Your Chocolate Obsession Doesn't Have To Cost The Environment

Our love affair with chocolate is wreaking havoc on the environment. But our buying choices can help turn that around.


Nov. 19 2020, Updated 9:38 p.m. ET

Using chocolate to satisfy a sweet tooth never gets old. But gobbling up all those candy bars and bonbons is seriously impacting the environment. The commercial chocolate industry is shrinking rainforests, emitting significant levels of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, and contributing to climate change. There’s no reason to quit chocolate entirely. In fact, there are steps manufacturers and consumers can take to make the chocolate industry more sustainable.

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People in the United States consume 2.8 billion pounds of chocolate annually, or around 11 pounds per person. And that’s only half of the rate chocolate is consumed in Switzerland. Globally, we're expected to consume 7.7 million tons in 2019.

Monoculture farms that grow cocoa beans, sugar, and oil palms (for palm oil) are giant causes of deforestation; while milk chocolate is especially harmful because cows themselves generate a lot of methane gas. Then you've got all those individually wrapped bars and morsels, which quickly add up in manufacturing and waste. 

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Adisa Azapagic, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Manchester, has studied various foods and their impacts on the environment. She researched chocolate consumption in the United Kingdom, which is fourth overall in the world. Two million metric tons of carbon dioxide are produced annually from the UK’s chocolate industry.

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Problems start right at that source, where cocoa is harvested. “Cocoa is cultivated around the equator in humid climate conditions, mainly in West Africa and Central and South America, so it has to travel some distance before it makes it into the chocolate products we produce and consume in the UK,” Azapagic told Popular Science.

The top three varieties of chocolate products in the UK represent 90 percent of the entire market: full-sized milk chocolate bars, snack-sized chocolate bars, and small chocolates wrapped up in bigger bags. One thousand liters of water are used to produce one chocolate bar. However, the worst impact on the environment comes from smaller individually wrapped candy made for sharing.

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One easy solution is to eliminate the manufacturing of “fun size” options, though the convenience factor of sharing them around the office is impacted. Companies can also limit emissions by focusing on energy conservation and forest preservation. Azapagic explains that with these alterations, “Global Warming Potential” could shrink by up to 19 percent.

In addition to limiting our own consumption, we can make smart choices about which chocolates we consume.

Dark chocolate from craft cocoa makers is a more environmentally friendly and healthy choice. No milk is used, removing the methane gas portion of the problem, and there’s less sugar than milk chocolate. It’s even been linked to lowering blood pressure and heart disease. Reputable chocolate makers promote direct trade, small batches, and support the farms where the cocoa is grown. The result is chocolate that's healthier for you, the farmers, and the planet.

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