Is Fair Trade Chocolate Really Fair? (an Honest Look at the Facts)


fair trade cacao bags

Since Fair Trade Certified chocolate usually costs more than non-certified alternatives, you may be wondering whether the additional price is really worth it.

Does the Fair Trade Certification actually make a difference?

And how is it supposedly better than conventional chocolate?

We’ll take a closer look at these and more questions, so that you can make an informed decision – and enjoy your favorite chocolate without a guilty conscience.

Also, make sure to check out our article about the 5 most sustainable fair trade chocolate brands.

What Does “Fair Trade” Mean?

One of the biggest challenges facing all kinds of production throughout the world is ensuring that products and resources are being obtained in an ethical and sustainable way.

For example, there are a lot of farms, especially in developing nations, that grow their crops in a way that is not sustainable.

Additionally, many of these farms have extremely poor working conditions and even use child labor and slave labor.

Purchasing products from such sources is obviously a big problem.

Historically, it was the cheapest way for such corporations to obtain the ingredients or products that they needed.

These cheap prices came (and still come) at the price of unethical farming and employment practices.

It’s why fair trade was developed.

Fair trade ensures that the trade between companies in developed countries (such as the U.S.) and producers in developing countries is fair.

Essentially, a fair trade agreement is an agreement in which the companies buying products from developing nations agree to pay a fair price, while producers in those developing nations agree to engage in ethical and sustainable production practices.

The History of Fair Trade Certification

The origins of fair trade can be traced back to 1946, when a volunteer for the Mennonite Central Committee visited a sewing class in Puerto Rico. There, she discovered that hard-working women were living in poverty.

She began helping to sell the lace they were sewing in the U.S. on their behalf, bringing back the profits to them.

Her work resulted in Ten Thousand Villages, which established a fair trade shop in 1958 and which went on to become the biggest fair trade retailer in North America.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many entrepreneurs throughout North America began meeting regularly and formed NAATO (North American Alternative Trade Organization), which would be incorporated as the Fair Trade Federation in 1994.

In 1989, the World Fair Trade Organization was established as a global network dedicated to fair trade organizations and committed to improving the livelihoods of disadvantaged people throughout the world through trade.

Finally, a Dutch NGO and a farmer organization came together in 1988 following a decline in coffee prices throughout the world to create the first fair trade certification initiative.

Not long after, numerous labeling initiatives were introduced throughout Europe, resulting in the FLO (Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International), which set fair trade certification standards and which supports, inspects, and certifies disadvantaged farmers in developing nations.

The FLO is now commonly referred to as Fairtrade International. There are many other fair trade certification systems throughout North America as well.

What Is the Impact of Fair Trade?

The goal of fair trade is obvious, but is it actually effective?

After all, what’s the point in purchasing products, such as cocoa, that are fair trade certified if it’s not actually having a positive impact?

The short answer: Yes, it is effective.

The world has shrunk and demand for resources and products has skyrocketed throughout the world.

Unfortunately, this increasing demand has encouraged compromise at the expense of the people who are doing the work, such as the farmers.

Fair trade has helped to protect both the workers and the environment. The following are some of the main ways that fair trade has affected the world in a positive manner:

Ensure Fair Income

Fair pricing between trade partners helps to ensure that workers are paid fairly, regardless of market prices.

Certification requires rigorous standards to ensure that producers and workers have the money needed to invest in both their lives and their work.

Empower Communities

Fair trade ensures that workers are given a voice in their workplace and their community, allowing them to make choices for the good of themselves as well as their community.

This is achieved through the right of democratic voting as part of membership of producer organizations, the ability for workers to organize, non-discriminatory employment practices, the banning of child labor, and more.

Improve Transparency

Fair trade helps ensure transparent trade relations and makes it easy to trace products as a result of thorough record-keeping of every transaction.

This means that practices can be monitored throughout the supply chain to ensure that they are ethical and sustainable, and allows consumers to trace where their products are coming from.

Encourage Sustainability

Strict environmental standards include the prohibition of GMOs and have resulted in the minimization of agrochemicals, the development of sustainable and safe pests and waste management plans, and the implementation of sustainable irrigation practices.

