News that big brands like Quality Street and Mondelez are starting vegan chocolate ranges before Christmas has led farmers to take to social media and announce they will boycott these brands for greenwash and ‘virtue signalling’.
But as we know first-hand, dairy-free chocolate can, and does, support sustainable farming – even if it’s not the dairy farmers – and perhaps even more so by focusing purely on the main ingredient in chocolate: cacao.
Flavourful cacao trees command the best prices but are the hardest to grow with the lowest yields. Instead of following the rest of the industry using dairy and other flavourings (such as vanilla) to disguise flaws in industrial cacao, or resorting to chemical processing to produce a homogenous-flavoured brown mass, we use minimal processing of endangered fine-flavour cacao, which celebrates the natural diversity and flavours of different species of cacao tree. Avoiding dairy means we can put more focus on fine cacao and the relationships with these farmers.
Fine cacao farms are important: they occupy just five per cent of world trade in chocolate while protecting thousands of cultivars and hundreds of endangered species of fine cacao. These delicate trees require diverse organic rainforests, larger shade trees, no chemical inputs and switched-on farmers. Conversely, heavy-cropping, unpleasant, industrial cacao trees thrive on full sun, fuel deforestation and grow easily.
1.5 million children are illegally growing cacao in Ghana and the Ivory Coast today in Ghana and the Ivory Coast today. The reality is that accredited ‘ethical’ chocolate comes from farms mostly in Ghana and the Ivory Coast where human rights abuses, child slavery and consumer ignorance drive a successful 400-year-old anonymous trade system.
In contrast, buying cacao directly (straight from the farmer) means we have short, transparent chains. No middlemen, no mark-ups, no schemes. We believe this system is far more effective than familiar accreditation schemes which (for chocolate) are broken, unfair and misleading. Direct trade income (above the commodity base-rate) for the farmer is many times higher than fair trade premiums, not to mention industry norms. Plus there are no fees to join or additional costs. Proper pay encourages fine farmers to continue expanding their natural diverse rainforests.
More beneficial, complex, flavourful and challenging than a champagne vine, we believe fine cacao farmers deserve at least equivalent reward. Direct trade is about improving quality of life for farmers and quality of cacao, long-term.
But the power also lies with consumers who can help fine cacao farmers thrive. You can reject artificially cheap, processed chocolate and make a real change to farmers, families and forests at origin while you enjoy the best of fine chocolate. We might be dairy-free but there’s nothing missing from our care for farmers.