A Drop in the Ocean: Carbon and the Chocolate Factory

I may be someone who religiously keeps a slab of chocolate on their bedside locker (and thus someone who regularly has trouble sleeping and/or terrible nightmares for no discernible reason). Easter is therefore a much-anticipated event for me – a welcome respite from closeted snacking and a foray into full-frontal, unapologetic feasting, unfettered by the archaic doctrines of “mealtimes”. However, while I’ve spent a lifetime concerned with the impact of chocolate on my waistline, what I really should have been concerned about was its environmental impact. The UK chocolate industry alone contributes 2.1 million tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year – the annual emissions of Belfast city or, if that doesn’t seem mammoth enough, El Paso, Texas. “A moment on the lips, forever on the…porous ozone layer?” It is therefore a moral imperative that I address my inexorable weakness – the sweetly packaged, sweeter-tasting milked squares of devilish destruction. 

And what better time to begin this exorcism than Easter – a season of rebirth, resurrection, and…all of the chocolate in the world. Last year, we, the virtuous, Lent-abiding Irish public, spent €44m on Easter eggs, consuming more than 17 million of them despite our puny population size of barely five million. I am clearly not one to judge indulgence (see confession above) and this Easter excess would be without comment if our increasing appetites weren’t wreaking havoc on our climate, environment, and, depending on where we’re sourcing our chocolate, many vulnerable communities too. But they are.

There is a reason chocolate is synonymous with seduction – it’s frankly irresistible.

Chocolate’s raw ingredients – milk, cocoa, sugar, and palm oil – all negatively impact our environment in a myriad of ways. Milk carries a large carbon footprint because of its methane-emitting source, the humble cow. Cocoa, sugar, but particularly palm oil, are all key drivers of deforestation as forests are razed to clear land for farming. The fact these crops can only be grown many thousands of miles away only compounds the climate cost.

Then you have the Russian doll wrapping of Easter eggs. While we devoured over 2,136 tonnes of chocolate last Easter, Repak estimated this consumption generated 19,650 tonnes of packaging waste – enough to fill a fleet of 161 airplanes. Essentially, our money (€44 million of it, just to reiterate) is being spent on waste. Waste, Repak confirms, that half of us won’t even recycle.

And, just like that, I’ve cancelled Easter. I hereby declare the Easter bunny officially redundant and the one good reason to get out of bed early on a Sunday (chocolate for breakfast) defunct.

Except my cravings – alive and well at 9.45 am – tell me this is unfeasible. There is a reason chocolate is synonymous with seduction – it’s frankly irresistible. Mercifully, I’ve unearthed a milky way of tactics to ensure responsible – and enjoyable – chocolate consumption this Easter.

The first solution lies in the ingredients list. If it contains palm oil, avoid. If it contains milk, simply opt for a darker percentage chocolate or, where possible, choose vegan. Cutting out milk means significantly reducing the methane emissions of chocolate production. However, vegan chocolate offers further environmental and social benefits as it generally means supporting small producers who use fewer ingredients of higher quality. Organic, ethically-sourced, and minimally-packaged are givens for many vegan chocolatiers. This is a win for the environment, fair trade, and supporting local businesses. Furthermore, as an 89% vegan (hormone and hangover levels depending) who has tried many a poor imitation of chocolate in her time, I can crucially confirm these eco wins do not come at the expense of taste. 

Showing up with a dairy-free, ethically-sourced, single-origin, certified-organic dark chocolate button is not going to impress an already over-stimulated eight-year-old and will probably end in extradition and the emotional eating of said chocolate in solitary confinement.

Nobó, for example, are a small Irish company dedicated to making vegan miracles out of cocoa sourced from trees planted to protect gorilla communities and provide income for communities in the Congo. Consistently expanding their flavour-range, their products rove from chocolate orange bark to individual chocolate buttons and come in fully compostable wrappers, making them a truly guilt-free delight.

If a commitment to dairy-free feels too drastic, a holistic approach is equally impactful. Choose chocolate whose packaging, ingredients, and production are low-carbon, ethical, and sustainable. You don’t have to look hard on our small isle to find a plethora of chocolate makers excelling in this space, however my recent favourite is Exploding Tree – a bean-to-bar chocolate company that crafts 100% Fairtrade cocoa by hand. With no factory pollution, Exploding Tree ensures every aspect of their business is as low-carbon and sustainable as possible. Deliveries are made by bicycle or post and their packaging is compostable or recycled from post-agricultural waste and card. Most importantly, they embrace the joy of chocolatiering with whacky flavours sure to suit every personality – from ‘Chai & Chilli’ to ‘Salt & Seaweed’.  

Sounds great, you mutter, but I still have kids to placate and a cousins’ Easter egg hunt to organise. Showing up with a dairy-free, ethically-sourced, single-origin, certified-organic dark chocolate button is not going to impress an already over-stimulated eight-year-old and will probably end in extradition and the emotional eating of said chocolate in solitary confinement.

For the young (literally or wistfully) in your life, I proffer Playin choc. Made with three ingredients (all ethically-sourced, certified organic, and vegan) this small UK chocolate company answers the Easter need for fun, gift-giving, and our bizarre compulsion for unwrapping things with vegan chocolates accompanied by beautifully designed, self-assembled toy animals made from recycled and biodegradable card.

Featuring endangered species and woodland creatures, these easily-constructed animals encourage the kind of environmental awareness and considerate mindfulness we have lost in our sugar-rushed frenzy – a gentle reminder of the need to respect the world around us and to remember that every treat, chocolate or otherwise, is a luxury to be valued. 

It is the philosophy of less and that, I believe, is the true lesson we need to remember when battling Easter shoppers in the hunt for the most ostentatious egg that bookends every overstuffed aisle of each overcrowded supermarket. Less packaging; more substance. Less ingredients; more flavour. Less harm; more hope. After all, less is the only true way we can do more.

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