What Are the Different Fair Trade Certifications?

The following are the major fair trade certifications out there (meaning that they have the most rigorous standards in place in regards to both sustainable practices as well as ethical labor practices):

Fair Trade International

The Fair Trade International label indicates that a fair price has been paid to small farmers and that a premium above fair price has been paid as well.

This premium goes towards the social, economic, or environmental development of the local community.

A third-party inspector called FLOCERT regularly audits Fairtrade products to ensure that they abide by their strict standards.

Fair Trade International mostly certifies food items, such as chocolate, coffee, and bananas.

Fair Trade USA

Fair Trade USA has its own standards and compliance criteria, which is separated into numerous categories, including Trade, Independent Shareholders, Farmworkers, Capture Fisheries, and Apparel and Home Goods.

To obtain the Fair Trade Certified label, a license must be obtained from SCS (Scientific Certification Systems) Global Services.

However, they provide different fair trade labels for different aspects of fair trade. For example, there are fair trade labels for Ingredients, Cotton, Sewing, and Factory.

Fair for Life

Fair for Life certification is based on a non-product specified standard.

This means that both finished products and the raw materials used to manufacture those products can be certified.

They even certify entire companies. Producers, manufacturers, and traders can all be certified Fair for Life as a result.

Companies and products certified by Fair for Life are done so by IMO (Institute for Marketecology), which inspects ingredients, products, and companies to ensure that they meet organic, ecological, and social standards. 

These are the three main fair trade certifications.

There are many minor fair trade certifications available as well for specific regions and products.

Additionally, two of the major fair trade organizations include the World Fair Trade Organization and the Fair Trade Federation. Both have stringent standards that must be met in order for an organization to become a member.

Buying Fair Trade Chocolate

Now that you have a pretty good overview of what fair trade is and what it entails, let’s focus a little more on fair trade chocolate.

The following is everything you’ll want to know about buying fair trade chocolate. 

Fair Trade Chocolate History

Even though cocoa has been around for thousands of years and has been regularly imported by companies throughout the world for hundreds of years, fair trade cocoa hasn’t been around for very long.

Most cocoa is imported out of Latin America and West Africa. In fact, it’s estimated that roughly 90 percent of the world’s cocoa was produced in small farms in these areas in as recently as the 1990s.

Intermediaries would purchase the cocoa from these small farms and sell them to exporters and processors.

Few of the actual cocoa farmers knew how much their cocoa was worth and were paid well below value for their product.

The low prices being paid for cocoa and the increasing need for fertilizer resulted in an increased reliance on child labor and slave labor, particularly in developing countries throughout West Africa.

This continues to be a problem. It’s estimated that around 2.3 million children are working in cocoa fields in Ghana and the Ivory Coast alone.

Fair trade organizations identified this problem and sought to rectify it through fair trade certification.

The first cocoa product to be certified as fair trade was Green & Black’s Maya Gold Chocolate, which was produced from cocoa imported from Belize.

The certification was provided by the Max Havelaar Foundation in 1994. The foundation has since been incorporated into Fairtrade International.

It wasn’t until 2002 that cocoa products in the U.S. began being certified.

Fair Trade USA, which at the time was part of Fair Trade International (they would become Fair Trade USA after splitting in 2011), were the first to certify fair trade cocoa products sold in the U.S. 

Fair Trade Cocoa Criteria

Knowing the criteria for being certified fair trade is important.

After all, the supposed benefits of supporting fair trade cocoa aren’t going to do much good if the criteria for being certified is lax.

Fortunately, fair trade certification tends to be quite rigorous.

It’s worth pointing out that fair trade certification criteria are going to differ when it comes to certifying different products – and different certifications will have varying criteria.

The following are some of the common criteria for cocoa fair trade certification:

  1. Cooperatives must be organized to help assist small farmers earn fair prices for their cocoa.

  2. Cocoa producers are regularly inspected to ensure no child labor is being used.

  3. Cocoa producers must meet environmental sustainability standards – they cannot use dangerous agro-chemicals or GMOs in the production of their cocoa.

