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Originally published Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 8:29 PM

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Ethical chocolate is particularly sweet

Seattle, with its Northwest Chocolatier’s Guild and even a store with a chocolate happy hour, is proving to be fertile ground for a “Fair Trade” chocolate movement.

Special to The Seattle Times

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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 free tours of its Fremont factory. The subject is chocolate, but the conversation is often political.

“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 knows as “Dr. Chocolate”) is poverty.

“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.

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. 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.

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

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle's international connections. Sarah Stuteville: sarah@seattleglobalist.com. Twitter: @SeaStute

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