On Valentine's Day, traditionalists typically give roses and chocolate to their sweethearts. Choosing those roses is simple: a dozen, long-stemmed, red ones say it best. But the choice of chocolate is more complicated: Will it be Swiss or Belgian, milk or dark, conventional or artisanal, a bar or in a box?
If that's not enough to make your head swirl, there's another choice that, for an increasing number of consumers, is the most important of all: the option to buy chocolate that has been Fair Trade Certified.
When a product such as coffee, tea, or chocolate bears the trademarked stamp Fair Trade Certified, it means that farmers were paid fair wages (often two to three times more than standard), working conditions were humane, sustainable agricultural practices were followed, and that all of these were closely monitored.
"The result is transformative for small-scale, family farmers, allowing them to invest in their children, their homes, and their communities, often bringing in basics like running water and electricity," says Paul Rice, president and CEO of TransFair USA, which oversees certification of fair-trade products in the United States, including acting as middleman between more than 1.4 million small family farmers in 60 countries around the world and American retailers and suppliers.
The term "fair trade" is perhaps best known in relation to coffee. The poverty and plight of coffee growers in developing countries has been well publicized and today, consumers can easily find fair-trade coffee in their local supermarket.
Chocolate is not far behind. Companies such as Equal Exchange, Divine Chocolate, and Theo Chocolate, among others, are making Fair Trade Certified chocolate available and raising awareness about the ethical difference between buying a mass-produced brand of candy bar versus a bar of chocolate that is Fair Trade Certified.
Their efforts seem to be paying off. Despite its higher price when stacked up against conventional chocolate bars, Fair Trade Certified chocolate appears to be selling briskly in more than 1,600 retail locations around the US, including many natural foods stores and some major supermarkets.
Churches and schools have been among the biggest cheerleaders of Fairly Trade chocolate, where the message has resonated with younger consumers who embrace socially responsible choices.
Even the social networking website Facebook is buzzing with fan groups of fair-trade chocolate, some with members numbering into the thousands from countries all over the world.
Enthusiasm for chocolate with a heart may be growing, but it remains to be seen if demand for fairly traded sweets is having an impact on the $13 billion a year that Americans spend on cocoa products.
There's still more to be done, says Debra Music, vice president of sales and marketing at Theo Chocolate in Seattle. "Fair Trade chocolate is getting onto people's radar screen," she says, "but so far, it's mostly in urban areas and in southern California, where the green movement is burgeoning."
To help spread the word, Theo Chocolate – the first factory to produce organic, Fair Trade chocolate in the US – offers tours seven days a week. Many of the people who take the tour, says Ms. Music, don't realize that their favorite treat comes from an actual agricultural crop, the cocoa bean, nor do they know where it comes from – cacao trees grown in Central and South America, West Africa, and the Dominican Republic. Even fewer consumers are aware that the cocoa harvest sometimes occurs under awful labor conditions for little or no pay.
Perhaps the most troubling practice in the chocolate industry is that of forced child labor, which is generally believed to be most prevalent in West Africa, the source of 70 percent of the world's cocoa, and particularly in the Ivory Coast. In the Fair Trade system, child labor and forced labor are strictly forbidden.
It's an issue that deeply concerns Rodney North, a spokesman from Equal Exchange, based in Massachusetts, which partners with cooperatives of cocoa farmers around the world, especially in the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Peru.
"The child labor problem in West Africa was brought to light in 2002," says Mr. North, "Since then, there's been only glacial progress." But he is the first to admit that as disturbing as the working conditions can be around the production of cocoa, consumers remain reluctant to spend as much as $5 more for a Fair Trade Certified chocolate bar than for a regular candy bar just for the purpose of improving human lives.
Bottom line: It also has to taste good.
Or as North puts it: "Everyone has their reason for buying Fair Trade Certified chocolate. Some people tell us they buy our Panama Bar [extra dark chocolate] just for its great taste. The product can carry a message, but it's hard for a message to carry the product." 3 cups strawberries, whole with stems