The UK's Co-op retail group is already one of the countries leading sellers of Fairtrade products - which guarantee fair prices for producers in developing countries - but yesterday it took a major leap forward in its ethical stance with the announcement that all its own-brand chocolate will be switched to the Fairtrade label.
With more than 2,400 stores nationwide, the impact of this decision will be a doubling of the UK market for ethically-produced chocolate almost overnight. The Co-op's decision follows - but is not related to - the announcement earlier this week by international chocolate producers of a new programme of aid targeting the main coca-growing areas of Africa designed to improve their economic performance and eradicate child labour.
The Co-op's ground-breaking deal, struck with the Ghanaian cocoa co-operative Kuapa Kokoo, which supplies some of the best quality cocoa in the world, will guarantee a fair price for the cocoa harvest - always above the market norm and one that covers the cost of production and a basic living wage - as well as providing schools, water wells and vital medical facilities for impoverished communities.
The Co-op added that it expected the deal to also "start a race among the major UK supermarket groups anxious to demonstrate they care and keen to establish their ethical credentials".
There have been numerous reports about the appalling conditions faced by many workers in the West African cocoa industry, and major multinational producers have been under increasing pressure to act to improve the lot of people, and in particular children, who are indirectly working for them. West African growers supply almost 70 per cent of the world's cocoa beans - the main ingredient in chocolate - but companies often have little control over how that cocoa is produced or harvested.
According to the Co-op, the UK consumes more confectionery than any other country in the world, with expenditure on chocolate alone reaching almost £4 billion (€6.3bn) and each Briton spending an average of £63 per year on chocolate. At the same time, most cocoa growers live in poverty, often earning less than £170 per year as a result of wildly fluctuating commodity prices and often ruthless middlemen.
Fairtrade means UK organisations, like the Co-op, can cut out these middlemen, deal directly with growers and guarantee a fair price for their produce, the retail group said. The scheme also pays a social premium to help fund vital community projects. Kuapa Kokoo currently sells around 650 tonnes of cocoa under the Fairtrade scheme.
The Co-op move will mean a 30 per cent increase in Kuapa's Fairtrade sales - providing enough funds to allow them to send 164,000 children to primary school and build new wells to supply water to 25 entire villages, if all the money was spent this way. The Co-op was able to source the cocoa for its new range through the London-based Day Chocolate Company, the marketing arm of Kuapa Kokoo.
"Currently, none of the major chocolate manufacturers include Fairtrade chocolate in their ranges," said the Co-op's Terry Hudghton. "The cocoa growers of West Africa are some of the world's most exploited workers, but we can make an enormous difference to their lives simply by eating Fairtrade chocolate, which tastes every bit as good as the leading brands.
"If the major manufacturers were to carry just one Fairtrade product in their range the benefits for the poverty-stricken cocoa growers would be phenomenal," he added.
If the Co-op's move goes according to plan, Hudghton said, sales of Fairtrade chocolate in the UK will double, jumping from £3 million to £6 million. And if other supermarkets followed the Co-op's Fairtrade lead, as they have in the past, chocolate manufacturers would have to bow to commercial pressure.
The consumer-owned retailer is inviting customers to help make Fairtrade chocolate mainstream with a massive letter-writing campaign. It has provided a template letter on its website so that they can write to the BCCCA [the UK confectionery producers' association] to put pressure on its members to source at least some of their cocoa under the Fairtrade scheme.
Hudghton added: "The Co-op will continue to increase our other Fairtrade lines, but we've made chocolate our primary focus because of the obscene contrast between the pleasure derived from eating it and the suffering that can go into supplying its key ingredient.
"Now that all the Co-op's own-label chocolate bars are switching to Fairtrade, customers can help stamp out the abuse of some of the world's most exploited workers - simply by eating chocolate."
The new Co-op Fair Trade Chocolate bar range consists of: Co-op Fair Trade Milk Chocolate 45g, priced 39p; Co-op Fair Trade Milk Chocolate 150g and Co-op Fair Trade Crispy Milk Chocolate 150g, both priced 95p; Co-op Fair Trade Dark Chocolate 150g and Co-op Fair Trade Fruit and Nut Chocolate 150g, both priced 99p and Co-op Fair Trade Crispy White Chocolate 100g, priced 99p.