Buying a bar of chocolate, it turns out, is a gender issue. It's also a child labour issue. You could even say it's a modern slavery issue since the average cocoa farmer lives on a wage well below the UN's poverty line of $1.90 a day. And as deforestation and soil erosion are typical problems in cocoa-growing areas, chocolate is also an environmental issue.
hat on earth does that have to do with us? Well, we Irish are chocolate lovers - apparently, we each ate 7.7kg of the dark stuff in 2017, which puts us in third place in Europe. Only Austria and Switzerland enjoy a slab of chocolate more than we do, according to a new report from Fairtrade 'Craving a Change in Chocolate'.
We shell out €615m a year on chocolate, it's estimated, and the Government takes €115m of that in VAT. The small holder farmers who grow the crop, the vast bulk of which comes from Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana in West Africa, receive about 7pc of the value of chocolate, excluding VAT. Retailers pocket a whopping 44pc.
So where we choose to put our small change can have a big impact.
The biggest issue is poverty. Low incomes mean that cocoa farmers can barely survive, let alone plan a future or reinvest in climate-smart farming techniques. But it is women who are hardest hit - in Côte d'Ivoire, they do 68pc of the work, but receive just 21pc of the income, according to the African Development Bank.
They rarely own their own land, and when they do, it tends to be in remote or less productive areas. On farms owned by their male partners, women are often excluded from decision making or access to training or development funding.
And then there is the issue of child labour. In West Africa, according to the Fairtrade report, about 2.1m children are still estimated to be working on cocoa farms despite efforts to rein in the practice.
Things are changing though. This year, for the first time, the Côte D'Ivoire and Ghana governments agreed prices for farmers' produce that will boost incomes. And there are initiatives afoot at EU level, being championed by Fairtrade and other campaigning organisations, that may force a change in human rights regulations and pay a living income to cocoa farmers. But that may take years.
In the meantime, Fairtrade certification means a better deal for farmers. It guarantees a minimum price per tonne which buffers farmers against a volatile market, as well as a fixed premium that goes to local cooperatives and farm organisations. So choosing a Fairtrade chocolate such as Divine or the new Tony's Chocolonely brand or Green & Black's Classic range is a start. Rainbow or 100pc organic certs are also a plus.
Many of the six big-name brands that make up 50pc of the market - Mars, Mondelez, Ferrero, Hershey, Nestle, Lindt and Spungli - have set up their own certification schemes. Though critics question the transparency and auditing on some of these, and maintain that they focus on upping productivity rather than farmers' incomes.
If you're a chocolate purist on the hunt for single origin chocolate, then check the label. "You should know who produced the cocoa bean, not just the country - that is rubbish for identifying single origin beans - you should be able to find information about the supplier," says Patrick Marjolet of The Proper Chocolate Company, an Irish bean-to-bar company that makes a range of single origin chocolates in Dublin. He buys direct from social enterprises in the country of origin such as Kilombero Valley in Tanzania, a model of ethical farming that has been copied across East Africa, or Finca de Rioja in Mexico, where heritage beans have been rediscovered and are cultivated by indigenous peoples in the rainforest. "If you want to be certain that chocolate comes from a sustainable source, the particular social enterprise should be named."
He believes that if a manufacturer has cut corners on cost, it can mean the product is less sustainable too. Good quality dark chocolate should have very few ingredients, he maintains, cocoa or cocoa mass, cocoa butter and sugar. "Fat-reduced cocoa powder," he believes, "is a sign that the chocolate is poor quality."
Soya lecithin is often used to replace the more expensive cocoa butter. "Soya lecithin is not necessarily a bad thing," says Patrick, "but 1pc of it replaces 10pc of cocoa butter. Generally it is combined with fat-reduced cocoa powder to replace the fat lost from the cocoa powder."
Watch out for vanilla, particularly synthetic vanilla, says Patrick. It can be used to cover the burnt taste of poor quality beans that have been roasted at a very high temperature.
As for sugar, look for organic to avoid environmental problems like deforestation and loss of biodiversity.
Finally, choose chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa. Not only are you supporting farmers, but it's better for your health too.
Go carbon free?
Forget sugar, this Lent try cutting your carbon. Environmental activist Darragh Wynne has devised a clever tracker that helps you calculate your emissions for electricity, transport, heating and food. Make a change each week, and see your footprint shrink. Download on adambolandblog.com and follow on twitter.com/envirolent