When it comes to chocolate, sustainability has to begin with conditions on the cocoa plantation — both the environmental conditions and the working conditions. Cocoa (or cacao as its also known) is one of those crops that has a long and complicated history. Although the cacao plant is not rare, its beans are highly sought after because of the end product they produce — chocolate.

For years, many companies that made chocolate looked to buy cocoa as inexpensively as possible and didn't pay attention to the unsustainable farming that happened on the cacao plantations in Central and South America, Africa and other regions with climates warm enough for the crop. They also weren't overly concerned with the conditions the plantation workers labored under. Those workers, including children, have been subject to unsafe conditions while earning unlivable wages.

In this new era of growing corporate responsibility and environmental and social concern, more and more companies that make chocolate products are sourcing cocoa sustainably. They often use third-party certifications to ensure consumers that their chocolates are made with the responsibly sourced ingredients promised.

One of the most visible certifications when it comes to cocoa is fair trade certification. This certification assures consumers that conditions like fair wages, safe working conditions and child-free labor were met when sourcing the ingredients.

Cadbury Cadbury will be dropping its Fairtrade International certification in exchange for its own sustainable program. (Photo: Health Gauge/flickr)

One company that has been a supporter of fair trade is the British Cadbury company. Since 2009, Cadbury bars made in the U.K. has been Fairtrade International certified. (The Cadbury made in the U.S. is made by Hershey under a separate licensing agreement and is of inferior quality in both ingredients and taste — in my opinion — to the U.K. version.) A year after it went fair trade, Kraft Foods bought Cadbury and Kraft eventually spun its global snack and foods products off into a company called Mondelez International.

Recently Mondelez announced that Cadbury is pulling out of Fairtrade International certification in favor of its own sustainable sourcing scheme, Cocoa Life, according to The Independent. Cadbury is not the only maker of chocolate to have its own sustainable program. Nestle has one, too.

Sustainability certifications in cocoa are getting more diverse. Let's take a look at some of the major ones you may see on packaging or that may be working behind the scenes.

Third-party certifications

Some chocolate makers go outside their own company and get certification from a third party. This is generally a more trusted method because in theory, the third-party certifier is impartial and has no conflict of interest. Here are some of the most recognized third-party sustainability certifications for cocoa.

Fair trade

fairtrade-international logoFair trade is a general term that is used to identify products that are sustainably, ethically and fairly sourced. There are various third-party certifications that are associated with fair trade. Cadbury used the Fairtrade International certification and other chocolate makers still use it. Brands like Divine and Green & Black's carry it on many of their products. Ben & Jerry's sources as many fair trade ingredients as possible, including its cocoa. Some products, such as TCHO chocolates, carry the Fair Trade USA certification, which is separate from the Fairtrade International certification but has similar conditions.

Fair for Life

Fair-for-life-logoFair for Life is a certification process that emphasizes decent working conditions for all, and companies that hold the certification "commit to fair sourcing practices and responsibilities towards their primary producers down the commodity chain." Fair for Life certification of products also confirms traceability of all certified products. It certifies much more than just cocoa, but one recognizable chocolate brand that it certifies is Theo, which makes the Hazelnut Crunch Milk Chocolate Bar I'm crazy about.

Rainforest Alliance

rainforest-alliance-logoThe Rainforest Alliance certification means a product is guaranteed to meet high standards in wildlife conservation, worker welfare and benefits to local communities, including child-free labor. The amount and type of pesticides used by farmers are strictly controlled and must continually be reduced. Some Dove chocolates, the Endangered Species brand and Dagoba chocolates carry this label.

UTZ certified

UTZ-certified-logoUTZ is on a "mission is to create a world where sustainable farming is the norm." It is the largest program for sustainable farming of coffee and cocoa in the world. The certification shows consumers that products have been sourced in a sustainable manner, encompassing better farming methods, working conditions and care for nature. The label is on chocolate products all over the world, and here in the U.S. it's on many cocoa products from the Aldi store brand.

Some chocolate makers use a combination of these certifications when sourcing their cocoa. Mars works with Fairtrade International, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ and has pledged 100 percent sustainable cocoa sourcing by 2020. Hershey has made the same pledge and works with the same third party certification companies. (Which I suppose means that the U.S. Cadbury should be sustainably sourced by 2020.)

In-house certifications

In-house standards for sustainability can be controversial because there's no impartial third party without a conflict of interest checking to see if the standards are being met. Both Cadbury and Nestle are trusting the public trusts them.

Cadbury and Cocoa Life


Cocoa Life says it's a third-party certification but it's a partnership between Mondelez and Fairtrade International so the same company that wants its products certified is also part of the certification process. Cocoa Life will be the certification for all Mondelez products including Cadbury and Toblerone. Cocoa Life's mission is to empower cocoa farmers, nature thriving cocoa communities and work at a significant scale. Also, because this is a partnership with Fairtrade International, that logo will still be on Cadbury chocolates, but it will move to the back of the label.

Nestle and Cocoa Plan

nestle-cocoa-planNestle's Cocoa Plan aims to increase "suppliers’ profitability, secure high-quality cocoa for its business, and address supply chain issues such as child labour, gender inequality and poor social conditions." Unlike Mars and Hershey that have pledged 100 percent sustainably sourced cocoa, it pledges to continually increase the amount of sustainably sourced cocoa yearly. In 2015, Nestle exceeded its objective of purchasing 100,000 tons of cocoa (25 percent of its total cocoa purchases) though the Cocoa Plan. It also "trained 44,617 farmers, distributed 1.6 million plants and built or refurbished 40 schools over four years."

The Lindt & Sprungli Farming Program

Lindt-sustainability-logoLindt chocolates also uses its own sustainability program: the Lindt and Sprungli Farming Program. The program, currently in place in Ghana and Ecuador, traces cocoa beans back to their origin and supports farmers and their communities according to their specific needs. Since 2008, more than 45,000 farmers have participated in the program.

Would you rather buy chocolate certified by a third party organization or an in-house organization? Do you trust one more than the other?

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.