Ben Conard | Chocolate for Good

“I think it’s so important to start chipping away at some of these long-held issues in our society. What better way to do it than over chocolate?”

 
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Most of us like chocolate, but delicious chocolatey treats often come at a price. The West African countries of Ghana and Ivory Coast, where roughly 70% of the world’s cacao is produced, are riddled with problems of child labor, slavery, and unfair wages. Fair trade chocolate aims to eliminate these practices, and strives to make cacao farming more ethical and sustainable.

Featured today is Ben Conard, the founder of Five North Chocolate, an award-winning enterprise supporting cacao farmers by creating nutritious, Fair Trade Certified™ chocolate snacks. Five North Chocolate is also the first brand ever to feature the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce seal on a packaged good.

Fair Trade International named Ben one of the top 10 biggest fair trade advocates in the world, and number one in the U.S. His passion for fair trade has taken him to the TED stage, fair trade farms in Ecuador, and artisan workshops in India.


Why did you decide to start Five North Chocolate?

I get this question a lot, and I don’t have a super sexy answer for why I decided chocolate. It’s no Willy Wonka story — I just wanted to change the candy industry. So often we look at candy and we look at chocolate as a guilty indulgence. And I knew we could do better than that. I don’t think that the things that we consume every day and the things that make us happy should also make us feel guilty, too.  I started by creating hard candies infused with vitamins and after some recipe development, I quickly learned that I wasn’t much of the cook, and I also learned with some research that cacao is the ingredient in chocolate that actually makes it healthy. So I wanted to create a company focused on this ingredient and of course, the form that took was chocolate.

Is your background in Fair Trade?

Many of my years before this idea were spent working with fair trade organizations and in advocacy. I spent a lot of time campaigning on my college campus and working in fair trade retail, representing fair trade brands at trade shows, and visiting fair trade producer groups on the ground. I learned a lot about how supply chains work and how globalization is affecting people. I knew that if I was going to be an entrepreneur, that it would incorporate something with a sustainable supply chain. And I think that’s why those two things — the idea of guiltless candy and the idea of supporting farmers — was so important to me that I wanted to create something that would move those needles.

What is your production process? How do you make chocolate?

We’re a really small company and I don’t come from a food background, so we work with people who are experts and who know what the heck they’re doing. We source Fair Trade Certified™ cacao from around the world, and then that is processed further into chocolate snacks outside of New York City, with a team of people who I love. They make the magic happen. We rely along that part of our supply chain to help us out because like I said, I’m no Willy Wonka, although I get that nickname a lot!

What does it mean when you say that your chocolate is ethical and sustainable?

I think that’s looked at in two ways. One is that we only source Fair Trade Certified™ cacao, which means that we’re supporting farmers on the producer end, and second is that our chocolate is a really clean label and the ingredients we’re using are, too. It’s something that you wouldn’t feel guilty eating, and that’s also a really ethical way of doing business. It’s about giving a consumer not only something that they want, but also something that is improved over what’s currently offered on the market. To me, that’s a way of being ethical, too — being ethical to your consumer as well as the producers in your supply chain.

The requirements for fair trade certification are fairly rigorous, and are set by third-party organizations to ensure that businesses with that certification adhere to standards regarding fair living wages, child labor, etc. Correct?  

The good news about fair trade is that Fair Trade USA is a third-party certifier so we don’t have a say in creating those lines, which is a good thing because consumers need to have some level of confidence with certifications. And if they are created by the companies themselves, they might be creating that to their advantage and not necessarily with the producer in mind. Fair trade certification is a third-party audit that’s happening on the ground, on farms, and it really does help consumers feel confident about what they’re buying. Fair trade means no child labor, gender equality in the workforce, fair living wages, and good working conditions. Fair trade creates dignified work with fair pay Fair trade is also about investing back into the communities where the cacao is grown. For example, with cacao: for every ton of cacao that’s sold in the market under fair trade terms, a premium is sent back to the community, and that premium can be used for anything from building schools or creating clean water projects or building transportation to schools – whatever the community needs.

How you see fair trade helping to alleviate global poverty and empower communities?

There are still billions of people living below the poverty line and yet we live in a society where we’re endorsing goods and products and ingredients from all over the place. More often than not, things that you are consuming are coming from really far away. We’re relatively disconnected from those people and those products, and fair trade really does help to to start bridging that gap. When a company or a brand is invested in fair trade, they’re usually also invested in educating their customers and the consumer base. And I think the more educated consumers are, the better decisions they can make in the market. That’s one of the ways that fair trade and fair trade advocacy is helping to alleviate global poverty — we’re learning more and making better decisions. And it’s  the standards of fair trade are what really create positive impact on the ground.

How do you measure the impact of your business? How do you know that you’re actually making a difference?

For me, that question goes back to years of fair trade advocacy and meeting fair trade artisans in India and farmers in Ecuador and learning from them the impact that fair trade has had. But at Five North Chocolate, where we partner with Fair Trade USA – we read the impact reports, we analyze the numbers coming in, we read the stories and see the qualitative data that comes from our partnership. Recently I read about a fair trade cacao farming community in the Ivory Coast who rebuilt their well systems so that they could provide clean water to all of the residents and it was really cool to see farmers starting to feel empowered, and then also to see these communities spending their premiums to create a better life. For me, the impact of fair trade is seen through this qualitative data as well.

