Making the World Better Through Chocolate

By Lauren Young
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Studies show that chocolate-- at least dark chocolate when eaten in moderation -- good for you.

But is consuming chocolate good for the world we live in, too?

With green and eco-friendly designations popping up on everything from lightbulbs to auto mechanics, more chocoholics may have been asking that question on Valentine's Day, when 45% of us gave or received candy as a gift.

 But be warned: If you are looking to make a serious ecological statement with chocolate, it may be simpler to just pass on that box of bonbons. "There is no way chocolate can be made green when the major ingredient has to be shipped thousands of miles from where it's grown to where it's processed into chocolate," argues chocolate expert Clay Gordon, author of Discover Chocolate (Gotham Books).

Indeed, chocolate is harvested in rainforests close to the world's equator, although some growers are experimenting with crops in Hawaii and the southern tip of Florida. But putting aside the distance food travels from the point of production to consumption, many chocolatiers are trying to make a social as well as environmental impact on the way chocolate is grown, manufactured, and distributed.

From small players such as Chuao Chocolatier  in Carlsbad, Calif., to industry heavyweights like Hershey and Callebaut, chocolatiers are working directly with cacao farmers around the globe to promote better social and environmental policies. Some are focusing on their own communities to promote socially responsible and environmentally sustainable business practices. The success from such ventures can be quite sweet, literally: The end result is often better tasting -- albeit more expensive -- chocolate.

Doing Their Part

So what does it mean when a chocolate maker claims to be organic?

Frederick Schilling, founder of San Francisco-based Dagoba Organic Chocolate  and a leader in the sustainable chocolate movement, estimates at least 90% of the world's cacao crop "is organic by default.... The farmers can't afford chemicals," Schilling says. And that's probably a good thing since cacao trees tend to be highly sensitive to chemicals, which kill off little mites that fertilize crops.

In the U.S., more and more chocolate bars, including those from Dagoba, which is a unit of Hershey, bear the "certified organic" seal from the Agriculture Dept. These products must meet guidelines set by the National Organic Program. In addition to cocoa grown without pesticides, producers have to use certified organic sugar, essential oils, fruits and nuts in accordance with USDA regulations.

In addition to using organic and farm-fresh ingredients, plenty of chocolate makers are trying to tread lightly on the earth, too. Take Grenada Chocolate  in Grenada, West Indies. It gets 25% of the electricity used to run its factory from solar power. John & Kira's Chocolates, a specialty chocolatier in Philadelphia, does its part by offering products in small wooden boxes. The mail-order company relies heavily on shipping to transport its confections around the globe, so those reusable containers help offset some of the environmental footprint, says John Doyle, co-founder of John & Kira's. "The environmental aspect of the entire business is very complicated," Doyle says.

Original Beans, a new line of premium chocolates coming to market this spring, aims to go one step further to promote direct conservation. Each of its bars will feature a serial number that enables consumers to track online where actual trees are being replanted, along with an ecological snapshot of the region. "No one's perfect," says co-founder Lesal Ruskey. "As a company we see ourselves as on a quest to always be making smarter choices and savvier moves when it comes to preserving the planet's health."

Fair Trade Movement

Demand for chocolate is expected to grow by 50% over the next decade, driven by an increased interest in high-cocoa content chocolates. Fueling much of that projected growth will also be new chocolate lovers in China and India.

To keep up with that kind of demand, the business of chocolate is going to get even more complex, particularly in the area of "fair trade"-a term commonly associated with chocolate to guarantee a level of socially responsible business practices by giving producers in developing countries a fair, sustainable wage.

But the fair trade designation sparks some controversy among chocophiles. "How many co-ops have been certified fair trade?" asks author Gordon. By his calculations, there are an estimated 600,000 smallholder cacao farmers in the Ivory Coast alone and another 35,000 in Ecuador, just two of more than a dozen growing countries. "I would be surprised if there were as many as 1,000 fair-trade certified co-ops," Gordon says.

Adds Steve DeVries, founder of Denver's DeVries Chocolate: "A lot of this stuff is marketing. I can pay someone a lot more for better cacao than I pay for fair-trade or organic beans." DeVries, who handcrafts chocolate from bean to bar, says he pays the growers he works with directly four times more than what they'd get for fair-trade beans.

Dagoba's Schilling, who is also on the forefront of the fair-trade movement, admits the certification process is complex, and even precarious at times. "You can't just have one system that applies to every situation," Schilling says. "But if you go back to the most important question: Are things happening for the better? Definitely."

To satisfy your sweet tooth as well as your conscience, it may be simpler to follow DeVries' advice: "Buy the best-tasting chocolate you can," he says. "Chocolate that tastes good has to be well grown, and that means the whole production chain is good."

Check out the slide show to see chocolates that are green in production and, thankfully, not green in color.

(Lauren Young is a Personal Business editor for BusinessWeek .)