Can the fair trade movement deliver guilt-free chocoholism?

Ghost Chile chocolates on display in the retail store at Theo Chocolates in Fremont. (Photo by Steve Ringman for The Seattle Times)

When you’re selling a global product sourced in poor countries, there’s no simple path to a clear conscience. 

I love chocolate. I’m just as likely to polish off a bag of Cadbury mini eggs (yes, I know it’s still a month before Easter) as I am to pose as a tourist to scam free samples at Fran’s Chocolates downtown.

But I also want my favorite indulgence to be ethical. That’s what recently drew me to one of Theo Chocolate’s daily tours of its Fremont factory. The subject is chocolate, but the conversation is often political.

Kids press their face against the glass during a tour at Theo Chocolate in Fremont. (Photo by Sandi Heinrich)
Kids press their face against the glass during a tour at Theo Chocolate in Fremont. (Photo by Sandi Heinrich)

“What about Ivory Coast?” asks one guest after tasting a dark-chocolate bar created in partnership with The Jane Goodall Institute (part of the proceeds go to the institute’s chimpanzee-conservation efforts).

“How do you decide what countries to buy from?”

It’s estimated that Americans purchased more than 127 million pounds of candy this Valentine’s Day–much of it chocolate. But our love for chocolate cannot be contained in one day. In fact, February is National Chocolate Month, providing a graceful bridge between the chocolate orgies of Valentine’s and Easter.

But like many agricultural products that come from commodities produced in poor countries, the chocolate industry is plagued by abuses, from child labor to human trafficking.

But the most common issue says Kristy Leissle (also known as “Dr. Chocolate”) is poverty.

A burlap bag used to ship cacao beans to Seattle from Venezuela. Cacao requires a hot, humid climate to grow in so it can't be sourced locally. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)
A burlap bag used to ship cacao beans to Seattle from Venezuela. Cacao requires a hot, humid climate to grow in so it can’t be sourced locally. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

“We don’t value our agricultural workers,” says Leissle, who teaches a class on all things chocolate at UW Bothell and is education director at the Northwest Chocolate Festival, “Farmers aren’t paid enough.”

A 2012 report on the cocoa industry from the anti-human trafficking organization Stop The Traffik says that many cocoa farmers in West Africa live far below the poverty line.

According to the International Cocoa Organization, “Fair Trade” chocolate, which Leissle says sets a “price floor” below which cocoa buyers cannot negotiate, and directs a portion of proceeds toward development projects, only accounts for 0.5 percent of the cocoa market.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we have a reputation for going beyond just what tastes good. We also want to feel good about the products we consume.

“Seattle is fertile ground for people that are into artisanal food and unlocking the mystery behind where food comes from,” says Debra Music, co-founder of Theo Chocolate, which set up shop in Seattle because it was a good market for a socially and environmentally conscious chocolate bar.

Our region’s booming chocolate scene includes a Northwest Chocolatiers Guild, the Northwest Chocolate Festival (the largest gathering of chocolate makers in the world), and a weekly chocolate happy hour at a Queen Anne store.

All of this is creating what Leissle refers to as a “hotbed” for conversations about ethical chocolate.

Raw cacao beans. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)
Raw cacao beans. (Photo by Sarah Stuteville)

And Northwest Chocolate Festival founder Brian Cisneros suggests that chocolate is just behind coffee, “about five or 10 years,” for consumer awareness.

So what can you do to ensure that your chocolate is in line with your values?

Know your designations, Leissle says. “Fair trade” is good, but “direct trade” (where buyers buy cocoa directly from farmers) and “value added” (where chocolate is made in the countries where cocoa is produced) are also important.

Cisneros says to look for small, artisanal operations that are more likely to be working directly with farmers and ask your favorite chocolate makers where their chocolate comes from.

But everyone agrees there’s no one way to ensure that your chocolate is perfect.

Theo Chocolate founder Debra Music. (Photo courtesy Theo)
Theo Chocolate founder Debra Music. (Photo courtesy Theo)

Even Theo, which brands itself as the only “Organic, Fair Trade, Fair for Life certified, Bean-to-Bar chocolate factory in North America,” has come under fire from the Teamsters who have asserted the company is trying to discourage unionization here in Seattle.

Music is indignant at the accusation, calling it “ironic” for people to characterize Theo as “a corporate overlord” when they have “made so many decisions that have come at the expense, frankly, of profitability.”

Walking out into a chilly gray afternoon, the scent of cocoa clinging to my clothes and the politics of chocolate swimming in my head, I wondered if Seattle’s passion for this tropical product speaks to our longing for warmth and sunshine.

And I thought, doesn’t our city owe chocolate farmers something back for all the sweetness they’ve given us?

The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Theo tours are free. They cost $6.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at
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