Fair trade goods spread a little extra Valentine's love

Despite chocolate's link to love and its popularity as a Valentine's Day gift, the treat has a more sinful side beyond its decadence.

Chocolate has long been associated with love and romance. The Mayan culture linked cocoa to fertility, and even today, many believe chocolate is an aphrodisiac because it contains phenylethylamine, a chemical that when released in the brain, causes excitement that mimics the feeling of falling in love.

Despite chocolate's link to love and its popularity as a Valentine's Day gift, the treat has a more sinful side beyond its decadence. It's the exploitation of cocoa farmers and the use of child labour in the harvesting of cocoa beans in some areas that darkens chocolate's sweet image.

"The chocolate industry was built on the slave trade, and although things have changed today, cocoa farmers are still on the bottom rung of the whole production process for cocoa," says Barry Esau, head of communications at Cocoa Camino in Ottawa, one of the largest certified fair trade chocolate companies in Canada.

According to Esau, most of the cocoa trade is controlled by a handful of multinational companies that push down prices to increase profits.

"Most cocoa farmers struggle to even meet their basic needs," he says. "The worst example of this is in west Africa, where children are used as forced labour to harvest the cocoa."

"I just think it's sad that in our country, we would give our children a treat that exploits children in another country," says Debra Moore, one of the founders of the Nova Scotia-based Just Us, another of the larger certified fair trade chocolate and coffee businesses in Canada.

Growing awareness

In the last decade, people have become increasingly aware of these exploitative business practices and have started demanding an alternative. 

"Fair trade is certainly coming more into the public discourse," says Michael Zelmer of TransFair Canada, the certification body for fair trade products in Canada.

According to Zelmer, the increased public awareness is evident in the coffee sector, where fair trade alternatives are much more common and people have accepted paying a premium for the products.

At present, the nascent fair trade chocolate industry accounts for only 0.1 per cent of the chocolate consumed by Canadians each year, according to the International Cocoa Organization. However, the industry is growing rapidly. Between 2005 and 2006, the fair trade chocolate business grew 200 per cent in Canada, according to Zelmer.

And that's good news for the producers who benefit from fair trade practices. Cocoa Camino sources its cocoa from the La Siembra Co-operative. The cocoa comes from farmers in the Dominican Republic, and these producers are guaranteed a minimum price of $1,750 US per ton. If the market price for cocoa goes above this level, the farmers are paid a $150 US premium per ton.

This money is reinvested into the community through schools, infrastructure and improvement of farming practices. And while the premiums paid for the cocoa translate into a few extra dollars in terms of the cost to the consumer, the money makes a "huge difference" in the communities, according to Esau.

"I had an opportunity to visit the farmers in the Dominican Republic, and one example that really stood out for me was that they've been using their premiums to build water towers," he says. "The significance of that is that if the community has a water tower, the kids can go to school. When they don't have access to water like that, the kids can't go to school because they're helping their mothers go back and forth to collect water from the closest water source."

Trendy treats

While the market share for fair trade chocolate in Canada is tiny, more chocolatiers are getting into the business, most notably in the handmade, artisan chocolate sector, which is good news for people looking for an ethical Valentine's Day treat. 

Last year, Alicia Thoms, owner of Limetree Chocolates, decided to launch her handmade truffle business using certified fair trade cocoa from Cocoa Camino in her recipes.

"You can't buy a lot of specialty chocolates, like truffles, that are fair trade. It's mostly bulk chocolate or chocolate bars," says Thoms, who sells her chocolate at the Brantford Farmer's Market in Brantford, Ont.

Thoms herself is not licensed but uses products that are.

"There are lots of small chocolatiers out there who are just starting who are not certified, but we're using those products," she says.

In Ladysmith, B.C., Sara Redpath also sells artisan treats made from fair trade certified chocolate from Barry Callebaut in Quebec. Like Thoms, she herself is not licensed, because it would be "prohibitively expensive," she says.

Zelmer admits that the licensing process can potentially be a barrier for small entrepreneurs, because they must keep detailed logs to prove all ingredients used in their products that can be certified fair trade are certified. However, there is no additional fee for a small chocolatier who uses the TransFair logo on products made with chocolate from a fair trade-certified supplier.

On the producer end, there are also costs associated with becoming certified, but Zelmer says that "certification is an attempt to establish standards and a system where the entire supply chain can be monitored."

Among these standards is that the fair trade ingredients must comprise at least 20 per cent of the dry weight of the product. The percentage is relatively low because many ingredients, such as milk and flour, have no fair trade option. Zelmer says that fair trade companies usually pass the costs of certification, about 36 cents per kilogram of chocolate, and the increased cost of their ingredients on to consumers.

According to Thoms, the price of the chocolate from a company like Cocoa Camino is not that much different from mainstream premium chocolate suppliers.

"They produce a really high-quality chocolate product that's competitive with other premium chocolate products," she says. "Compared to low-end chocolate, it [the price] is high, but to other premium chocolates, it's competitive."

Unfortunately, most of the chocolate Canadians consume is a low-grade product, the price of which is noticeably lower than that of fair-trade chocolate.

"People are used to buying a cheap little chocolate bar or even if they're buying a box of chocolates, they might not be very fancy," says Zelmer. "This is where it becomes challenging."

Moore says that this will change over time, though.

"If you look at people 15 years ago, nobody would have imagined they would go out and spend the money they do on coffee drinks. Today, we accept that we want good coffee, and we'll pay for it," she says.

"You hear people talking about how once you try good chocolate, it's difficult to go back. Chocolate is taking on that same life that coffee did. People are now saying 'I don't mind spending $4 on a chocolate bar because I want good chocolate'."

Thoms says that she was a bit nervous charging a premium for her chocolates (a box of eight truffles costs $9), but in the past six months, even with the economic downturn, she has had only one comment about the price.

"Most people, they're willing to pay. It's a quality product and they're supporting a good cause," she says.

And if a $4 chocolate bar is not in the budget, Zelmer says there are other ways to influence companies to start dealing with producers more fairly.

"Contact these companies and send a message to the marketplace, these sorts of things can have a huge impact," he says.