Walk into virtually any retail establishment from January 2nd until February 14th and your eyes will be assaulted with mountains of cellophane wrapped novelties, balloons, plushies, and candy galore. In 2020, US Valentine’s Day gift-givers spent around $20.7 billion and a sizable percentage of that went toward the more than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate packaged each year. In 2017 Americans scarfed down about 58 million pounds of chocolate during the week of Valentine’s Day. That is a lot of deliciousness. Unfortunately, it comes at a cost.
First let’s start with all that packaging. Red cellophane, in fact all plastic film, is difficult to recycle and rarely through traditional or curbside channels, so that’s going to the landfill. Even the paper box won’t be recycled if it has fancy foil or glitter. Hershey’s wraps 70,000,000 Kisses every day with enough aluminum foil to cover almost 40 football fields. None of that will be reclaimed as they’re simply too difficult to recycle. This is true of most candy wrappers. And balloons, do I even have to say this, are just air and plastic that will either live forever in a landfill or choke some hapless marine creature. Just say no.
But we should also consider the darker side of chocolate (yum, dark chocolate, alright get a hold of yourself,) and that is the effects of cacao farming on small farmers, children, and our Mother Earth.
Despite how delicious chocolate is, it is one of the least sustainable foods we eat. Many sources rank it just below red meat in terms of how bad its production is for the environment. The main reason for this is how much cacao is required to make the final retail product. It takes some 25 tons of cocoa to fill a single shipping container. But cacao trees only grow in a narrow band of equatorial land; three-quarters of the world's chocolate is produced in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Cameroon.) Thousands of small farmers in rural Africa supply almost all the world’s cocoa.
The largest chocolate companies in the world can't say their cocoa is grown sustainably, because they have no idea. Thousands of farmers sell their crops to middlemen, traders and exporters; there is literally no way to trace where those precious beans came from or how they were grown. Small farmers try to up their livelihood by deforestation, monoculture farming, and pesticides. All of these put pressure on already fragile ecosystems and endangered species.
Even worse, most cocoa farmers live in poverty. Their income is dependent on that shady system of middlemen, and even when the price of cocoa is regulated by, say, the African government, no one is remotely concerned with guaranteeing a fair cut to farmers. This fact leads to child labor and enslavement just to survive. Even some Fair Trade certified cocoa has been shown to result from child labor.
Well, that’s depressing (which makes me want some chocolate.) You probably don’t need me to tell you that none of this is going to improve while climate change is still unchecked and certainly not before February 14th. So what can we chocolate loving but Mother Earth loving people do? We should stop buying and consuming so much— but, um, not terribly likely. There are some actual solutions and some chocolate brands that do put sustainability and humanity in their business plan. None of the current mitigations are cheap or easy, which is why you will pay a premium for these products. But consider Beyond Good, Tony’s Chocolonely, Alter Eco or Theo for that Valentine's gift or your next treat.