This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts on measuring sustainability in transparent cacao sourcing systems by FCCI Senior Advisor Summer Allen, PhD, in collaboration with Executive Director Carla D. Martin, PhD.

Consumers are increasingly aware of the impact their shopping decisions can have on communities of origin. Similarly, businesses have an interest in ensuring their supply chain is managed for social, environmental, and economic responsibility. FCCI has previously discussed themes that are of concern in the supply chain such as labor rights at individual events and in our larger forum The Chocolate Conservatory. However, a baffling number of certifications and labels exist that pledge sustainability or transparency in supply chains despite accepted definitions on the terminology used or substantial third-party oversight. Additionally, there is no agreement or uniform tracking of quality as there is with coffee, which hinders growth and acceptance of specialty cacao as a distinct product from commodity cacao, leading to downward pressure on prices. 

The only way to assure sustainable management of limited resources is through unbiased measurement or, at the least, targeted observations over time. Many specialty cacao producers and chocolate makers already track a set of particular indicators such as the price paid for cacao and visits made to producers at origin. However, they often lack the resources required to track other important indicators that could help ensure sustainability in their supply chains.  Given that the majority of specialty cacao used by specialty chocolate makers is sourced from less than twenty origins, there is an opportunity for stakeholders to participate in joint tracking across common indicators. 

The proposed Cacao Cooperative project aims to develop a consortium of companies, producer cooperatives, academic institutions, and development organizations with a shared vision of transparent trade. An online platform, accessible by members of the Cooperative, will compile existing information from select origins while accounting for relevant ethical and business considerations. This data will be available via the platform to allow institutions to more efficiently and effectively understand and communicate regarding sustainability in their supply chains. We anticipate that this work will reduce the burden of data analysis for smaller operations that cannot manage it internally. Beyond this, it will support the strengthening of transparency-focused companies and cacao producers through collective action.

Current coverage of indicators varies, with a number of agencies, programs, and companies using different definitions to report on a range of sustainability metrics. Some indicators have good coverage that can be improved simply through coordinated data sharing. For example, the prevalence of worst forms of child labor in certain origins is widely reported by certifying agencies and NGOs, but less by manufacturers. Other indicators, such as those related to ecological practices and quality or flavor, are widely collected but without a uniform definition. For ecological practices, reporting can focus on a number of indicators including use of chemicals, intercropping, or measures of biodiversity. Improvement of such indicators will require consensus on common language and definitions.

Other important indicators such as income are missing in most cases, likely due to limited data collection and methodological challenges. Alternative methods for data collection and analysis could improve coverage and bring together available data in a coordinated manner. This could better allow for targeted recommendations for producers and help inform ongoing discussions on supporting living incomes.

Consortium members of the Cacao Cooperative project will work to structure guiding documents that provide clarity on quality, sustainable sourcing, and the requirements for transparency.  From these indicators, a gap analysis will be completed using the data that exists for each origin. Based upon the needs of the consortium and the costs involved in gathering the information and training requirements, a financial plan will be drafted, relying upon a mix of grants and fees to support the work.

Once developed, the platform will provide members of the Cacao Cooperative options of various output formats (e.g. spreadsheet, visualized data, and text output) for key indicators from a particular origin. When fully developed, the platform will allow for multiple origins and indicators and, where available, data over time. The consortium can then decide how best to use this information for reporting to consumers and producer cooperatives and associations that are part of the consortium can use this to better understand their constraints and opportunities. It is expected that over time, the database will be increasingly robust and the data collection can be done using mobile phone surveys throughout the value chain in addition to working with local research partners to capture field-based measurements, thus providing an unbiased view of the supply chain. 

An additional priority of the project is to track transparent pricing information from companies sourcing cacao, organizations in origin, and research institutions. Information on cacao quality will also be included with the goal of informing the ongoing development of international standards. The project will facilitate a shared understanding of specialty cacao and sustainability in the sector as well as the compilation of data that can help track activities and potential impacts in the supply chain. It also has the potential to contribute to a clear definition of specialty cacao and a set of guidelines for assuring not only high quality but also sustainably sourced cacao.

Updates on the Cacao Collaborative will be made available over the next few months. If you are interested in being part of this movement, please reach out to us at contact [at] chocolateinstitute [dot] org.

Dr. Summer Allen is a senior advisor with the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute and a Senior Research Coordinator at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Summer is an agricultural economist whose work focuses on agriculture for nutrition and food security and sustainable development throughout Latin America, Africa and India. Before joining IFPRI in 2014, she served as the Research Coordinator for the Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA) where she evaluated the impacts of certification ofor producers of cacao and coffee. Summer has previously worked with the Economic Research Service (US Dept of Agriculture), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. She is currently based in California as a Visiting Scholar with the Food Security and Environment group at Stanford University.