Treat Yourself: Theo Chocolate and Offsetting Consumption

Whole Foods Market — chocolate display

The chocolate section at Whole Foods Market is overwhelming to say the least. With rows and rows of options, from milk to dark, imported to local, and organic to conventional, the choice is not always clear. Josée Johnston has explored this idea of increased consumer choice, and how in our neoliberal consumerist society, Whole Foods has “actively promoted the idea of consumer choice in the market as a complement to, and even substitute for the citizenship ideal of democratic participation…with consumers becoming increasingly responsible to self-manage…risks through consumption decisions,” (Johnston 246). However, in providing so many options, some of which are produced in conventional and debatably unethical ways, Whole Foods is also allowing consumers to “opt out of citizenship commitments…and prioritize individual self-interest by purchasing cheaper, unsustainable foods,” (251). Because of this, and in a society which has an increasing “unease with abundance,” it is up to the individual companies within Whole Foods to market their products in a way that convinces consumers that they are in line with neoliberal anxieties, and that their products offset an individual’s consumption (238). Ezra Rosser defines the concept of offsetting as, “the decision [of a consumer] to make a supplemental payment that exceeds what the market demands in connection with consumption and to do so for charitable or socially responsible reasons,” (Rosser, 30). In other words, Rosser argues that consumers are willing to pay extra in exchange for the moral satisfaction of consuming an ethical product. This is particularly important when it comes to chocolate, which is not a requisite commodity, but a self-indulgent treat. The unnecessary nature of chocolate, in addition to its history as a socially irresponsible commodity, makes it a prime candidate for increasingly ethical marketing. In an attempt to aid consumers in morally rationalizing their purchase of chocolate, companies like Theo Chocolate have turned to socially responsible marketing as a means to communicate the company’s own morality. With a number of social partnerships and well-known certifications, there is no doubt that unlike many others, Theo is an ethical choice, and through the use of strategic design, imagery, and wording on their classic chocolate and special partner bars, Theo Chocolate appeals to the desires of socially conscious consumers, emphasizing the extent to which they will morally offset consumption, and giving consumers permission to treat themselves.

Certificatory images prominently displayed on Theo chocolate bars.
Certificatory images prominently displayed on Theo chocolate bars.

Rosser notes that today, “companies have discovered that their bottom line depends in part on convincing customers that they are good corporate citizens,” (Rosser, 45). This is a drastic change from the early twentieth century when “rising industrial chocolate makers (Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, Nestle) were more interested in selling the flavors of particular candy bars than bean lineage,” (Leissle, 22). And while Theo undoubtedly advertises the flavors of their chocolate on the packaging, it is much more subtle. The chocolate and inclusions are pictured front and center, but are almost of equal scale with the certificatory images. Theo chocolate begins to convey their good citizenship with their packaging design, which places certificatory imagery front and center. All of Theo’s products bear the “USDA organic”, “non-GMO”, and “Fair for Life” certifications easily visible on the wrapper, in bright colorful squares that pop from the foreground of the generally white packaging. In displaying these images so prominently and consistently across the large range of their products, it is apparent that Theo is communicating more to the consumer than just the quality of their chocolate. Indeed, the USDA organic certification has no explanatory power when it comes to taste. In Pam Williams and Jim Eber’s book, Raising the Bar, the authors concede that organic says nothing about “better flavor or better quality cacao…[and] for now fine flavor beans remain a distinct minority when it comes to organic,” (Willams and Eber, 201-3). In this way, Theo chocolate is not advertising their certifications as a testament to their chocolate’s flavor, but one to their own corporate morality. The scale and manner in which Theo uses imagery on the packaging plays to the consumer desire to offset their consumption and rationalize their purchase. “Americans are consuming social responsibility,” Rosser says, “…they are both attempting to ensure their consumption does not conflict with their sense of social responsibility and hoping consumption can be the means of meeting their social responsibilities,” (Rosser, 28-9). By including these images on their products, Theo Chocolate is assuring consumers that buying their product not only maintains a certain code of ethical production, but that the company—who says so in their mission statement—shares this same desire “to make the world a better place”.

Theo Eastern Congo Initiative partner bar
Theo Eastern Congo Initiative partner bar

