Is Cocoa a Sustainable Beauty Ingredient?

Cacao powder in wooden bowl, whole cacao beans, pieces of cocoa butter on white rustic table

Rostovtsevayulia / Getty Images

Cocoa is a swoon-inducing favorite confection, but there are a number of concerns regarding the production of the popular ingredient that are far from sweet. 

Outside of the food industry, cocoa’s raw materials are often tapped by beauty manufacturers to create products ranging from silky smooth body butters to pigmented bronzers. However, many supply chains may involve child labor, enslavement, unfair wages, destructive environmental practices, and outdated farming techniques.

Beauty Products That Contain Cocoa

Commonly listed as theobroma cacao, cocoa seed butter, or cocoa fruit powder on cosmetic ingredient lists, cacao can be found in a variety of beauty products including:

  • Fragrances and bath products
  • Hair products
  • Moisturizers, exfoliators, and masks
  • Sunscreen and tanners
  • Lip gloss and balm
  • Eye shadow, blush, and highlighters
  • Brow and lip liners

How Cacao Is Grown and Harvested 

Cocoa is made from the beans of cacao trees (Theobroma Cacao), which require very specific conditions in order to flourish. To say the tree is temperamental would be an understatement. Cacao trees require a humid atmosphere, abundant rain, nutrient-rich soil, and are only capable of growing within 20 degrees north or south of the equator. In short, they can only thrive in tropical rainforests. As a result, 70% of the world’s cacao beans originate from West Africa, while Southeast Asia and Central and South America produce the balance.

Before it is turned into what is recognizable as chocolate, the beans are hidden within an unassuming football-shaped fruit that varies in color, from red to yellow, depending on its genetic makeup or ripeness. Each pod can contain anywhere from 40 to 60 almond-sized seeds or beans.

Ivory Coast. Farmers breaking up harvested cocoa pods.
Philippe Lissac / Godong / Getty Images

When the pods are ripe, they are manually cracked open to reveal beans covered in a fleshy, white pulp, which are removed, fermented, and laid out in the sun to dry. The beans are then sold to traders, followed by small buyers who sell to wholesalers, who then sell to exporters, before they end up in the hands of chocolate makers.

Products derived from the cacao bean that remain in its rawest form are referred to as cacao. This includes beans, nibs, paste, and powder. Cocoa, on the other hand, refers to the end product of cacao beans that have been roasted, including cocoa powder, butter, chocolate liquor, and dark chocolate.

Cacao vs. Cocoa

Although the terms cacao and cocoa are often used interchangeably, there is a subtle difference depending on how the bean is processed. Both come from the cacao tree, but cacao is a raw or cold-processed presentation. Cocoa, on the other hand, refers to products made after the cacao seeds are roasted and processed.

Both cacao and cocoa can be used in beauty products.

The process of cultivating cacao is environmentally taxing and labor-intensive. In most cases, cacao trees are planted in rows in open fields to access full sunlight.

This monoculture farming system yields more pods and increased productivity, but also makes the trees more susceptible to pest attacks and weed crowding. As a result, farmers often rely on the usage of large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, leading to unintended environmental consequences, including the destruction of local ecosystems and chemical run-off that contaminates local waterways.

Beautiful cocoa farm
JosephJacobs / Getty Images

One possible solution is agroforestry, which involves the deliberate management of shade trees by planting other agricultural crops on the same plot. This method can help conserve biodiversity by mimicking natural forests, while also reducing the risks of pests, diseases, and weed outbreaks. It may also improve the profits of farmers who can grow different crops for various markets and help alleviate the next major issue of cocoa production: deforestation.

As cacao trees can only grow in tropical climates, rainforests are often cut down to make room for the full-sun system, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide. Additionally, some crops are grown illegally in protected parks and government-owned forests, driving extensive deforestation.

The Environmental Impact of Cacao Production 

As a result of growing cacao operations, one study conducted by researchers from Ohio State University found 13 of 23 protected areas in West Africa have lost all primate populations. 

Moreover, Mighty Earth, a global advocacy organization, found that in the past year alone, deforestation occurred in 47,000 hectares of cacao-growing regions of Côte d’Ivoire, a West African region that supplies 40% of the world's cocoa. 

This deforestation of tropical rainforests is driving climate change, which in turn, affects the sensitive temperature conditions needed for the cacao pods’ growth.

Is Cocoa Vegan?

Cocoa originates directly from a plant; therefore, in its natural, unadulterated form, it contains no animal byproducts. 

However, when it comes to both food and beauty products, consumers will still have to check the labels, as animal-derived ingredients may be added, such as lactose and whey. If ingredient labels aren’t clear, you might want to try looking at a brand’s website for more information, check packaging for vegan labels, or reach out to the companies directly.

