Social Impact and Shortfalls in the Chocolate Industry

Contemporary society seems to be at a stage when awareness regarding global health and equity is present in the minds of more people than ever before – a likely implication of globalization. An example where this awareness can be seen is the chocolate industry. A sizeable collection of chocolate companies now associate themselves with some type of fair trade certification or engage in direct trade practices, claiming to improve the living conditions of farmers and traders with whom they work while promoting sustainability. However, many criticisms exist questioning the impact of these practices, from the actual improvement to farmer living conditions to the taste of the final product. Outside of the product itself, these companies often implement ineffective advertising campaigns that do little to draw in consumers who are already aware of the social issues in the chocolate industry, and even less to attract new consumers who traditionally purchase from established bulk chocolate producers such as Hershey, Nestle and Mars.

Madécasse is a ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate (and now vanilla) company based in Madagascar that was founded by former Peace Corps volunteers Tim McCollum and Brett Beach. McCollum and Beach claim that they fell in love with the people and the country of Madagascar, and a desire to do more manifested itself in the creation of the chocolate company, ‘Madécasse’ (Madecasse 2015). Madécasse strives to ‘do more’ through keeping the entire chocolate production process in Madagascar, from the farmers with whom they work to the factories where the chocolate product is produced and packaged. Written prominently on the Madécasse website is, “We are a social enterprise. We measure success by the quality of our product and our social impact in Africa” (Medacasse 2015). Included below is a short video from the Madécasse website promoting the company and the idea that they are ‘doing more’. This essay provides an in-depth analysis of the ways in which Madécasse is at the forefront of social impact in the chocolate industry, but also critiques the style of advertising that Madécasse has employed, arguing that it is both ineffective and fails in setting Madécasse apart from other chocolate companies.

Madécasse is certified by ‘Fair for Life’, which is a certification that was created by the Swiss Bio-Foundation and the Institute for Marketecology (IMO) in 2006. Fair for Life is part of a collection of certifications that exist to label companies that engage in fair trade practices. These practices are aimed at paying a fair price for the goods purchased in developing countries in an effort to increase living conditions and end inferior working conditions in poor developing countries, as illustrated in the infographic below. When Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman Eliot Engel raised the issues of poor working conditions related to child labour specifically, big chocolate companies including Hershey and Mars were forced to react in order to protect their images (Ryan 2011). The result was the signing of the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001, aimed at eliminating ‘the worst forms of child labour’. Little evidence exists that progress has been made from the large chocolate companies (Ryan 2011), and fair trade certifications have recently stepped in place to provide ‘proof’ that a company is being socially responsible.

Fair Trade. Source: http://www.lakechamplainchocolates.com/media//fair-trade-chocolate-lcc.jpg

While fair trade certifications are great in theory, they have come under fire in practice. Ryan (2011) conducts research in Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire and provides evidence that highlights some of these criticisms. Studies conducted by International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Tulane University show little evidence of child slavery, and locals argue that working conditions for children are rarely unethical. Furthermore, children are usually working with their families on the farms, and many of them are excited to go to work and potentially earn extra money (Ryan 2011). Finally, political action against companies has the potential to cripple countries where a major export is in question, such as cacao in Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire or garments in Bangladesh. The 1997 UNICEF report ‘ The State of the World’s Children’ concluded that the mere threat of the 1992 Harkin Bill, a bill intending to prohibit imports made by children under 15 years old, saw many female children released from garment factories in Bangladesh. These girls often ended up with jobs in which working conditions were worse or compensation was less, and others turned to prostitution (Ryan 2011).

Swiss Bio-Foundation and the IMO suggest that ‘Fair for Life’ was created in light of some of these criticisms, describing the motivation for the certification as:

“Response to various requests of consumers, producers, processors, retailers and their global suppliers concerning the lack of applicability and breadth of existing fair trade and social responsibility certification programmes applicable to a wide range of products, production situations and trade relations” (Fairforlife.org 2015).

The ‘Fair for Life’ website is somewhat vague on the specifics of how it is improved from other labels, but it does cite standards from the International Labor Organization (ILO), Social Accountibility International, and Fairtrade International (Fairforlife.org 2015). Fortunately, Madécasse does not stop at basic fair trade practices. ‘Bean-to-bar’ is the phrase used to describe vertically integrated chocolate companies that produce chocolate from cacao beans, as opposed to melting chocolate purchased from a different manufacturer. Madécasse purchases cacao beans from local farmers for above fair price, purchases the added ingredients from local vendors, invests in co-op equipment, trains local workers to operate the machinery, creates the product locally, prints the wrappers locally, and packages the final product locally before it is shipped away. The Madécasse process is elegantly compared to the standard and standalone Fair Trade process in the infographic below.

