There’s a place in Guatemala with a beautiful view of Lake Atitlan where a Mayan man named Diego makes chocolate with his family. Starting from his grandmother’s recipe, he experimented until he had created a solid bar worth selling to the tourists nearby, and the result is unique in several ways.
Farmers from nearby Costa Sur (a major cacao growing region since the pre-Classic Maya period) bring their beans right to Diego in the most direct of direct trades. Without brokers or shippers to pay, Diego can pay farmers a price that beats fair trade premiums without breaking the bank.
The beans are processed less than they would be in a recipe from the European tradition—ground once, rather than continuously conched over several days. Diego sweetens the chocolate with panela, unrefined cane sugar that he buys from small Central American producers. The minimally refined ingredients make for a grainier chocolate than we’re accustomed to, but it melts in your mouth like nothing else.
The chocolate is sold in cigar-shaped rolls, wrapped with wax paper and then brightly colored tissue paper, and the pretty labels, showing that beautiful view of Lake Atitlan, are each colored by hand. Diego could have them printed, but he would rather employ someone locally for the job.
Fair trade programs might increase a grower’s profit margin by a few percent, but it will take a radical change in trade dynamics to shift the balance of economic inequity. Divine Chocolate represents one model for this change—the growers’ cooperative that supplies cacao for Divine bars also owns a majority 44% share in Divine. They have ownership over the entire supply chain, and reap the same benefits as any other shareholders.
Direct trade is another alternative to fair trade certification. Like fair trade, it is a term used by chocolatiers to describe their bean-buying practices. Rather than operating within the conventional chocolate supply chain and paying a premium for certification, direct trade chocolate companies establish relationships with individual growers. Direct trade chocolatiers often visit plantations to evaluate growing and working conditions while cultivating partnerships with individual farmers. Most of these are small “bean-to-bar” companies that do everything from roasting to conching to molding to sales in-house. Direct trade isn’t governed by a certifying body, so various companies interpret the term differently, but many have established codes of ethics that guide their buying practices.
Diego’s Chocolate in Guatemala and Madécasse in Madagascar offer a radical answer to concerns about trade dynamics and global economic inequality. By growing, producing, and packaging chocolate locally in their respective countries, they retain most of the profit that would otherwise go to chocolatiers in the global north.
Ultimately, fair trade and direct trade are incomplete solutions. Poverty and lack of education prevent many growers from producing better quality crops, driving a harder bargain with buyers, or moving into higher-profit segments of the chocolate supply chain. There is no single solution, but right now it seems like the best thing we consumers can do is support equitable alternatives that allow everyone in the chocolate industry to run successful businesses and build healthy communities.
Here are the responsible chocolates we’ve latched onto over the years:
Dandelion: I’ve only actually had one of these, but it was given to me by a friend (who lists me in IM as dandelion, which pleases me). Plus they’re bean-to-bar, so that’s something.
Divine: The company is partially owned by a cacao growers’ collective in Ghana. The collective holds two seats on the board of directors and, as shareholders, collective members receive dividends from Divine’s profits.
Diego’s chocolate: A lovely and uniquely made cigar-shaped chocolate that’s “Mayan-grown, Mayan-made from tree to chocolate in Guatemala”. We mention these folks in our book.
El Castillo del Cacao – I’ve bee living in León, Nicaragua for a couple weeks now, and this locally-produced organic chocolate seems to be THE local option.
Heavenly Organics: Not vegan! But so good, and they say they’re bee-friendly. They buy from Indian worker-owned cooperatives they helped make. Unsweetened dark chocolate with a honey + simple flavoring center. Great for folks like me who never wanted their peas touching their mashed potatoes (and shoved their chicken in the upholstery when I thought nobody was looking) at the dinner table growing up. Simple, yet interesting.
Madecasse: Produced in Madagascar! I liked their pink pepper & citrus one. They recently seem to have grown?
Taza: Direct trade, based in the east coast. Theirs is the round chocolate, usually kind of gritty like Mexican chocolate. So great.
Theo: Based in Seattle, they’re into making fair trade, organic chocolate accessible. I enjoy their mission statement, and I stock up on these to use as minor presents to give to friends & strangers as thank yous.
Tony’s Chocolonely: They’re also into making fair trade chocolate accessible, but they’re so single-minded about slave-free chocolate that they’re not focused on the organic aspect, and I can live with their logic. (They’re also aware of their environmental impact with dairy, which is a start.) I do like how they’re reframing and mainstreamifying the fair trade concept. Another chocolate that’s great for gift-giving.