Marich Chocolates practices fair trade to help cocoa farmers

Hollister candy manufacturer joins FairTrade movement to help farmers in Central America and West Africa

When Millennials (ages 18-34) speak, businesses listen. This is especially true for companies that produce products liked by the largest generation on the planet, of which 78 percent spend their money on  desirable experiences and 69 percent use social media to discover and share those experiences and to open their virtual wallets.

What generates a more pleasing experience than chocolate? And what better Millennial way to not only experience chocolate, but, according to the American Press Institute, share the sensation with thousands of your closest friends on Facebook, which 88 percent use daily, Pinterest (36 percent), YouTube (29 percent), Reddit (23 percent), Tumblr (21 percent), and Twitter (13 percent)? And if you’re also helping the environment, educating impoverished children, and bringing fresh water and electricity to remote villages in Central America or West Africa, that’s an even more memorable experience. Memorable experiences, especially when shared with others, is a prime mover for Millennials.

Family-owned Marich Chocolates knows this and has learned to tune into the members of a generation that not only craves life-altering experiences, but includes passionate information-seekers and sharers who use social media to discover causes they want to be a part of, and advance.

One of those causes is Fair Trade USA, which brothers, Bradley van Dam, president and chief executive officer of the Hollister company, and Troy van Dam, executive vice president and chief operating officer, have embraced in concept and practice as they support the Free Trade movement to produce chocolate products made with respect to people and the planet in mind.

October is Fair Trade Month and Marich has joined Oakland-based Fair Trade USA in supporting its mission: To provide rigorous social, environmental and economic standards to promote safe, healthy working conditions, protect the environment, enable transparency, and empower communities to build strong, thriving businesses. To show its support to all of its customers, Marich has placed the Fair Trade label on its products to let consumers know their purchases are improving an entire community’s day-to-day lives.

Marich Chocolates is a premium confectionery company that has been producing chocolate covered fruits and nuts for 32 years. The van Dam’s father, Marinus van Dam, worked in the confectionery business in Holland. He came to America, where he established the company in Watsonville where it was located  until 1997, when it came to Hollister for better land prices and minimum mitigation impact fees. Marinus's sons came to work at the company when Brad was just finishing college and Troy was in high school.

“He needed some additional help,” said Troy, “meaning free help. I would come in after school and weekends, and Brad worked pretty much full time. We learned everything from the ground up, from cleaning bathrooms, sweeping floors, welding, pretty much everything.”

The company’s primary market is in the United States, with about 10 percent exports. While there has been recent efforts to promote the Marich brand more extensively, the company also does private label business for other candy manufactures and businesses.

“We have always focused on private label and we’re realizing as time goes on we’re capable of much more than that,” Troy van Dam said. “There’s a lot of support now for the brand. We’ve hired the right people to continue to grow that. It’s pretty much where we’re headed as a company, to really drive that branded awareness.”

He said rather than “going deep” with any particular customer with its brand, he said the company has done some business with Costco, Raley’s, more than 5,000 Walgreens, Safeway, and Whole Foods.

“They do some repacking for their own labels, and they sell some bulk, but we sell to pretty much all the regions of Whole Foods,” he said. “Each location is managed differently, so some will bring in the branded, some the bulk, and some will repack it.”

Troy van Dam said that for many years, the company has been active with its chocolate supplier, Guittard Chocolate Company in Burlingame, which is active in fighting child labor and slavery practices, especially in West Africa.

“It’s a big issue within the industry,” he said. “It’s farming and what you would call child labor are family-owned farms where the children are working. A lot of these children are not getting the education that they need because rather than go to school they’re working on the farm. And some of the schools are so far away from where these farms are the children can’t get to them.”

Troy said he and his brother started looking at becoming involved a few years ago, mostly by passively participating through the supplier.

“Last year, we made the decision that’s the direction we want to go as a company,” he said. “It took a little while to get that going, getting all the agreements in place. There’s a premium you pay for the cocoa. There’s a revenue share you pay to Fair Trade USA that manages the funds. We began selling our branded products with the Fair Trade label around March this year. The bulk products will be Fair Trade, as well.”

Roughly 70 percent of the cocoa beans come from the Ivory Coast of West Africa. Beans also come from Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Columbia and Vietnam. The beans are fermented and dried where they’re grown and then shipped to Guittard, where they’re roasted and processed. Marich uses approximately 5 million pounds of chocolate a year.

Troy van Dam said the company’s involvement with the Fair Trade movement is accomplished in a couple different ways.