Theo further illustrates this notion of good corporate citizenship in their “partner bars.” These chocolate products are the result of partnerships between Theo and a variety of charitable organizations including the Eastern Congo Initiative, World Bicycle Relief, and the Jane Goodall Institute, with some proceeds from the bars going to their respective foundations. This is a practice known as cause marketing, where consumers can support a larger cause by buying a company’s products (45). In partnering with these organizations, Theo Chocolate gives the consumer further reason to rationalize their purchase: that this chocolate bar was not only produced in a way that offsets consumption, but will further offset it even after you actually make the purchase. The packaging of these bars reflects these intentions. The design of Theo’s partner bars differs from the look of classic Theo chocolate. In lieu of images of the chocolate itself on the wrappers, Theo instead uses images that are specifically relevant to the organizations. On classic Theo wrappers, an image of melting chocolate decorated with whatever inclusions are present in the bar grace the packaging. The chocolate itself takes center stage and is obviously the item of sale. On the partner bars however, there is no chocolate present. For instance, Theo’s Eastern Congo Initiative bar is the product of a partnership with founder Ben Affleck’s organization that aims to help farmers in the Democratic Republic of Congo improve their opportunities for economic success in spite of the Congo’s rocky history. The packaging is centered on this goal, depicting a bright, promising golden background with the rising sun ushering in a new dawn for the Congolese people front and center on the wrapper. Similarly, the World Bicycle Relief bar features no images of chocolate either, but instead the smiling faces of African children riding the bicycles given to them by the organization. By removing any image of the product from the labels of these chocolate bars, Theo is advertising how their company will offset the customer’s purchase. They are shifting the emphasis of their advertising from the delicious (but unnecessary) chocolate commodity to the larger (and positive) social implications of choosing to consume this product. In essence, cause marketing is the perfect answer to Johnston’s hybrid citizen-consumer, who aims to “maximize consumer pleasure and alleviate the guilt of mass-market consumerism,” (Johnston, 250). Theo is thus ridding the consumer of guilt, and instead selling a sense of moral satisfaction. In this way, the company’s cause marketing, and the way in which they incorporate it into their packaging, gives consumers peace of mind in their purchase by alluding to the fact that the positive impact of their purchase will far outweigh the negative.

Theo World Bicycle Relief partner bar

On all of Theo’s products, the aforementioned imagery on their packaging—and the meaning behind it—is enhanced by the strategic placement of text and phrases within its design. As would be expected, “Theo” is written in large letters across all of the company’s products. However, by placing certain phrases and text closer to the company logo, Theo can control with what their name is associated. On the wrappers of their classic bars, to the right of every “Theo” are the words “organic” and “fair trade” in similar colors and fonts. The proximity and visual similarity of these words naturally cause the consumer to associate the three together when they see the name on the bar. The same is done on the wrapper of the partner bars, with the charity’s logo placed thoughtfully near Theo’s own logo. Theo intentionally tries to make this connection in hopes that “consumers will mentally link the company with the charity, carrying over the goodwill they have for the charity to how they feel about the company,” (Rosser, 46). In placing Theo’s logo alongside these phrases, the company is marketing themselves, and thus their products, as an ethical choice. Beyond implicating the company as socially conscious, however, the wording on the back of Theo bars reframes the company’s actions and makes the consumer an active player in the social good. “When you purchase our Coffee & Cream bar, not only are you making a delicious choice, you are directly impacting the lives of farmers in Eastern Congo by supporting true fair trade,” the back of the Eastern Congo Initiative bar reads, giving consumers the illusion that they are fulfilling an active role in change by purchasing the chocolate, “[satiating personal desires while simultaneously addressing social and ecological injustices,” (Johnston, 232). In using text to directly address the consumer, Theo strengthens the relationship between its company and the customer, while superimposing its own ethical practices and charitable work onto the consumer. In this way, Theo promises that the consumer will personally be fulfilled in purchasing their product, and reinforces the notion that the purchase of a Theo bar is a means of meeting one’s social responsibility.

In this way, the packaging of Theo chocolate bars advertises the way in which it is a socially responsible choice, an offset “providing a mechanism for individuals to correct for the harms associated with consumption” at every level (Rosser, 27). The strategic placement of certifying images on the label suggests that Theo Chocolate has attempted to offset the harms in production, in human labor and the environment. Furthermore, the use of imagery in conjunction with its partner bars suggests that the offsetting of Theo goes far beyond that of production, and continues to make an impact even after consumption. And finally, in implicating the consumer as an active player in this offsetting, Theo Chocolate gives the consumer permission to take credit for the positive social impact that its company is making. In doing so, Theo encourages the consumers to treat themselves, as their consumption has been offset. Permission to treat yourself without guilt is even explicitly given on the package. Above the certifying images and accompanied by a satisfied smiley face is the simple word “Enjoy.” In this singular word, Theo reminds consumers that while their product is undoubtedly an ethically sound choice, it is a delicious one that should be savored, and everyone deserves a treat.

Works Cited:

Johnston, Josée. 2008. “The citizen-consumer hybrid: ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market.” Theory and Society. 37: 229-270.

Leissle, Kristy. 2013. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. 13 (3): 22-31

Rosser, Ezra. 2011. “Offsetting and the Consumption of Social Responsibility.” Washington Law Review. 89 (1): 27-101.

Williams, Pam and Jim Beer. 2012. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. pp. 141-


Multimedia Cited:

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Image 3, 4: Personal photos taken in Whole Foods Market, Hyannis, MA.


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