For various reasons, my favorite chocolate producer has been in my thoughts a lot lately (Batch event!). Taza Chocolate is based out of Somerville, Mass.; their factory is about a five minute walk from my front door, so it doesn’t get much more local. I’m not normally a huge chocolate fan, sacrilege though it may seem to say so; but I love Taza’s texture and depth of flavor. Their traditional method of stone-grinding their beans gives the chocolate an almost crystallized texture that always reminds me of a well-aged Parmigiano. And it comes in variants like Guajillo Chile (my favorite) and Salted Almond and Cinnamon, so what’s not to like?
Taza lays heavy claim to sustainability, something I’ve always liked about them, but until recently I hadn’t thought about it on a deeper level. Further investigation was prompted by my interest in working for them (full disclosure!), and by a conversation I got into with my boyfriend about whether or not chocolate could ever be truly sustainable, and about the balancing act a company must perform that has sustainable core values but works with a necessarily imported product.
Cacao beans must be imported from the equatorial climates in which they thrive. In most parts of the world in which it is ultimately consumed, then, chocolate cannot meet even the most liberal criteria for local food. Then there’s harvesting: as with coffee beans, cacao is hand-harvested, and local labor pools are apt to be vastly underpaid (not to mention subject to human rights violations like child labor usage) in order to bring the product to market at an attractive price.
This latter obstacle to sustainability can be surmounted, however. As with the coffee industry, buyers can choose to deal fairly with producers even without the market pressuring them to do so. Taza, for example, uses a “Direct Trade” model of business that goes beyond Fair Trade certification:
With Direct Trade, we are committed to maintaining direct relationships with our cacao producers and compensating them fairly for the high quality cacao they produce. We only develop relationships with cacao producers who grow their crop in a manner that respects the rights of workers and the environment.
Factory food processing often results in environmentally harmful waste, and high amounts of materials and energy usage. A smaller operation like Taza is certainly less of a culprit here without even making a concerted effort–but they still do. I absolutely love that a couple of their big pieces of machinery were reclaimed from existing facilities. I saw an episode of some “green” home renovation show once where the decorators ripped out the house’s flooring to replace it with “eco-friendly” materials–sending the old stuff to the junkyard. So utterly, utterly missing the point! Reusing materials, on however modest or grand a scale, is always the lowest-carbon choice (just as reducing your energy usage is more efficient than installing solar panels). I’m sure there were some economic benefits to Taza for going the reclaimed route, but hey, that’s sustainable too. They also strive for energy efficiency at the factory and use carbon-neutral delivery methods to get their chocolate to where it needs to be.
Obviously I’m coming down on the side of “yep, chocolate can be sustainable.” The carbon cost of importing the raw product must be weighed against the necessity of maintaining a cash crop in some of the world’s poorest places. And local isn’t everything; for instance, the cranberry industry local to me has often come under fire for environmental violations, and there’s a whole seedy story of struggle between small farmers and the takeover of the conglomerates (viz., Oceanspray).
But Taza is an easy case: they have a great, informative website and a clear dedication to the notion of sustainability. I tried looking up info on the production processes of Lake Champlain Chocolates (a Vermont producer often promoted at Whole Foods in my area). Couldn’t get anywhere–there weren’t even tags for “sustainability” or “environment” on their blog. Green & Black’s, a much larger international company famous for their commitment to organic chocolates, does use Fair Trade practices in dealing with their growers (a note: I don’t believe all of their products are Fair Trade certified, although they are all organic).
As a case study, I think Taza is doing chocolate as sustainably as it perhaps can be done. Maybe they could run off geothermal power, or import their beans using companies that use green energy or energy efficient vessels, but all in all they seem to be doing a great job. For me, the question right now is that they’re a strong small company: are their practices scalable? I hope so. Certainly, they’re replicable, and I hope the industry can learn from them.
For a repository of sustainability initiatives in the cocoa industry, check out the Roundtable for a Sustainable Cocoa Economy. The initiatives might seem like a let down after this case study, but it’s small steps for a huge industry.