“We pay a premium through Guittard for Fair Trade chocolate,” he said. “They can trace right down to the farms the beans are coming from. They’re also contracted with Fair Trade USA and they do a revenue share, where they report to Fair Trade how much they’re selling us every quarter. They pay a percentage to Fair Trade USA in order to utilize the name. We essentially do the same thing. We’re paying the premium and on top of that we’re also paying Fair Trade USA a percentage based on our revenue on branded Fair Trade products.”

He said Fair Trade USA then uses those funds to pay farmers who participate in the program.

“It’s amazing to see what they’ve done,” he said. “When we went to the Dominican Republic we were able to see first-hand at Jobo Dulce, small village of about 270 people that within the last 90 days that we were there got electricity and running water. It was incredible. They have this brand new 5,000-gallon water tower. That was done with the funding from Fair Trade USA.”

In order for the growers to benefit from growing and selling their cocoa at premium prices, they have to agree to Fair Trade USA policies on child labor and making sure their children attend school. To make that happen, Fair Trade USA has funded schools and provided computers.

“They don’t just dictate what they’re supposed to do, they physically help it happen, and help manage the funds,” van Dam said. “There’s a lot of participation from the people in that growing region. The people in that village had people who were responsible for making sure the water tower was built with Fair Trade driving the direction of it.”

He said growing practices do change for the farmers, but more from an educational standpoint to help them improve their crops yields and quality, for which they will receive a substantial premium.

“Most of the people you talk to there who are part of Fair Trade are very proud of it,” he said.

After the van Dam brothers decided to get involved with Guittard in the Fair Trade movement, the French company told them they needed to actually go to where the cocoa was being grown. They felt that since the van Dams believed in the concept and were paying to support it, they needed to get their feet on the ground to see how it was being practiced.

“They said we needed to meet the people who are actually growing the product,” Troy said. “It has never been done in the history of the company. It was the coolest thing. We actually got to meet the farmers who grow the cocoa that goes into our product. It’s amazing how proud they are. We visited two plantations. One was a co-op of multiple plantations. The other plantation was owned by one person.”

Van Dam said they were shown the different variety of trees, some of which produced premium cocoa. They saw the fermentation process and had lunch with the owner in his home.

“They had no clue who we were,” he said, laughing. “They have a very good relationship with our chocolate supplier, who has a long-standing relationship with them. But it was kind of like we were part of the family. When we visited the families that made up the co-op, we actually brought some product with us. What’s really crazy is, they grow this product and some of them have never tasted chocolate in their lives. It’s amazing when you see how much work goes into what they do it really makes you appreciate the product, even more so.”

He said after seeing how much work goes into harvesting the cocoa, he is amazed chocolate is not more expensive than it is. He said it takes about five to seven days to ferment the beans and they have to be turned over repeatedly. Then they’re dried, bagged and shipped.

In two weeks, the van Dams will be going to the Ivory Coast to visit cocoa plantations and a shipping facility.

“We’re going to see what happens all the way from the growing to exporting,” Troy said. “Also, there’s going to be the World Cocoa Foundation Conference where they talk about issues facing the cocoa industry, growing practices and ways to improve the lives of the farmers. When you see the way these people live, it’s an eye-opener. When we went to the Dominican Republic, we were warned to be prepared because West Africa is much worse.”

According to The World Cocoa Foundation, the Latin word for Cocoa–Theobroma- literally means food of the gods. It was consumed by pre-Columbians 5,000 years ago, and was a ritual beverage for the Mayans. Along with gold, invading Spaniards stole the cocoa to make chocolate in the New World, where its production was kept a secret for nearly 100 years. Troy van Dam said he believes the Free Trade movement has attracted Millennials, in particular, because of their humanitarian and environmental concerns.

“They’re very much in tune with where their food comes from,” he said. “They want to know what’s in it. They want to know who’s making it. They want to know that the people who are making it are good people.”

Troy said he knows this because it’s in the Millennials’ purchasing practices.

“Some of them are only going to buy products that are Fair Trade,” he said. “Some consumers have asked if our chocolate is Fair Trade and if it isn’t they’re not even going to buy it. The demand is definitely there and it’s growing even beyond the Millennial generation. A lot more people are reading labels and want to know where everything is coming from.”

Troy said the questions he receives now compared to 20 years ago are totally different. He said consumers want much more information.

“Before, people just wanted to know if it tastes good and how much does it cost,” he said. “Now, it’s where does it come from? How do you know there’s no child labor involved? How do you know it’s natural? Is it certified?”

van Dam said Fair Trade is not just about advertising to appeal to consumers.

“What’s really eye-opening is you see first-hand what happens on the ground it’s amazing,” he said. “The downside is there are not enough funds out there to help as many people who need it. I think it will grow, though, because Fair Trade is on the horizon of a lot of big companies. (The candy-maker) Mars is planning on becoming 100 percent Fair Trade, I think by 2020.”

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]