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Cocoa sustainability in practice: does it work? [INTERVIEW]

Sustainable sourcing labels increase business sales but fail to make a difference for cocoa farmers.

As sustainability issues become essential for consumers, cocoa analyst and former ConfectioneryNews editor Olivier Nieburg invites companies to involve farmers in their sustainable sourcing process to increase returns on investment, both in their sales figures and on the ground.

What are the main problems regarding cocoa sourcing and sustainability?

“Billions have been invested to stimulate sustainability in cocoa in the last 10 years. Alignment among companies and governments has improved, but there is little evidence of a strong contribution to the target indicators of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Farmer adoption rates for company initiatives are low and average yields per hectare have declined in the two main producing countries. Poverty, child labour, malnutrition and deforestation remain widespread. It comes as farmers feel locked out of decision-making.”

What are cocoa origin claims? Why are they important?

“A cocoa origin claim is a communication on a chocolate package or online product description indicating where the cocoa comes from. It can be a country claim (a single origin claim such as Ecuadorian cocoa), a province claim (e.g. Amazonas) or a farmer cooperative claim. 

Chocolate products with such claims attract stronger online consumer engagement, better reviews and star ratings than products using the conventional fair-trade claim. Origin claims also attract a higher retail price.

A cocoa origin claim can be a more neutral way to promote cocoa sustainability than a fair-trade claim that positions farmers as groups in need rather than equal business partners.”

How prevalent are these claims?

“Origin claims are common in tea (48% of products have a claim) and coffee (36%), but almost 90% of the bestselling chocolate products online make no indication of cocoa provenance.”

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How do they resonate with consumers?

“Chocolate with cocoa origin claims are generating stronger online engagement than products with Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance claims.”

Could you give 3 tips for companies on how to go about sustainable sourcing of cocoa and how to promote their products better? What works and what should be avoided in marketing campaigns?

“I would first advise them not to flood the market with sustainable claims of varying standards. This will only confuse consumers.

I would also support the creation of an industry-wide sustainability label, such as the ISO sustainable cocoa standard. I would run marketing campaigns promoting the label to win consumers’ trust. Cocoa sourced to ISO standard should become the norm.

Finally, chocolate brands can drive the premium-end of the ethical chocolate market with mission-led brands tied to a deprived cocoa province. Such brands should engage cocoa farmers to be part of decision-making process. Farmers could decide how premiums from higher retail prices are spent on local infrastructure. Imagine a chocolate origins line promoting Ashanti (a region in Ghana) where a portion of profits go to fund teacher housing, which has been identified by farmers as a pressing community need to attract quality teachers to the local area.”

What are your predictions for the F&B industry in the next 3-5 years?

“Regulation and litigation will force companies to reveal more about the impacts of sustainability initiatives.

The average deadline for company commitments to sustainability is 2020.  These are typically pledges to increase sourcing to third-party certification standards or company programme standards.

“Beyond 2020, company commitments will go further than the reach of their programmes and certify sourcing to track and report the impact of their initiatives. Traceability technology will allow companies to report more about income levels, child labour and deforestation risks in agricultural commodity supply chains.”

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