  4. Farmers must be paid a sustainable price for their cocoa. This is usually the higher of either a minimum price set by a fair trade organization (such as the FLO) or the current market price.

  5. Buyers must contribute money to cocoa cooperatives in order to promote community development.

    This, in turn, will allow cocoa farmers to increase the quality of their product, build better infrastructure, train their workers, and improve their communities in a myriad of ways.

Fair Trade Chocolate Countries

As of 2010, there are 62 cocoa-growing cooperatives in the U.S. fair trade system.  These cooperatives are located in the following seven countries:

  • Bolivia
  • The Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • Ghana
  • The Ivory Coast
  • Panama
  • Peru

Outside the U.S. fair trade system, there are 15 additional countries where fair trade cocoa is grown. These countries are all located near the equator as cocoa can only be grown in hot and humid regions of the world.

Is Fair Trade Chocolate Really Fair?

Fair trade certification is obviously a noble pursuit, especially when you consider the amount of slave labor (including child labor) historically used in cocoa farming.

The goal of providing better prices and working conditions along with promoting sustainable farming practices are all worthwhile.

However, fair trade certification for cocoa isn’t perfect. 

It’s important to understand that most cocoa farms are too small to certify individually.

Small farmers in developing nations simply can’t afford the fees to obtain fair trade certification.

It’s why they have to join a cooperative of farmers. These cooperatives are then certified. 

Although fair trade has allowed most farmers to be paid better prices, they aren’t always what one might consider “a living wage.”

This is because the dependents of the farmers aren’t typically taken into consideration – and many small farmers in developing nations have around five dependents

It’s also worth noting that the benefits of fair trade certification (the higher prices paid to farmers) only extend to the farmers.

Farmers often hire workers to help grow and harvest their cocoa, and fair trade prices do not extend to them.

While they are not using slave labor or child labor, the workers that farmers are using are typically underpaid

Over the course of a single year (from 2009 to 2010), the amount of fair trade certified cocoa products sold in the U.S. increased by 67 percent.

However, as little as 11 percent of these products can actually be labeled as fair trade chocolate. This is because chocolate products contain other ingredients.

Chocolate can sometimes be labeled as fair trade because some of the ingredients being used are fair trade, but the cocoa being used may not be.

As a result, some fair trade chocolate might not actually be using fair trade cocoa. It can be the other way around as well.

Some chocolate bars may be certified fair trade as a result of certain ingredients – but that doesn’t always mean that the cocoa that they use is fair trade certified.

10 Fair Trade Chocolate Facts

The following are a few additional facts about fair trade chocolate that you should know:

  1. Cocoa beans come from the fruit pods of cocoa trees, which contain about 30 to 40 seeds each. These seeds are extracted, fermented, and then dried, thereby turning them into cocoa beans.

  2. One cocoa tree produces roughly two harvests a year of around 50 fruit pods.

  3. One pod of cocoa seeds is enough to make around four bars of chocolate.

  4. Cocoa beans can be processed into butter, powder, and liquor, whereby they can then be used in a huge variety of products, from chocolate bars to chocolate drinks to cosmetics.

  5. As of 2016, there were 226,579 fair trade cocoa farmers that were organized in 189 producer organizations throughout the world. 

  6. As of 2016, there were 722,060 hectares of land (roughly 1,783,488 acres) dedicated to cultivating fair trade cocoa. 

  7. The majority of cocoa farmers in Ghana and the Ivory Coast (where a majority of the world’s cocoa is produced) make less than $1 a day.

  8. Because the benefits of being a cocoa farmer have been so historically poor, younger workers are not attracted to the job. It’s why the average age of a cocoa farmer is over 50.

  9. 25 percent of all fair trade cocoa growers are women.

  10. As of 2015, there were still over two million children engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa fields throughout Western Africa. 

Fair Trade Chocolate vs. Non-Fair Trade Chocolate

Fair trade chocolate isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot less socially, environmentally, and economically harmful than non-fair trade chocolate.

