The production of chocolate has long been linked to deforestation and myriad issues that come with impoverished regions where it’s grown, but many in the industry are working to improve conditions for farmers and their villages growing this important commodity while trying to protect the environment in the process.

The problem is that the issues facing these communities are vast and complex. But making progress is important as consumers have grown more interested in the sustainability of their food, and the chocolate industry is large and expanding. The global cocoa and chocolate market size is expected to grow from $47.1 billion in 2023 to $68.2 billion in 2030, according to research from Spherical Insights & Consulting.

“Poverty, weather conditions, pest and disease, land competition, farming standards and political factors are just a few of the challenges that impact chocolate sourcing,” said Kate Clancy, group sustainability director, Cargill Cocoa and Chocolate. “Many smallholder farming households struggle to make a living income from cocoa and have limited access to the infrastructure, training and finance they need to invest in their farms and run a successful business, on and off farm. Further, social issues, such as child labor and gender equity, are interconnected. Supporting farmers, their families and the communities where they live is therefore an essential precondition for securing the future of cocoa and helps build prosperity where cocoa is grown.”

Tackling these issues and producing sustainably sourced chocolate is good for business, with seven in 10 global consumers saying sustainability influences their cocoa and chocolate purchases, Clancy added.

“Among North American shoppers, our research finds one in two consumers say sustainability impacts their chocolate product purchase decisions and six in 10 are drawn to cocoa sustainability messaging on product packaging,” she said. “Even more enlightening, half indicate they’d be willing to pay more for chocolate products made with 100% sustainable cocoa.”

Tracking the cocoa supply is critical to creating a more environmentally positive future for chocolate, but it isn’t easy.

“The cocoa supply chain involves thousands of smallholder farmers producing a small number of beans from individual plots, mainly in remote, rural communities with little connectivity or infrastructure,” said Andrew Brooks, head of cocoa sustainability, OFI.

This makes pinning down solutions difficult. He cited child labor as just one example.

“Farmers have difficulty paying for labor, so their children can help on the farm on weekends or after school,” Brooks said. “Sometimes, no school is nearby, or the family cannot provide the documents needed to enroll. There is often no one root cause, and the complexity of the problem means one intervention will never be enough. Solving these issues requires a range of long-term actions from individual, community and national stakeholders.”

Dave Beaulieu, global buyer/operations manager at Global Organics, also mentioned problems with traceability as it relates to organic products.

“Although certification practices such as FairTrade are supposed to help, traceability throughout the supply chain is often difficult to achieve with the ongoing threat of greenwashing practices within the organic industry,” he said.

Greenwashing is portraying products as more sustainably sourced than they are.

Sustainably sourced chocolate holds a variety of benefits for not only the communities where it’s grown but also the companies that use it.

“Chocolate made from sustainably sourced ingredients will be more expensive, but today’s consumers know that their actions and choices have an impact on the environment, and many are willing to pay a premium to do their part,” said Ryan Branch, senior marketing manager, AAK USA. “Chocolate manufacturers and consumers get more than sustainability claims as well, since sustainable ingredients are usually higher quality and offer great texture and excellent taste in the final product.”

Bakers benefit from improved cocoa quality, which enhances taste, while ethical sourcing helps with the marketability of their products, said An Ho, director of food science and production innovation, IFPC.

“Sustainable practices, like organic farming and proper fermentation, often lead to higher quality cocoa beans, resulting in superior flavor profiles for chocolate products,” Ms. Ho said.

Consumers are pushing companies to prioritize responsible ingredient sourcing, supply chain traceability and transparent communication, Clancy said.

“At first blush, these can seem like daunting challenges, but the good news is that investments that support greater sustainability in the first mile — the fields where raw materials are grown — can create opportunities in the last mile,” she said. “It’s a perfect example of how doing good can also result in brands doing well, as both retailers and consumers desire products that support a broader purpose.”

Chocolate that is organically certified means no synthetic chemicals are used on agricultural land, Beaulieu said.

“This is significant, as conventional cocoa is considered one of the highest pesticide-using crops,” he explained. “Organic cocoa farmers are trained on proper agronomic practices, planting and nursery management techniques, and disease and pest management in cultivation. Growers are also trained in respecting forest species and the boundaries of protected areas, counteracting the phenomenon of deforestation, and promoting the cultivation of cocoa varieties with high organoleptic qualities.”

Because cocoa beans have a high content of fat, they absorb the active ingredients in insecticides, Beaulieu said.

“The accumulation of chemicals in the cocoa fat can change the taste of the beans and ultimately the taste of the chocolate made from them,” he pointed out. “This is why sustainably sourced chocolate can have such a large impact on the taste and quality of the chocolate. The increasingly favored message of sustainability can also resonate with consumers who are interested in supporting businesses that align with their values.”

Brooks said that consumers are wary of companies making bold sustainability claims without evidence, so food manufacturers must embrace sustainably sourced cocoa as a standard in their product development.

“Companies that can demonstrate they are doing the right things when sourcing sustainable ingredients through sustainability initiatives that improve farmer livelihoods and minimize environmental impact will achieve greater trust from customers, employees and wider industry stakeholders,” he said.