Chocolatier Rhoda Kirwan wants lovers to consider buying Fairtrade for Valentine’s Day.
Ms Kirwan studied fashion design in college and opened a ladies’ tailoring business, before a 10-year stint with a software company while her children were young. She then took a cookery course at Dublin Cookery School, she specialised in chocolate-making and trained with Vancouver’s École Chocolat.
Now she runs her own business, Rhoda Cocoa, using ethical ingredients, such as single-source, fairly-traded cocoa, as well as ensuring her packaging is sustainable. Rhoda lives in Co Wicklow with her husband, children’s app developer, Emmet O’Neill, and their two sons, Sam, 19, and Isaac, 17.
“While I was studying, a section of our course was on slave labour within the chocolate industry and how people were being abused and exploited. I wanted to be able to stand over the chocolate I was making.
“Being a small producer myself, I can relate to how important it is to make a living and not be exploited. I wanted to ensure that I was using chocolate that was coming from people who got a fair price for all the work they put in. It’s a very labour-intensive process and it’s all done by hand,” Ms Kirwan says.
"A lot of people just buy the brands that stand out when you go into a supermarket, but I think it’s up to the producers to educate people. When you do tell people about the importance of being aware of where your chocolate is coming from, the reaction is phenomenal.
"As a small producer, you sometimes feel you can’t compete with the huge brands, and I’m working by myself a lot of the time. But when people understand that I’m a small business, that this chocolate is locally produced in small batches, using sustainable ingredients, they will sit up and listen.
“My chocolate bars had a plastic sleeve on them and that’s been a bone of contention for a long time, but I’m now switching to a fully compostable sleeve.
"I don’t use bubble-wrap anymore: I pack out boxes with paper, the boxes are recyclable. I’m pushing on those things from a business point of view, but we’re forging forwards with trying to make changes at home, too.
“Sam is in first year in college, studying new media studies, and he absolutely loves it. Isaac is in fifth year in Newpark Comprehensive.
“We’ve instilled all the basic stuff we grew up with into the kids: Turning the lights off, not leaving the water running. But a lot is also down to how we buy our groceries. We try to buy locally from small shops, like greengrocers and local butchers, but we’re also trying to reduce our meat intake; Sam has just become vegetarian and I’m pescatarian.
"We’re always trying to buy from sustainable sources and buy food that’s in season, as well,” she says.
“We haven’t bought clingfilm in years; we just use containers to store things. We try to be forward-thinking in how we cook, by doing things like cooking for a couple of days at once, instead of buying ready meals to slap in the oven. I know all that takes time and not everyone can afford that time, and it is challenging, because both Emmet and I work full-time. But the boys are older now and are on board with this stuff and can help out with cooking and that kind of thing.”
“It’s hugely challenging to keep plastic waste down; if you go into the supermarkets, you see just how things are packaged, and I know myself, from working in the food industry, what a challenge it is to tick all boxes; by that I mean, you have to ensure that your packaging is safety-compliant and suitable.
"For me, chocolate isn’t considered a high-risk food, but for meat and dairy producers in this country, I know that’s a huge challenge, when you’re trying to produce something sustainable.
“A few years ago, we bought a diesel car, on the basis that it was better for the environment, only to realise that that advice changed, and we were disgusted. At the moment, we have a hybrid, and we’re just waiting for the infrastructure in Ireland to improve, so we can move to a fully electric car.
"The boys primarily use public transport. We’re lucky that we live on a good bus corridor so they can make their own way to college and school. I do give them a lift the odd morning if the weather is really bad, but I also use that time to chat with them; with teenagers, that time can be really important. Journeys like that are short and in the hybrid, you’d be in electric mode for most of that.
“Things like shampoo and deodorant can be sticking points in the house; personally, I’ve started buying an organic shampoo in a reusable bottle. A lot of soap has palm oil in it; I’ve a friend who is a soap and liquid soap maker.
“In college, Sam is writing scripts and making podcasts. He wants to make political documentaries; impactful things that change the world. I think the boys see that they’re in a position to make a change.
"The way we approach life is that you don’t give up on things and you keep forging forward. They grew up in a positive environment. Social media and the media can impact them in a negative way and worry them. Sometimes the media hype things but don’t give enough of a background to ensure that they’re not worrying people.
“Over the years I think I’ve become more of an optimist when it comes to the environment. I’ve always had a tenacity to my nature and have worked hard to get where I’ve wanted to go, so I think I’m optimistic by nature, and I do have optimism that we do have the ability to make change. I think we just have to educate people to have that mindset.”