Ethical Consumption in South Africa: Chocolate and Coffee

When I arrived in South Africa about three years ago, fair trade was not really a consideration here. Very few brands were offering clear information about their supply chains and the control or transparency of those chains by external organisations. In the last few years, there has been quite a big change.

Why Should You Care?

Because you’re human.

At the other end of the supply chain, someone has been working to provide you your coffee and chocolate. In a lot of cases, especially with products coming from developing countries, the farm workers who labour to harvest the ground product are exploited and survive in terrible conditions. The majority of the money goes to the distributors of the final product.

When you’re consuming, you become part of the chain and you can play a huge role in the choices companies make. The Cape Town-based company Studio Bolland, recently animated the video for a British campaign called #AskTheQuestion. Since 2015, all British companies have to disclose their supply chain to the customer. That’s not a law (yet) in South Africa, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find out.

How Can You Tell?

There are a few ways to go about finding out if a chocolate or coffee company has an ethical supply chain.

The first option is to check for external labels. Several organisations check the supply chain and give certification to chocolate and coffee that source their ground products ethically. This is probably the best option as an external source is most likely to depict the situation honestly.

Big companies have a tendency to make themselves look nicer. For example, Ethical Consumer isn’t convinced by Mondelēz’ Cocoa Life label. Mondelēz owns famous products like Côte d’Or, Toblerone, Cadbury, and Milka. A company that size could definitely afford external control, but has chosen for starting a new label. Anyone can start a new label. Luckily, certain products of Mondelēz now do have external labels.

Here are some certifications to look for:

A second option is to visit the company’s website and see what explanation they give. As discussed above, you should be a bit sceptical to what they write. They want to sell you things and will tell you anything to do so. At the same time, getting the certification is quite time- and resource-intensive as you need to pay a certifier to visit the farms you work with and check your supply chain. So have some grace for smaller startups, but don’t hesitate to ask about their supply chain. They should give you a clear answer, and not beat around the bush.

A third option is to subscribe to a website like Ethical Consumer or Rank a Brand. These websites do their autonomous research into companies, and inform us, consumers, about those companies. The free version will give you a basic overview, but for a subscription fee, you can access detailed reports. Definitely worth it.

Which Brands Do We Recommend?

Coffee. Very few coffee brands in South Africa have certifications. One is the Woolworths Café range (please note that this is only 1 specific brand in their entire range).

The other one – and my preferred option – is Bean There. Not only is their coffee great, all of their coffees either have an external certification or Bean There has a clear description of their own direct fair trade collaboration with local co-ops. On top of that, they use WooCommerce to sell their coffee online, and they deliver for free for orders above R250.

Chocolate. The same goes for chocolate as for coffee; very few South African brands have certifications. Cadbury‘s plain dairy milk slabs are Fairtrade, and that used to be about it.

Luckily, today there are a few options of imported chocolate. The Swiss Frey has all its chocolate UTZ certified. And I was very happy to see the Belgian Côte d’Or finally having at least a few options with a Rainforest Alliance stamp.

Our go-to place for specialised chocolate, however, is CocoáFair. Situated in the same block where I work, Kim and I have chatted to owner Heinrich quite a few times and asked him about their supply chain, when he explained that getting the certifications is quite challenging. He was very open about the chocolate sourcing, and recently they finally got their UTZ certification. It’s not just the certifications by the way, their chocolate tastes amazing.

What Does It Cost?

I’d say that buying fair trade coffee and chocolate costs about 10-20% more than the stuff you’d normally buy. While that might seem a lot, it’s worth it. Both coffee and chocolate are luxury goods, other people shouldn’t suffer for our enjoyment. Paying what the product is actually worth is a good way to enjoy it even more.

Unfortunately, sometimes there aren’t good alternatives. I love toast with Nutella, but in South Africa, I haven’t been able to find a good, ethical alternative. I’ve tried the chocolate paste of Honest Chocolate, and while their paste and their chocolate is flavourful, it’s just not a chocolate-hazelnut paste. In Belgium, there were a few alternatives, but in Cape Town I haven’t been able to find any of those. So I’m not eating chocolate paste at the moment.

In most cases, you’ll be able to source some nice alternatives. If not, then ask the question: is me enjoying this worth the exploitation of other humans?