Can Cacao Be Ethically Sourced?

There is no way to truly be sure the cacao-based products consumers buy are involved in enslavement, child labor, fair wage practices, and sustainability. In fact, only 21 out of the world’s 65 leading chocolate companies say they are able to trace their supplies to individual farms

There are a few certifications available that can help guide consumers' purchasing decisions, including Rainforest Alliance/UTZ, Fairtrade, or organic.

Rainforest Alliance/UTZ conducts ongoing analysis of the GPS locations of many of its certificate holders to identify risks of deforestation or encroachment on protected areas. However, these have not been effective enough to tackle the issues of the cacao industry. 

Journalists have documented poor labor practices from certified producers and farmers continue to receive low wages. BBC reporter Humphrey Hawksley, for example, has been dedicated to exposing child labor in the chocolate trade for years, and Fortune magazine published a study in March 2016, revealing that 2.1 million children in West Africa are involved in dangerous and physically taxing work on cacao plantations.

Outside of certifications, direct trade is a great description to look out for as it indicates that the chocolate maker purchased the cacao beans directly from the farmer at a mutually agreed upon price. This means more money for the farmers, and the chocolate makers have the opportunity to see for themselves how the farmers grow cacao and treat workers instead of relying on certifying entities. 

Customers can also look to resources like The Good Shopping Guide, Ethical Consumer, and Green America’s Chocolate Scorecard to view the efforts by companies in addressing child labor and learn about sustainable companies to support. 

Ultimately, when brands see consumers increasingly utilizing their buying power for ethically sourced products, they may begin auditing their supply chains to keep up with the demand.  

Transportation and Cacao Beans

While sustainability issues are focused on crops, emissions from the transportation sector are of growing concern. 

A majority of the trucks used to transport cacao in developing nations are second-hand and utilize low-quality fuels, contributing greatly to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Environmental Management found that the carbon footprint of cacao’s transportation in Ecuador may reduce and even cancel out the environmental improvements associated with organic and agroforestry systems. Certifications don’t often account for the environmental impact of cacao related to transportation. 

Moreover, consumers need to be aware of greenwashing. Even though a manufacturer may label their cocoa as "green" or "eco-friendly," those terms may be used arbitrarily.

Consumers can play an active role in educating themselves about a brand’s practices by visiting company websites to look for sustainability reports, information on how they source cocoa, and actions they are taking to reduce their carbon footprint. For example, clean beauty brand Ethique details how it ethically sources cocoa butter for its sustainable products on its website.

As cacao offers the opportunity for farmers to make a living, families often recruit their children to reduce labor costs and increase profits. On average, they earn 85 cents a day. Oftentimes, children end up on cacao plantations as a result of their family’s difficulties affording enrollment fees and school supplies

In addition, the industry is rife with child mistreatment and trafficking. Children are often tasked with dangerous jobs such as climbing trees, using machetes to break open pods, and spraying agricultural chemicals without protective clothing. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 1.56 million children are engaged in hazardous work on cacao farms in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

There are also documented cases of both adults and children being forced to work without pay and severely beaten for working slowly or trying to escape. Specifically, in U.S. Supreme Court cases Nestlé USA, Inc. v. John Doe and Cargill, Inc. v. John Doe, farmworkers alleged that when they were between the ages of 12 and 14 they were “beaten with whips and tree branches when their overseers felt that they were not working quickly enough. They were forced to sleep on dirt floors in small, locked shacks with other children, and were guarded by men with guns to prevent them from escaping. Respondents witnessed other children who tried to flee the plantations being severely beaten and tortured.” Ultimately, the Court ruled that corporate presence was not sufficient enough to draw a connection to the misconduct.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How do you know what the labels on chocolate mean?

    Similar to the clean beauty industry, which lacks regulation on the term "clean," in the cacao world buzz words such as "craft," "artisan," "bean-to-bar," or "small batch" have no clear parameters. Different chocolate makers have varying ideas of what each means so it’s best to read their literature to address your concerns.

  • Is cocoa beneficial for the skin?

    Cocoa is rich in omega-6 fatty acids, polyphenols, flavonoids, and antioxidants, and can be used to make a variety of skin care and cosmetic products. For example, cocoa butter is widely used in moisturizers due to its high fatty acid content.

  • What types of DIY beauty treatments can I make with cocoa?

    Cocoa powder can be used to make many great DIY natural beauty recipes including hair products like dry shampoo and cosmetics such as eye shadow. Cocoa butter can be used to make lip balm and body butter.

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