Which is more sustainable, milk chocolate, or dark chocolate? The answer may be bittersweet.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, you should start thinking more about chocolate; not in a “give me some Godiva” way, but more in an “I want to be better informed than just accepting what the industry wants to tell us” sort of way.

‘Sustainability’ is a nuanced concept, and its meaning has become skewed as companies exploit it as a buzzword to sell to the conscious consumer. When it comes to chocolate, being armed with some background knowledge about the industry will undoubtedly help inform more sustainable choices.

So, where does chocolate come from?

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, primarily sourced from tropical regions such as West Africa- Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. The beans are grown on small holdings, where independent farmers clear dense forests to create their farms. The farmers sell their beans to middlemen called “pisteurs,” who go farm-to-farm purchasing the beans by weight. The beans move between several levels of intermediaries, known as “cooperatives,” before being sold to the big chocolatiers and making their way to the store shelves.

Since the farmers do not communicate and set standard market rates, they are effectively competing against one another to sell their cocoa beans at the lowest price. This structure creates a supply & demand imbalance, where there is excess supply, thus driving down the cocoa beans’ value. Such a situation translates into a humanitarian crisis, and in turn, bleeds into an ecological crisis.

In fact, cocoa farmers make less than a dollar per day and often live in poverty; they turn to clearing more land and growing more cocoa to increase their earnings, inadvertently worsening the problem by creating more supply (and thus lower prices). Often, the farmers expand illegally into protected land, destroying precious forests rich with biodiversity.

So what’s the more sustainable choice, milk chocolate or dark chocolate? 


The answer is dark chocolate. This is because dark chocolate has a higher cocoa content, hence requiring more cocoa beans to manufacture. In a supply and demand problem, as consumers increase demand for cocoa beans through dark chocolate, the cocoa bean price also rises. Thus, farmers become disincentivized to expand their growing operations into the forest.


Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Luckily, our options as consumers are not limited to just buying dark chocolate. In fact, chocolate labeled as “organic” is regulated to ensure fair wages for the cocoa bean farmers. For example, cocoa grown domestically in Hawaii ensures minimum wage due to regulations protecting workers. Moreover, Hawaii’s proximity to the United States slashes transportation-related emissions when bringing the product farm to market.

Sustainably sourced chocolate is more expensive; this is a reality of many sustainable goods. It is important for consumers to be mindful that while we do not get to choose what goods cost, we do get to choose who incurs the cost. Unsustainably sourced chocolate may have a low cost to you, the consumer, but it comes at a high cost to the others who exist in the supply chain, as well as the environment. When we pay more for sustainable choices, we choose to incur the cost ourselves, and most importantly, to the benefit of the people and environments that provided us with the product.

Our Top Chocolate Picks:


  1. Theo Chocolate works directly with the farmers to pay higher prices for certified fair trade and organic cocoa beans to ensure farmers receive a living wage.
  2. Alter Eco operates on Fair Trade principles, produces only organic and non-GMO foods, and administers large-scale reforestation programs.
  3. Equal Exchange aims to build long-term trade partnerships to foster mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers for a more sustainable world. 

Our decisions as consumers are powerful- whether it’s purchasing chocolate for Valentine’s Day, or a daily decision you make, there are far-reaching effects. Consider giving the gift of conscious consumerism this Valentine’s Day. 


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Article by Impact Snacks Contributor, Steven MacMaster

Tags: change, diet

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