. While enhancing its taste, roasting can destroy many of the beans’ antioxidants. Wildly Organic’s ethical chocolate 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. 
  6. After a light roast at a low temperature, the beans are crushed into cacao nibs, ground into liquor, and pressed to separate their fat from solid content. 
  7. The remaining solid content is the fair trade cocoa powder you buy to make chocolate drinks and desserts.

Hopefully, you will appreciate what goes into the manufacturing of chocolate as you consider what a fair price is. 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 industry. We should know what happens in this industry as we strive to make ethical, sustainable choices for our families. 

Holidays like Valentine's Day, Easter, and Halloween are very chocolate-focused. Perhaps we need to reconsider our chocolate-buying habits. Below, we will discuss the importance of buying Fairtrade cocoa powder.

  • Inhumane Working Conditions

In the poor African countries where most of the world’s cocoa processing occurs, 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 significant challenges for the Ivory Coast's chocolate industry (source). 

  • Low Wages

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, diseased trees, and rising production costs cause unstable cocoa prices. Consequently, this only perpetuates the poverty cycle many farmers find themselves stuck in.

  • Child Labor

Along with ensuring poor farmers are paid fair prices for their crops, buying ethical chocolate can also help reduce child labor in nations involved in the manufacturing of chocolate. Child-slave labor is the most prevalent problem tainting the cocoa industry. Many of these child labor stories are coming from cacao farms in West Africa. 

Across the Ivory Coast and Ghana alone, where the highest portion of cocoa processing takes place, 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 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 into the family. 

When you buy non-Fairtrade cocoa, 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? Fairtrade is a trading partnership that seeks higher 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 ethical chocolate powder to help consumers quickly identify products with ethical manufacturing processes.

When you see Fairtrade cocoa, it means the producer has complied with a rigorous set of standards relating to social, economic, and environmental criteria in the cocoa industry 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 for the manufacturing of chocolate include:

  • Fair Prices

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

  • Better Labor Conditions

Fairtrade Certification strictly prohibits child and slave labor. Furthermore, they provide farmworkers with safe working conditions and sustainable wages. Therefore, buying Fairtrade cocoa supports the ethical and humane treatment of farmworkers in poor countries.

  • Transparency and Democracy

Transparency is necessary for Fairtrade certification. Therefore, farmers can democratically decide together where their premium funds go.

An African woman drying cacao beans out in the sun
  • Community Development

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

  • Environmental Sustainability

Fairtrade standards strictly prohibit the use of GMOs and agrochemicals. Farmers are educated and encouraged to adopt more sustainable farming practices during the manufacturing of chocolate. 

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 chocolate products within the cocoa industry can purchase directly from Fairtrade producers, eliminating the unnecessary middle-man. Thus, more money funnels back to the original producer and empowers them financially in the marketplace.

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 our farmers receive a fair price for processing cocoa and offering quality products. We love chocolate just as much as anyone, so we hope to provide you with high-quality, sustainable, and fair cacao products!

Shop Wildly Organic’s Ethical Cacao Powder

From dreadful working conditions to child slavery, many poor people suffer for the manufacturing of chocolate. Fortunately, you can reduce the injustice in the cocoa industry by making more ethical purchasing decisions. 

Buying Fair Trade 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, 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 U.S. shipping on orders over $49.

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