The lifecycle of chocolate, from cacao beans to candy bars

Consumer behavior is constantly evolving. And in 2020, consumer demands are becoming more and more ethically conscious. Here, we take a look the supply chain of cacao beans, and how customers are shaping it.

It’s December 2019. Christmas is getting closer, and supermarkets stock up on chocolate Santas. Truffles are decoratively wrapped as gifts, and hot chocolates are sipped in the mountain lodges of ski slopes. Anna, an 11-year-old girl from northern Europe, gathers with her family to celebrate the holidays as snow blows through the treetops outside. She sits in front of the fireplace, cozy and warm, and eats the chocolate Santa her mom got her. Approximately 3,500 miles away, in blistering heat, another 11-year-old girl goes to bed hungry, as her father, a cacao bean farmer in West Africa, has yet again not received his paycheck for the bag of beans he sold last month. Those cacao beans might have very well been used to make Anna’s chocolate Santa.

The supply chain—farming, shipping, producing, and selling—of worldwide in-demand food items like cacao beans, often operates at extreme ethical costs: environmental damage, workforce exploitation, and even human lives. 

Cacao beans farming: a deeper look 

The implications on human lives that result from profit-oriented manufacturing giants and their socially irresponsible decision are vast. Let’s take a closer look at the core ingredient of Anna’s chocolate Santa: cacao beans. 

It is grown all over the world, but a large chunk comes from East Africa. On the Ivory Coast, cacao bean farmers live in small villages that usually lack infrastructure. There is little drinking water, no electricity, and often no schools for children. The smell of chocolate permeates the air. And while the global chocolate industry is valued north of $100 billion, the average cacao farmer earns less than $1 a day

It’s a cycle built to exploit the disadvantaged and serve the rich and powerful. Farmers of cacao beans—many of whom are children without protections—produce beans. Traders demand unfair prices to maximize their margins. Farmers have no option but to sell. Traders and corporations profit. Farmers continue to work. And their families continue to struggle to obtain enough food and water. Rinse and repeat. 

tropical farm

Increased awareness of social & environmental responsibility

Thankfully, more and more consumers are beginning to not only understand the importance of social and environmental responsibility, but demand that companies act responsibly and be transparent with their operations, especially when it comes to the food and beverage industry. In addition, purchasing trends are changing, with consumers defining themselves less by their possessions and more by the pursuit of greater meaning and purpose. It’s important that consumers find brands they can identify with, who encapsulate their own personal and social beliefs, morals, and goals. This is something companies must be aware of.

And with this awareness comes a question: Do companies and industry leaders now have the obligation to partially sacrifice profit for the sake of socially and environmentally responsible business practices? And if not for the moral good, then for the fear of losing valuable consumers who demand it? If not now, then soon. Consumer demand always informs business decisions, and the increase in demand for responsible business decisions will continue to impact every single market. 

Sell purpose, not products

Many companies have built their missions around ethical leadership and impact—purposes greater than pure sales. There are many pioneering companies (especially SMEs and startups) with admirable purposes. Some examples:

  • The Belgian chocolate manufacturer Tony’s Chocolonely established itself in the market to promote fair wages amongst farmers and other workers. 
  • The Dutch organic and vegan chocolate manufacturer and B2C seller Lovechock is paying farmers fair wages via the Direct Trade principle. This means they buy cacao beans and paste for processing bars directly from the farmer and ensure the production process happens in the country of origin as much as possible prior to the finished product being shipped internationally. This not only ensures fair wages, but also boosts the country’s economy, adding more value in the local production process.
  • The market and opportunity is just as big for other globally popular products, such as coffee beans. The Peruvian coffee roaster and seller Compadre is a leading example, working with families who exclusively use organic agricultural practices. On top of this, they train coffee farmers and families to roast their own beans, which in turn boosts their income and creates a more ecological supply chain.
  • Finally, there’s the Dutch coffee company Bocca Coffee, whose whole practice and purpose is centered around human well-being. “We may be a coffee company, but we are in the relationship business. We are about people first. We want to empower and connect people—at home and in origin: farmers, partners, and customers. Because we believe this is the only way to make real change happen. Together. As partners.”

What can other companies learn from these pioneers?

Companies can see movements in consumer behavior with regards to purpose-driven purchasing as an opportunity to reinvent their business models and be innovative. This is no easy task, though. It’s an enormous time and money investment, and profit margins and growth will likely decrease, at least over the short term. But it’s short-term pain for long-term gain. Transparency is in high-demand, and companies must act to keep up. To stay in business, change is necessary. And if they talk the talk, they must be prepared to walk the walk.

Any marketeer understands that we live in a customer-centric world. This is a brand opportunity to design experiences for the conscious consumer, and to give their buyers more than a product—to give them an identity in their purchasing decisions that align with their sense of purpose. 

A glimpse into the future

It’s December 2035, and Anna enters her favorite local café with her son as snow blows through the treetops outside. Lucas, the vendor standing behind the counter, hands her a chocolate Santa: “Hi Anna, I just finished making this for you. Enjoy it! By the way, my brother-in-law down on the cacao farm on the Ivory Coast says hi. He’s so excited you and your husband are visiting him this summer.” Anna smiles, looking down at her Santa. “Thank you Lucas, I’m excited too!”


kim headshotKim Riemensperger is a graduate student in the Master in Customer Experience & Innovation, class of 2020, at the IE School of Human Sciences & Technology. She is originally from Germany but has lived in four different countries. Kim strives to be an agent of change of the environment and healthcare, and is passionate about researching, writing about, and communicating global challenges that the world is facing.