Direct Trade vs. Fair Trade: Can You Trace Your Chocolate?

The Dominican Republic, Peru, Brazil, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras…

Since you’ve found the FEARLESS blog, I’ll wager you know what these countries have in common. But do you know what the following countries have in common?

France, Germany, U.S., Belgium, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, England, Australia.

These are the countries that make and consume 90% of the world’s chocolate.

If the former countries grow the chocolate, and the latter ones make and eat it, have you ever considered, as a chocolate consumer yourself (and you know you are), the process in which chocolate gets from country A to country B.

Simply: Can You Trace Your Chocolate?

Do you absolutely know where your chocolate comes from and how ethical, environmental, direct or indirect the trading process?

Cacao Hands

Life by the handful

Buyers and makers of chocolate take various approaches to the purchase of beans. Some recent and popular words like Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Bean-to-Bar, Microbatch, and Handcrafted have circulated, and anyone who has a serious interest in frequent chocolate consumption should be familiar with these words.

You’ve probably heard of Fair Trade (FT) by now. FT is when buyers pay a “fair price” to producers or growers. The “fair price” is evaluated by a third party organization (the FT organization) that considers cost of production, cost of work input, cost of producer/grower’s living conditions, etc, then, if the plantation meets the standards, the third party stamps the plantation with a  seal of approval. In chocolate, this seal informs the consumer the chocolate has met the standards of the FT organization. Those growers that choose (or can afford) to buy a FT organization’s certification become a part of a cooperative, so when beans are bought, a large percent (between 50-80%) goes to the cooperative, and a small percent (between 30-50%) goes to the growers. The growers do make decisions about the projects and actions that the cooperative makes, but they almost never receive full payment of the paid price.

Despite the positive direction of FT, it has downsides. Most growers are too poor to pay for a FT certification, and if they can afford it, they do not receive direct payment for their beans. For the consumer, FT might mean a limited bean variety, since FT certified growers exist in only 11 origins. In addition, many large corporations buy a percentage of their beans as FT to “trick” the consumer into thinking they’re a “green” company.

For the reasons above, many chocolate makers prefer Direct Trade. DT requires a chocolate maker, usually a single person or small group of people making the chocolate, to develop a face-to-face relationship with the grower. The DT buyer almost always pays higher then FT prices to the grower, and the grower gets 100% of the payment. Some chocolate makers even pay above the FT price and start schools or profit sharing. In direct trading, the buyer has complete control of the bean quality and production. The major downside to DT is that the consumer and the grower must trust the integrity of the buyer, that the buyer pays and practices what he claims.

Circle of life

Cacao Pods on the ground

Due to direct trade buying, bean to bar chocolate making has come to dominate the future of chocolate. In bean to bar, the chocolate maker has complete control of the chocolate from the moment it’s plucked from the tree to the consumer’s purchase of the bar. This includes the way and type of beans plucked, the treatment of the growers, the shipment of the beans to the buyer, and the chocolate making.

Inside the bean-to-bar, direct trade chocolate making world, there are finer terms that some chocolate makers use, like microbatch and handcrafted. Microbatch simply means a smaller amount of chocolate is made per batch. Hand crafted is a marketing term, because in reality, no chocolate can be made without a machine (unless literally four hundred people do the work of one machine, which is, obviously, ridiculous). In bean to bar chocolate making, much of the chocolate is hand-crafted, but a machine separates the shell from the bean (winnowing) and blends the sugar and the chocolate liquor (conching). Realistically, handcrafted means the chocolate maker oversees in-house chocolate on an intricate level.

With the terms clarified, I asked Jordon Michael Schuster, one of the founders of FEARLESS chocolate, how FEARLESS trades and produces their chocolate.

Schuster is a direct trader. He works with three family-owned farms in Brazil, called the Badaro Farms, and visits the farms on a yearly basis (he returns this September) to oversee and make large-scale decisions. He is also in weekly contact with the farms.

FEARLESS is a microbatch chocolate maker in that it makes a ton of chocolate a week. Schuster tells me this is their maximum batch size, and within this production “We [FEARLESS CHOCOLATE] have well elaborated bean selecting criteria based upon 1. bean genetics 2. bean appearance 3. moisture content 4. micro-analysis (for bacterial contamination). All the selected beans are dried and hand-sorted.”

Thus, we have unloaded a minute beginning to the industry of chocolate, giving you confidence in your chocolate purchases. So challenge yourself by testing your buyer! Ask the tough questions: you have a right to know!

  • Where’s my chocolate from?
  • How is it traded?
  • Do you deal directly with the buyer or use third party traders?
  • Is it made in micro batches?
  • And is my chocolate made bean-to-bar, from the fermenting to the conching to the molding?


Don’t settle for the middle man chocolate makers with their inferior beans. Claim your chocolate snobbery!



By Heather Palmer

Written on September 12th, 2011

Heather Palmer has an MFA in Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her book works include the online-serialized novella Charlie’s Train (the2ndhand), the chapbook Mere Tragedies (Girls With Insurance) and the novella Complements: of Us (Spork Press). Her forthcoming poetry book, Starfish Over Oyster, will be published with Love Symbol Press in early 2012. She has blogged for FEARLESS chocolate, edited at Monkeybicycle Magazine and Dzanc Books, and now teaches grammar at Harold Washington College of Chicago. Read more about her at “Fine Salt”, her blog:

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