Saving the planet one bar of chocolate at a time
Craig Sams and Josephine Fairley founded the ground-breaking Green and Black’s brand in the 1990s. Now, the new Intensity Scale helps you to select the perfect sweet treat
Green & Black’s founders Craig Sams and Josephine Fairley
It’s not easy being green. Just ask Kermit.
It wasn’t always easy being a hippy either. When Nebraska native Craig Sams moved to London in the swinging 60s to open the UK’s first macrobiotic restaurant, Seed, he got more than his fair share of ribbing.
“People on TV had a good laugh, and the press talked a lot about things like shrivelled carrots,” he recalls.
The venture was inspired by New York’s Paradox, said to be the world’s first macrobiotic restaurant, where his friend Yoko Ono waitressed.
Years later Ono and John Lennon dined at Seed, which threw the restaurant’s resident jazz duo into a panic when a waiter appeared bearing a £10 note and a request to stop playing altogether, “as Mr Lennon can’t concentrate on his macrobiotics”.
Seed went on to be a huge success and ultimately blossomed years later into Green and Black’s.
Sams still regards himself as a hippy, “and proud to be so. These days calling a person a hippy is about the only thing you can say in a pejorative fashion without being called out for not being woke,” he laughs.
Wife Jo would love to have been a hippy but her mother wouldn’t let her. “I was too young anyway. The closest I got was a dab of patchouli oil behind my ears,” she says.
Fairley left school at 16 after the equivalent of her Junior Cert and went on to become the youngest ever editor of a UK glossy magazine and a bestselling author of beauty books.
A shared passion for health and wellness, and the role good food plays in it has parlayed into a diet that remains as natural, fresh and seasonal as possible.
They love sourdough, wholegrains, and fermented foods for gut health. “We use fish and meat like a condiment. We’d need to see its birth cert first, but we’re not pious, people can still have us to dinner,” says Fairley, who also loves crisps and considers herself “something of a crispologist”.
The pair’s balanced approach to health and wellness, which stresses the importance of eating less, but better, was the secret ingredient poured into their first business venture as a couple, Green & Black’s.
Chocolate has more than 400 different flavour elements; it’s one of the most complex foods there is in the world
Fairley came up with the name, a play on the organic provenance and the rich colour of the product.
When it launched 1991, it was the UK’s first 70 per cent cocoa solids chocolate, but supermarkets didn’t know what to make of it. One buyer they sent a sample to mailed back a bar of the store’s own-brand cooking chocolate, with no note, which Sams still finds hilarious.
The couple had the last laugh as word of mouth spread and chocolate aficionados began seeking them out. It’s no wonder when you consider what goes into good chocolate.
“An onion has nine different flavour elements. An apple has 11. Chocolate has more than 400; it’s one of the most complex foods there is in the world,” says Sams, who went on to become chairperson of the Soil Association, the pioneering organic food and farming organisation.
So serious were they about food, but perhaps so naive about marketing, that their early wrappers contained health warnings about sugar.
“We were saying chocolate is an amazing treat but if you are going to eat it, eat the one with the least sugar and the most cocoa solids,” explains Fairley.
Supermarkets weren’t keen so they eventually dropped the warnings, but the public got the message.
People also liked the fact that Green & Black’s was blazing a trail as maker of the UK’s first Fairtrade chocolate, with the launch of the Maya Gold bar.
When supermarkets asked the pair for a milk chocolate bar, they at first demurred. “But they said that if we didn’t, someone else would and they’d have to buy from them instead,” recalls Sams.
Sticking to their foodie guns, they perfected a milk chocolate that has more cocoa solids than many other brands’ dark chocolate.
Though the range now includes more than 100 different product items, those two bars are still the couple’s favourite. Sams has the 70 per cent for breakfast. Fairley likes to limit herself to a bar of the milk chocolate at teatime, “but it’s hard, when you’ve half a tonne of chocolate sitting in your house,” she says.
That’s still the case, even though the couple sold Green & Black’s to Cadbury in 2005. It had grown to a point where, in order to scale, it needed deeper pockets. They remain deeply involved with Green & Black’s however, and not just by eating it. Sams sits on the board and both continue as brand ambassadors.
For artisanal makers selling a business can be bittersweet. That’s not the case here.
“Cadbury’s Cocoa Life project was inspired by what we did with Fairtrade,” explains Fairley, referring to Cadbury’s multimillion dollar sustainably sourced cocoa initiative, launched in 2011.
It funds a range of cocoa growing community programmes supporting workers, the environment and education. “That’s actually our proudest legacy,” says Fairley.
As the original early adopters, they are proud that innovation is continuing at the brand. Green and Black’s celebrates its 30th anniversary this year by introducing a new Intensity Scale on its packaging.
Each bar in the Organic range is measured from one (the least intense) to 10 (the most intense) so that – just like coffee – you can see at a glance which bar will suit you best. To create the Intensity Scale, Green & Black’s looked at a range of important qualities that affect chocolate preference, defined by varying degrees of cocoa, levels of sweetness, and overall flavour intensity.
“It’s really great because the range is so wide now and the numbers really match the chocolate,” Fairley says.
The couple is still innovating too. Sams is co-founder of a biochar company, helping to fight climate change, and has a project on the go involving Irish seaweed.
Fairley is busy reopening her health and wellness centre. “The pandemic has helped us all to see that staying healthy isn’t something that just happens to you, that you can play a role in being healthy,” she says.
Who would have thought that, of all the movements of the last century, it is the hippy outlook that has sustained?
“In a way this is the moment we were expecting 30 years ago,” muses Fairley. We’re not there yet though, says Sams. “We still have some way to go on the peace and love side.” Right on.