Your chocolate purchase will impact population growth, for better or worse

You may be surprised to hear that the brand of chocolate that you choose to buy has an impact on human population growth. This is the second of series of posts on the social and environmental consequences of chocolate – the first covered the topic of chocolate and deforestation. I could have taken any product as an example here but wanted to pick an item that many of us (if fortunate enough to afford it) purchase fairly often. But the information is relevant to a wide range of products, especially those grown or assembled in the Global South. I’ve found that studying one item in some depth can help us to get a better grasp on ethical consumerism as whole.

Also, I want to remind you to vote on the list of the top 10 ethical chocolate brands! Both this post and the previous one on the impact of chocolate on rainforests should provide some guidance.

Why does human population growth matter?

Why do we care about how much the human population grows? The most obvious reason is that a larger human population places a larger burden on the planet – greenhouse gas emissions, changes in land use, pollution, etc. It’s also important to know that human population growth and living conditions are closely linked: As the standard of living increases, population growth slows down. That’s why the population is still growing fast in regions of the world experiencing high levels of extreme poverty – particularly sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.

A graph shows how the human population is stabilizing in many regions of the world, with the major exceptions of sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia. World population growth projections for 2022-2050, by region. This post examines the connection between chocolate and population growth.
World population growth projections for 2022-2050, by region. From UN World Population Prospects 2022.

It’s widely acknowledged that two of the best ways to stabilize population levels are ensuring access to education and family planning resources. They are two big steps along the path to an adequate standard of living, but of course the major need is for people to get out of poverty. Extreme poverty is currently defined as having less than $2.15 per day in income (purchasing power parities is the term used). The average income for a cacao farmer in West Africa, where most of the world’s chocolate is sourced, is less than $1.

Enough said, really.

Commodity markets are a major driving force of poverty

Commodity markets allow products to be bought in bulk at competitive prices – many of them are agricultural crops like the cacao that’s used to make chocolate. The problem with this from of commerce is that it relies on a chain of middlemen that separates buyers from sellers. That effectively creates a screen behind which lie the problems of exploited farmers, impoverished communities, child labor, slave labor, and some serious environmental damage. 

There are two main reasons why commodity market trading lead to extreme poverty. First, because commodity trades involve large quantities, the crops produced by small farmers are pooled together at a few different levels by various middlemen, each of which takes a cut. Second, the commodity price for any crop (cacao, coffee, tea, etc.) can drop to levels that don’t support any kind of living for farmers. This combination of factors makes the economics of farming in the Global South so bad sometimes that farmers will abandon their crops. 

How does our choice of chocolate impact human population growth?

So, extreme poverty is a root cause of unsustainable population growth and is driven in part by commodity markets. Therefore, supporting companies that either avoid commodity markets or purchase through a fair trade program is the best way to go. That’s the simplest way of putting things.

I’ve written about fair trade certifications in a post on direct trade versus fair trade coffee, so I’ll refer you to that for more detail on that topic. Suffice it to say that fair trade certification gives the farmer two benefits:

  1. A premium on the commodity market price that can be used to improve the lives of farmers and communities – for example the education and clinics (with family planning resources) that can help curb population growth.
  2. A minimum market price that provides a safety net at times when commodity prices crash.

Chocolate made from cacao bought through a direct trade relationship with farmers can be significantly better than one made from fair trade certified cacao. It’s just takes a little research to figure out if it’s a genuine relationship that benefits farmers, because there’s no certification standard or label. That’s why I would like you to share your recommendations for the top ethical chocolate brands because I’m not aware of every chocolate company’s story.

What about internal programs for fair cocao purchasing?

Many of the biggest multinational food corporations have an internal plan for the responsible purchasing of cocoa. This can be quite confusing as it at first looks like it’s an independent certification. Some examples include the Cocoa Life plan from Mondelēz International (which owns many brands including Cadbury’s, Milka, Oreo, and Toblerone) and the Nestlé Cocoa Plan (Nestlé’s brand include Kit Kat, Smarties, and Quality Street).

The first thing to be aware of is that these are not certifications – they are just logos and names given to these internal company programs. That raises the next obvious question: Are these programs any good?

I’m hoping to do some research on mainstream chocolate brands to figure out if there are any good options among them. I’m skeptical that I’ll find many, if any, but I’ll give it a go. Please let me know if you’d like to recommend any.

To explain my skepticism: Back in 2018 I wrote a post about slavery in the chocolate industry, about how many of the chocolate makers (Nestlé, Hershey, Ferrero, and Mars) had made promises to be slavery free by 2020. Here’s a quote:

In 2015, a study conducted at Tulane University found that the number of children working in the Côte d’Ivoire cocoa industry had actually increased 51% since 2009. More details and numbers are available from Slave Free Chocolate and a 2017 report from the Global Slavery Index

It’s hard for the largest corporations to do the right thing. That’s largely due to the fact that commodity markets deliver the cheapest ingredients and therefore the largest profit margins. The best way persuade these corporations to change is by impacting their other key metric – sales figures – by avoiding these brands. The good news is that it’s now much easier to avoid unethical brands as there are quite a few good chocolate companies.