Beyond Fair Trade. Source: http://cdn.luckyvitamin.com/site/images/item_descrip/131045/131045-2.jpg

By keeping the entire production process in Madagascar, Madécasse claims to be stimulating the Malagasy economy four times more than a typical Fair Trade certification (Madécasse 2015). Co-Founder Tim McCollum argues that “Africa isn’t poor because they produce agriculture; it’s poor because that’s all they produce” (Shute 2013). While this broad, sweeping statement fails to address documented and well-established economic arguments of Africa’s poor geography and lack of institutions as reasons for poverty, the result of Madécasse is certainly a positive outcome.

In addition to providing an impactful service for those directly in business contact with Madécasse, the company also invests time and money into improvements and research that can be useful to broader Madagascar, particularly regarding the Cacao tree. There are three main types of cacao across the globe. The majority of the world’s bulk chocolate (approximately 90 percent) is made from the Forestero variety of cacao, which is highly disease-resistant and considered relatively bitter and flavourless. At the other end of the spectrum is the unique Criollo variety of cacao, which is colloquially referred to as the ‘holy grail of pure cacao’. The rarity and lack of disease resistance of Criollo explain why it accounts for only 1-5 percent of production globally. The Trinitario species of cacao was created from breeding the Forestero species with the Criollo species, and its balance between taste and sustainability make it the base ingredient in many luxury chocolates (Vartan 2012).

In 2012 Madécasse Chocolate Company declared in a press release that it had discovered ‘Pure Ancient Criollo’, a once-thought extinct species of cacao, in northwest Madagascar (Madécasse 2012). The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) confirmed the findings, which included the first pure Ancient Criollo that the USDA-ARS had ever put into its database. Genetically pure Amelonda, a rare and disappearing variety, as well as some rare Trinitarios were also put into the database. Lead USDA-ARS research geneticist Dr. Dapeng Zhang confirmed that the cacao trees maintained their original genetic identities, and remarked that such a finding is unprecedented in contemporary production systems (Madécasse 2012). As a result of these findings more farmers will be able to plant and grow this unique and desirable variety of cacao, which will earn turn increase their incomes and improve their environment. The Criollo findings subsequently served as the impetus for the creation of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative, a partnership between the Fine Chocolate Industry Association and the USDA-ARS. Madécasse visualizes this type of service-oriented attitude in the infographic below. Additionally, Madécasse has partnered with Conservation International and local communities to preserve national parks in Madagascar, which have seen a decline in size in recent years (Madécasse 2012).

Environmental Contribution. Source: http://cdn.luckyvitamin.com/site/images/item_descrip/131045/131045-1.jpg

The Initiatives and service that Madécasse is becoming involved in are particularly timely for the country of Madagascar. After a 2008 coup d’état, substantial amounts of foreign aid were withdrawn and there has been a general rise in lawlessness (Madécasse 2012). As a major export, cacao has become the target of gang crime. The remote Sambirano Valley, which yields fine quality cacao including Criollo, has become a specific target. Large farms can only just afford security to prevent shipments being hijacked on the roads. Smaller farms do not have the same luxury, and are forced to defend themselves with machetes and javelins, while the gangs come at them with homemade guns (Katz 2014). Mikel (1989) presents potential solutions improving national stability relative to Ghana, but they can also be applied to Madagascar. Solutions include decreasing the disparity between rural and urban populations, spurring voluntary rural migration, and allowing agricultural organisations the ability to address local socioeconomic needs (Mikel 1989). The vertical integration that Madécasse keeps entirely in the country is undoubtedly in line with the solutions described above. The country is in a time of need, and Madécasse is providing opportunities for locals to earn above market price for their cacao, incentives for people to move to farms, as well as technical and negotiation skills for those working in factories and on farms.

This essay is heavily focused on the social impact provided by Madécasse, but the icing on the cake is that they have created a product that also tastes great, which is not particularly common among fair trade products. On the topic of taste, co-founder Time McCollum said:

People may want food that’s ethically produced, but those values don’t help if the food is no good. What they really want is better products. It all comes down to the quality.” (Shute 2013).

While Criollo is renowned regardless of where it is grown, in Madagascar it is distinguished by particularly strong notes of citrus fruit (Chocolate Revolution 2015), and it is included in Madécasse. In describing the idea of terroir in chocolate, Nesto (2010) claims that location is the starting point, but the journey from plant to product is incredibly important. The fact that all of the cacao beans and added ingredients in Madécasse chocolate are sourced from Madagascar means that Madécasse provides a very rare showcasing of terroir.

