How Sustainable Chocolate Helped Me Find My Purpose … And My Profit
Joe Whinney, Theo Chocolates
August 22, 2016
After I dropped out of high school during my senior year, I went looking for adventure.
I set sail in an old wooden boat without a motor, and while traveling around parts of Central America, I fell in love with Southern Belize. The lush Maya Mountains, the barrier reef and the amazing, diverse people won my heart.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Southern Belize was very remote and felt like the end of the world. It was there that I began volunteering for a small conservation foundation protecting important plant species and learning about Maya sustainable agricultural practices. With nothing but a strong back and boundless curiosity, I worked with the Maya on their cocoa farms, hunted with them and went on rain forest expeditions to support conservation work.
During my time in Southern Belize I saw that social, environmental and economic degradation are business problems. It became clear to me that if cocoa farmers were paid a better price for their crops, their lives would improve. They would be able to pay for school for their children and access better health care.
This issue was not unique to the cocoa farming families of Southern Belize. This was an industry-wide problem. I knew I needed to take action, and over the next decade I worked to bring organic cocoa beans to the United States and promote fair trade farming practices, building relationships with farmer groups.
In 1994, I imported my first container of organic cocoa to North America and pioneered the organic chocolate market. My company had tremendous top-line growth. I was investing heavily in developing the cocoa supply in Latin America and Africa, contracting with manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad and working hard to stay ahead of constant cash demands. At that time, I was singularly focused on the mission of my business. To achieve the largest impact, we paid high prices to farmers in return for high-quality cocoa beans, invested in training for sustainable tropical agriculture and often financed the harvest itself to ensure that farmers had a decent cash flow in places where credit was unavailable.
But that meant we were working on razor-thin margins. The downward pressure on price, combined with the fact that we didn’t control a consumer-facing brand, plus the high cost of raw materials and financing meant that we never made a profit.
That was fine in the ’90s. But when the financial market dried up in 2001, we weren’t able to carry on. I had missed what was really necessary to build a sustainable business — profit.
I wanted to create a business that demonstrates that people, planet and profit not only can coexist but that long-term success requires equal investment in all three. I believed that our business could be a powerful tool for positively impacting everyone from farmers and the landscapes they steward to chocolate lovers worldwide.
In 2004, I founded Theo Chocolate. At the time, Theo was the first and only bean-to-bar maker of organic, fair-trade-certified chocolate in North America. By controlling our brand, manufacturing and key raw-material supply chain, we are able to retain greater margins, pay better prices to farmers for high-quality cocoa and sell our products at competitive prices.
Every decision we make as a business reinforces the idea that doing the right thing should never be the rare thing. Our values at Theo permeate everything we do, and the people who buy and enjoy our products do so in part as a reflection of their own personal values. To me, we have created something more powerful and meaningful than excellent candy bars.
Theo’s mission is simple but profoundly ambitious: We’re dedicated to making the world a better place based on shared values and a shared love of cocoa. The only way for us to truly deliver on the promise of our brand is to grow as a business and make investments in our long-term potential. I believe that my vision requires Theo to be an Evergreen business. Staying independent and investing in our future success is the only way that we can build the next great American chocolate company.
Joe Whinney is the Founder and CEO of Theo Chocolates.