There are two kinds of chocolate bars in the world (well, in the United States, at least): High-end, organic, sustainably-produced bars that may or not boast rain forest illustrations on the package (but almost always come with a hefty price tag) and the rest – the mainstream candy bars that whisper “buy me” at the checkout line. Basically, the choice for most consumers has been conscious chocolate or corporate chocolate.

But now there’s a new cocoa on the block that has elements of both. And believe it or not, it’s from Nestle and its innovative Cocoa Plan; the seal that you can now see on all Nestle Crunch bars and will be slowly rolled out on more Nestle products in the future.

While skeptics may question the commitment of multinational corporations to protect the planet, Nestle is part of a growing trend in big business in which sustainability plays a new, more important role. One of the themes running through this year’s Sustainable Brands Conference in San Diego was the simple concept that if corporations don’t start addressing sustainability issues, there will no longer be resources left to make products, let alone people to sell things to. For many of these companies seeking a healthy business model, addressing social and environmental issues is becoming an intrinsic part of the mission.

To that end, Nestle launched the Cocoa Plan in 2009; last year the company's Crunch bars became the first mainstream bars on the U.S. market to use 100-percent certified sustainable cocoa. This year the company used Cocoa Plan beans for the first time in Nestle Toll House milk chocolate and dark chocolate morsels, Nestle Hot Cocoa and some Nesquik powder. The company is working to get 100 percent of its chocolate portfolio using the cocoa beans. For third-party certification, Nestle has partnered with the European-based UTZ Certified to ensure that best practices are being used.

(And on a similar note, in 2010 Nestle announced a partnership with The Forest Trust and vowed to use 100 percent sustainably sourced palm oil by 2015.)

In a screening of the CNN documentary “Coco-Nomics” at the Sustainable Brands Conference, Nestle’s global head of operations, Jose Lopez, explains the innovations and commitments included in the Cocoa Plan. Many of these efforts are focused on the Ivory Coast, where 40 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from.

Cocoa consumption has doubled in the last 20 years, yet cocoa production has been dwindling — and that's one of the biggest problems that Nestle faced, as the film explains. Quite simply, cocoa farming had become too hard and unrewarding; many cocoa farmers were leaving for better lives in the city or turning to other crops. Old, diseased trees with limited yield compounded the problem.

Nestle attacked this problem at the root, so to speak. Company officials developed a higher-yielding, more drought- and disease-resistant cocoa tree; and they have given 3 million of these super trees to farmers thus far and plan to give away 12 million of them in total. (And for the record, although high-tech, the trees are not GMO; they employ an “accelerated propagation process” that uses cocoa flower embryos to propagate new trees.)

They are also training farmers in efficient and sustainable growing techniques; they have trained 21,000 farmers to date. Farmer training focuses on better farming practices, including pruning trees, pest control (with an emphasis on integrated pest management) and harvesting, as well as caring for the environment.

In addition, they have built 23 new schools so far and plan to build 40 in total by 2015.

The elephant in the room

Another important part of the plan has been to address the elephant in the room: child labor. Kevin Petrie, vice president and chief procurement officer at Nestle USA says that according to U.S. statistics, there are about 800,000 children who work the cocoa supply chain. With this in mind, Nestle approached the Fair Labor Association to map out strategies to help curb child labor in the cocoa sector, and these efforts – including community education and the building of schools – have become a hallmark of the Cocoa Plan. (Nestle became the first food and beverage company to partner with the Fair Labor Association when the two groups worked together in 2010 on hazelnut farming.)

As Lopez says in “Cocoa-Nomics,” there’s really a need to focus on the long term. “We need to see prosperity enter these villages, “ he says. “I believe that, and I believe that very strongly.”

So while the highbrow cocoa connoisseur may still opt for the high-end chocolate bar, the rest of the chocolate bar eaters who want sustainable cocoa can opt for mainstream chocolate that bears the Cocoa Plan label. As of now, 40 percent of the company’s confections are using sustainably sourced cocoa, with a goal of 100 percent in the future.

While Lopez says that Nestle “had to do something, it’s a business case,” and business may indeed have inspired the efforts, the real bottom line here is that farmers are now getting a guaranteed price, have productive trees and education, and more kids are going to school … while less kids are wielding machetes. Are there other issues still at play in the world of cocoa and big food? Of course, but baby steps lead to bigger ones, and the Cocoa Plan feels like a step in the right direction.

Related stories on MNN:

What does the 'Cocoa Plan' label on chocolate mean?
It's a confusing marketplace of new seals and product promises for chocolate, but here's the thinking behind Nestle's 'Cocoa Plan' label.