Trading Fairly With Sweet Earth Chocolates
Q&A with Sweet Earth's President, Tom Neuhaus
For many of our business partners here in the U.S. Fair Trade is so much more than a socially responsible chocolate bar or an environmentally friendly cup of joe; for many, Fair Trade is a way of life. This bodes true for Tom Neuhaus and Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates, a San Luis Obispo based company dediated to the Fair Trade mission and building strong, direct ties to the cocoa farming communities from which they source.
To learn more about this amazing company please enjoy the following Q&A with Tom, founder and president of Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates.
Tell us a little bit about Sweet Earth Chocolates? How did this company come to be?
I established Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates, Inc. in September, 2004 with my sister Joanne Currie. Originally, we started it to make chocolate assortments to sell at local churches to raise money for West African Fair Trade cooperatives--especially Kuapa Kokoo and Kavokiva. But in April, 2005, Joanne constructed a building to house her restaurant/bakery, called Splash Cafe Artisan Bakery, and Sweet Earth products have been manufactured upstairs ever since. In July, 2009, we opened our first retail store, located 4 doors down from Splash. In May, 2011, we opened our second retail store, located in downtown San Luis Obispo.
Why is Fair Trade such an important component of your business?
While I have always wanted to establish direct links with villages and to establish direct trade, the barriers to accomplish this are quite formidable. To export from a country, you need to either rent an entire container or you need to know how to rent part of a container. Also, you need to know how to purchase high quality product.
Rather than re-inventing the wheel, we decided to put our trust in an established system- Fair Trade. In the Fair Trade system, you know that a well-researched organization such as Fairtrade International and its licensing initiatives (such as Fair Trade USA), abide by certain rules. You know, for example, that no forced child labor and none of the Worst Forms of Child Labor were involved in the production of the beans. In my view, Fair Trade is system with credibility; it's a label people truly can trust. By putting the Fair Trade Certified logo on my products I know that the farmer gets a better deal and the consumer gets a delicious product that makes a difference.
From which countries do you source your cocoa? Do you have a favorite location?
Our cocoa comes from Peru, Ecuador, and Dominican Republic, but some day I would also like to include parts of West Africa. The Peruvian and Ecuadorian beans are mostly Criollo and have wonderful chocolaty/fruity notes associated with them. The Conacado Cooperative of Dominican Republic produces a very high quality cocoa powder, and I am very happy to buy from them. Last year my wife and I visited Conacado, and we were very warmly received.
Sweet Earth Chocolates is not your only endeavor; please tell us a bit about your Cal Poly chocolate class and your role in Project Hope and Fairness.
I established Cal Poly Chocolates in 2000. This is one of the very few chocolate production courses taught in an American university. Each year I employ four university students and teach a class of ten. The chocolate products we make in class are used all around campus. The university president serves our chocolates at most of the meals he caters; he is especially fond of our panned macadamias. In the class, students learn about the chemistry of chocolate, about Fair Trade and organic certifications, about chocolate's history and nutritional value. They also learn to work with chocolate in a culinary environment as well as in full-scale production.
In addition to the course I also established a Fair Trade club about 6 years ago together with my graduate student, Melissa Schilling. Melissa has since established her own NGO, HOPE Art, which teaches children to paint in Port au Prince, Haiti. Though Melissa has moved on, the Cal Poly Fair Trade Club is still thriving. Two of its members are joining me on a trip to visit five villages in Ghana this summer, where we will be delivering boots, machetes, flashlights, chocolate, and t-shirts to various communities after spending most of July and August volunteering in an orphanage in Accra.
Aside from Sweet Earth and my work at Cal Poly, I started Project Hope and Fairness with my friend Ernie Roide in 2006. Since its start we have donated almost a dozen scales and dryness meters, we have dug two wells, built a roof to protect a schoolhouse, built three toilets, and brought boots, machetes and solar powered flashlights to over a dozen villages in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana, and for the first time this year, Cameroon.
What role do you think our readers and other shoppers can play in the development of a more just system of trade?
There are many ways for people to affect change in farming communities around the world: first-by buying Fair Trade Certified goods; second-by reading and studying about Third World farmers and the issues they face, as well as joining Fair Trade clubs in their communities; and finally-by actually visiting the farmers themselves. I am currently talking to people in Cameroon, Dominican Republic, and Ghana about building cocoa study centers where university students from all over can study issues relating to the sustainability of tropical farmers, including the development of cottage industries. My ultimate goal is to build chocolate production facilities in villages and to help people start businesses selling chocolates made from their own beans. If someone can achieve this goal, chocolate will effectively have been de-colonialized. We Americans became independent in approximately 1776. It is now time for hard working farmers around the world to be granted the respect that they deserve.