Madécasse is clearly a company setting the benchmark for social impact in the chocolate industry worldwide. Furthermore, they have a high-quality product in terms of taste. However, Madécasse is falling short in that it is not advertising to the masses. The majority of Madécasse advertisements available online are included in this essay, and it is evident that these are geared towards an audience who is not only educated, but also already striving to make an impact on the world. The illustrations of trees, Africa and the occasional cacao seed, in conjunction with an inordinate amount of text for an advertisement, don’t quite jump out at potential consumers. A different advertisement depicted below shows a picture of the chocolate bar packaging, the chocolate bar itself, and more social-impact related text. If these advertisements don’t begin to add elements targeted towards traditional bulk chocolate consumers, it is unlikely that Madécasse will steal customers from other socially responsible producers, or ever take market share from bulk chocolate companies.

Madecasse Chocolate. Source: http://cdn2.bigcommerce.com/server2200/3qwrjw7/product_images/theme_images/4303_madecasse_2014_website_updates_salted_almond_home_page_image_rev0__43413.png?t=1427896796

An easy starting point would be taste. Fair trade chocolate is conventionally understood to sacrifice taste, which prevents many from purchasing it. Madécasse has won prizes at the World Chocolate Awards, SF International Chocolate Salon and Paris Salon de Chocolat among others (Madecasse 2015), yet a potential consumer would never know. Improving Madécasse advertising does not imply it must stoop to levels of problematic advertising either, like those that Robertson (2010) critiques for playing on stereotypes of gender, such as the idea that “women’s identities may thus become subsumed by their [chocolate] consumption habits” (Robertson 2010). On the topic of gender, Divine Chocolate provides an example of powerful, yet unproblematic, advertising in its 2005 marketing campaign (Leissle 2012). Depicted below is an excerpt from that campaign, in which female cacao farmers from the Kuapa Kokoo cooperative in Ghana appear as models. Kuapa Kokoo owns approximately half of the shares of Divine Chocolate, and because it is a cooperative it makes each of the models part owners of the company (Leissle 2012). It is a powerful and also real image of Divine Chocolate and its impact. Madécasse undoubtedly has the capacity to produce a striking campaign of a similar nature.

Divine Chocolate Campaign. Source: Leissle 2012
Divine Chocolate Campaign.
Source: Leissle 2012

Madécasse Chocolate Company has firmly established itself as an industry leader in social impact. In addition to adhering to fair trade practices, it has kept its vertically integrated bean-to-bar production within Madagascar, which has created a four times larger impact that standard fair trade. Not only focused on improving its own product, Madécasse has invested in the discovery of once-thought extinct pure Ancient Criollo cacao, and partnered with conservation groups to improve national parks. All of these contributions are particularly timely given the current instability of Madagascar. In addition to the social impact, Madécasse has managed to provide a product with taste. However, Madécasse is only advertising in a manner that would reach consumers who are already looking to purchase from a socially responsible vendor. If Madécasse can figure out how to appeal to the masses, the world will be in for a treat.

Multimedia Sources:

Chocolate Revolution (2015) http://www.chocolate-revolution.com/origins.php

Evans, Lisa (2014) How a Chocolate Company in Madagascar Overcame the Odds http://www.fastcompany.com/3028533/bottom-line/how-a-chocolate-company-in-madagascar-overcame-the-odds

Fair for Life (2015) http://www.fairforlife.org/

Katz, Andrew (2014) Dark Gold: Giulio Di Sturco Goes Inside Madagascar’s Cocoa War http://time.com/3809538/madagascar-cocoa-chocolate-war-giulio-di-sturco/

Vartan, Starre (2012) A new kind of chocolate? http://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/blogs/a-new-kind-of-chocolate

Shute, Nancy (2013) Bean-To-Bar Chocolate Makers Dare to Bare How It’s Done http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/02/13/171891081/bean-to-bar-chocolate-makers-dare-to-bare-how-its-done

Madécasse (2015) http://www.madecasse.com/

Scholarly Sources:

Leissle, Kristy. (2012). “Cosmopolitan cocoa farmers: refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate advertisements.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 24 (2): 121-139

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

Mikell, Gwendolyn (1989) Cocoa and Chaos in Ghana. New York, USA: Paragon House

Nesto, Bill (2010) “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 10 (1) (February 1): 131–135

Robertson, Emma (2010) Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press,

Ryan, Orla (2011) Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. London, UK: Zed

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