Looking for a fair trade label when purchasing chocolate is a good first step. It ensures that at least some of the ingredients are fair trade certified.

However, don’t take the label at its word. Read the packaging to find out exactly what ingredients are fair trade certified.

This will give you a better idea of how fair trade a chocolate product actually is and whether the cocoa being used is actually fair trade or not.

If the cocoa in your chocolate is 100 percent fair trade certified, then you’ll know that you’re contributing to the following:

  • Providing additional income to small farmers in developing nations
  • Improving access to healthcare and education in cocoa farming communities
  • Promoting better working conditions 
  • Supporting farmers that do not use slave labor or child labor
  • Supporting equal pay for women
  • Supporting sustainable farming practices
  • Supporting complete transparency in the chocolate brand’s supply chain

Fair trade chocolate FAQ

What is fair trade chocolate?

Fair trade chocolate is chocolate made with ingredients, such as cocoa, that were certified as fair trade.

What is fair trade?

Fair trade is an agreement between buyers in developed countries and suppliers/producers in developing countries in which fair prices are paid to the suppliers/producers. 

Is fair trade chocolate eco-friendly?

Yes. Fair trade certification requires sustainable production. This means that fair trade chocolate was produced using cacao that was sustainably grown and harvested, which means chemicals and pesticides are rarely used.

Is fair trade chocolate healthy?

Usually. Because fair trade cacao is grown without the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides, it tends to be more healthy than non-fair trade chocolate. However, this depends on the percentage of cocoa being used in the chocolate.

Is fair trade chocolate more expensive?

Yes. However, you’re paying for better quality ingredients and ensuring that farmers are being paid a fair wage and that child labor isn’t being used.

Who benefits from fair trade?

Everyone. Suppliers get paid more, children aren’t forced into labor, communities get money towards community development, buyers get higher quality ingredients, and consumers get better tasting and more ethically produced chocolate. 

What is cocoa?

Cacao beans are the seeds that come from a cacao tree. These seeds are processed into cocoa powder, which is used as the main ingredient in chocolate.

Are cocoa and cacao the same thing?

Not quite. Although often used interchangeably, cacao is made by cold-pressing un-roasted cacao beans. Although cocoa looks exactly the same, it’s actually raw cacao that’s been roasted at high temperatures.

Is cocoa healthy?

Cocoa has a lot of potential health benefits due to the many antioxidants it contains.

Cocoa has been linked to improved heart health, improved brain health, improved blood sugar levels, healthy skin, and decreased inflammation.

Where does cacao come from?

Cacao can only be grown in tropical regions near the equator.

Although its use can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient Mayans and Aztecs, the majority of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa – specifically, Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

Is dark chocolate good for you?

Yes. Cocoa is packed with antioxidants, which means the more cocoa is in the chocolate, the better it is for you. Dark chocolate has the highest percentage of cocoa.

Is milk chocolate good for you?

Not usually. The ingredient that provides chocolate with its health benefits, cocoa, isn’t used as much in milk chocolate.

Milk chocolate not only uses smaller percentages of cocoa, but it also often includes other unhealthy ingredients.

What is the FLO?

FLO (Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International) is also known as Fairtrade International.

It’s a nonprofit organization that advocates fair trade, sets fair trade standards, and provides fair trade certifications.

What is Fair for Life?

Fair for Life is a neutral third-party fair trade certification program in agricultural, manufacturing, and trading operations.

Why do many cocoa farms use child labor?

Cocoa is in high demand throughout the world. Unfortunately, buyers often pay cocoa farmers incredibly low prices, resulting in the use of cheap child labor to keep up with demand.

Do fair trade cocoa farms use child labor?

No. Child labor (or any form of slave labor) is strictly disallowed.

Fair trade certifiers perform routine audits on supplier farms and facilities to ensure that there’s no child labor being used and that working conditions are not poor.


Buying Fair Trade certified chocolate is one of the most effective decisions you can make to ensure a fair income for the farmers and trade partners and support sustainable farming and production methods.

Check out our article on the 5 most sustainable Fair Trade chocolate brands.

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