Chocolate brands that address extreme poverty

Most of the chocolate makers featured on the list of top 10 ethical chocolate brands are helping to address poverty in the Global South. I’ll give some very brief examples of stuff to look out for.

Hard facts on prices paid for ingredients.

Alter Eco: 93% of the ingredients used for Alter Eco truffles are Fair Trade certified and Alter Eco pays 1.3 times the required fair trade price.

Tcho Chocolate paid 46% above the average market price for cacao beans in 2021, with a fair trade premium of $240, an organic premium of $300, and a quality premium ranging from $100 to $1500 per metric ton.

Detailed information on suppliers

Equal Exchange is a worker-owned co-operative that, in turn, purchases fair trade ingredients only through other democratically-organized farmer groups.

Theo Chocolate provides details on each of its cocoa suppliers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, community projects funded, and the average price per ton paid for cocoa beans – 1.2 times the average price for fair trade organic beans and 1.5 times the price of conventional beans (similar to Tcho).

Business models that empower farmers and workers

Divine Chocolate came about after a group of Ghanaian cocoa farmers got together in 1993 to form a co-operative with the intention of getting into the chocolate-making business. The co-operative has grown to include over 100,000 cocoa farmers in Ghana, who collectively own a 20% stake in Divine Chocolate and have two representatives (40%) on the board of directors.

Beyond Good is focused on empowering cacao farmers in East Africa. Besides sourcing cacao from local co-operatives, most of the chocolate bars are now made in Madagascar, supporting local workers and the local economy.

In West Africa, where most of the commodity cacao is sourced by the major chocolate makers, farmers make between 50 and 70 cents a day. The cocoa farmers that Beyond Good works with earn $3.84 per day, on average. They earn over five times more because the supply chain contains no middlemen – Ethical Bargains post on Beyond Good chocolate.

This is especially significant considering that Madagascar has higher levels of poverty than West Africa, on average.

The big picture – higher income solves a lot of problems

Fair trade programs were set up to provide a higher standard of living by providing higher income for farmers but also to fund community projects such as water pumps, clinics, and education. Providing easier access to clean water can save girls and women from making long daily trips for fresh water, allowing them to instead spend time in school or developing a business, respectively. Clinics can provide family planning education and contraception. These are foundational measures for curbing population growth, which in turn help impoverished countries to get on track for stability and sustainable development.

A graph shows various predictions for human population growth until 2100. The most expected outcome is for the population to peak around 10 billion and then stabilize or decline before 2100. With improved family planning resources, the population may peak below 9 billion and drop to below current levels (8 billion) by 2100. Projections of the human global population to 2100. This is part of a GSP post examining the link between chocolate and population growth.
Projections of the human global population to 2100. The UN medium and SSP 2 are considered the “most likely” trajectories from their respective modeling groups. However, policies that lead to lower fertility, such as improved availability of family planning resources, could help achieve low population paths. From Population growth and climate change: Addressing the overlooked threat multiplier (2020).

The stabilization of population growth is one of the most effective ways to deal with climate change and many other environmental challenges. On an individual level, people who escape from extreme poverty become free to think beyond day-to-day survival. Here’s a quote from a recent Ethical bargains post on Beyond Good:

Beyond Good’s CEO, Tim McCollum, says that the consequences of their farmers earning five to six times more than cocoa farmers in West Africa have been remarkable. Not only are they more likely to be able to send their children to school, but farmers also began practicing regenerative farming because they had the money to invest in it. It’s pretty hard to think about the environment when you’re on the poverty line, but once they escape poverty and are able to look after their families, the farmers often turn to thinking about nature.

Hopefully this has been a useful primer on how your choice of chocolate bar can help stabilize human population growth, one of our most important goals as a society. Please take a moment to check out the post on the top 10 ethical chocolate brands and vote.

5 thoughts on “Your chocolate purchase will impact population growth, for better or worse

  1. Gosh, am in tears – self flagellating – as I type. I’m just not doing enough and as I read, it’s so clear that I/we can make change with relative ease! Sure, we might have to eat/wear/use fewer products but it’s possible to be smarter and fairer. sigh. So, I’ll put my whip down and get up off my pity cushion, read more and simply source more thoughtfully. Thank you yet again, J. You’re the best. xx


    1. Thank you Frances – your response is much appreciated.
      It takes some effort to avoid the familiar big brands that we grew up with in places like the UK and Ireland.
      Even though Europe generally has stricter environmental laws I think the population is more conditioned to stick with multinational brands, often not being aware that they are harmful. Amusing or endearing advertising doesn’t equate to an ethical product. In fact the brands that use a lot of advertising can afford to do so because of high profit margins largely due to cheap commodity market ingredients.


  2. It’s really sad how people are ready to destroy our planet for money and products. I have read about this issue before and even learnt about it in one of my sociology class. I try to buy fair trade chocolate whenever I buy chocolate and have been doing that for a while now.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s