I have a very big sweet tooth and I’m overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of chocolate bars available. With so many chocolate and candy options out there, how do you differentiate Five North Chocolate?

I suffer from the same issues of having a sweet tooth and also having unlimited choice. And I think it’s a cool time to be in specialty food because there is so much noise in the space. People are passionate about food and it’s showing in the variety of products that we can buy. This is a really competitive market and there are so many options out there. And people ask, “why should we be choosing you?”.  There are tons of fair trade certified chocolates on the market, there are tons of healthy options and clean label options on the market, and there are tons of convenient snacking options on the market. But there are really so few, if any, brands who are combining all of these pieces – health, sustainability, fair trade, convenience and good flavor into one single product. And that is how we differentiate ourselves: a catchall for these really desirable traits in a single product. That’s how we make ourselves stand out.

One of the other differentiators that you mentioned is that you feature the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce Seal on your product. Can you tell us about that and why that was important to you?

We’re members of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, we’re a certified LGBT Business Enterprise® and we’re not afraid to talk about it or show that off. It’s important to us, and to me personally as a gay man and also as a human rights advocate. It put a stake in the ground for what we believe in, and to me that was a great first step in starting a larger conversation. Even though it’s scary, we’re taking visibility to a new level. We talk about visibility in the human rights movement to showcase different traits in people, and for us it’s about humanizing people within the economy and showing that we’re a diverse enterprise, and people in general are diverse. I think it’s so important to start chipping away at some of these long-held issues in our society.hat better way to do it than over chocolate?

The chocolate industry is booming and is expected to reach $161 billion in revenue by 2024. What are the trends you’re seeing in the craft chocolate industry? Where do you see it headed in the future?

You hear the phrase “craft chocolate” and it sounds a little lofty and a little pretentious. And when you look at the craft chocolate industry there are chocolate bars out there for $10 or $15 and for the enthusiasts, some truly believe that that is the definition of what it means to be craft. But for us it’s a little different because I see it becoming more accessible to the average consumer. I don’t want to exclude people from enjoying a quality product. So for us, I see the craft chocolate industry becoming an everyday luxury and becoming more accessible. That’s where I see the industry heading and that’s why I’m really happy and proud to be leading that space with a quality that isn’t costing $10-15 a bar because quite honestly I think that’s a little ridiculous.

You are a young entrepreneur and took a big leap early in your career — what is your advice to someone who’s interested in starting a company like yours?

If I shift my mindset to where I was when I first started this, I will happily and honestly admit that I was super naïve. The food industry is a scary space to be in and it’s extremely competitive and challenging, but I’m thankful that I was so naïve that I thought I could do it. And if I knew everything that I know now back then, I can’t say that I would have gone for it. If you think you can do something new or change the way something is done and people are telling you how hard it’s going to be, just use that as fuel to the fire. Don’t be afraid to give it a shot. And I think the other thing is that no matter the outcome of this business or this brand, in such a short period of time, I’ve learned so much. And to me, no matter what happens, if I learn as much as I’ve already learned doing it, that to me is a success. So my advice is to throw the hesitancy out and realize that it’s a win-win no matter what happens.

What is your favorite book?

The one that comes to mind the quickest, is “Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer. Danny Meyer is the founder of many restaurants, mostly in the New York Region. He started Shake Shack and he wrote a really impactful book about entrepreneurship in food and hospitality and it is a really authentic story and look into his journey. And I think he was really open and really vulnerable about what he was talking about and I was thankful for that as a food entrepreneur.

How would you say that you move the needle?

We move the needle in a few different ways. One of those is on the ground, with farmers. A big part of who we are is being Fair Trade Certified™ and ensuring that people on the other end of our supply chain are being valued. The other is by creating healthy products for our customers. On this end of the supply chain I think it’s important that we are really honest and also providing our customers with products that are better than they expected. And the other way is being visible in a crowded space and being totally authentic in who we are. I truly do hope that we’ll start to see people following our footsteps and joining us in this larger movement of social good. I would say those are the ways that we move the needle.


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ABOUT BEN

For his work in the movement, Fairtrade International named Ben Conard one of the Top 10 Biggest Fair Trade Advocates in the World and #1 in the U.S. His passion for fair trade has taken him to the TEDx stage and on-the-ground to fair trade farms in Ecuador and artisan workshops in India.

Ben celebrate all cultures and people. As a US Ambassador for the 33rd Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange, Ben spent a year in Germany representing the US to strengthen diplomatic relations. And as an LGBT rights activist, he was named 40 LGBT Leaders Under 40 by Business Equality Magazine.

Dedicated to great taste, consumer health, and sustainable sourcing, Ben founded Five North Chocolate®, an award winning, Certified LGBT Business Enterprise® supporting cacao farmers around the world by creating deliciously nutritious, Fair Trade Certified™ chocolate snacks.