Facilitating Change: Promoting Social Justice through Consumer Initiative in the Chocolate Industry

Chocolate has been revered in America and all over the world for centuries. From the presumed invention by the ancient Olmec civilization (Coe 35) to the present-day global market, the demand for chocolate is ever-increasing. Despite the almost universal love for this sweet treat, made from the beans of the cacao tree, most people remain unaware of the complex issues that exist throughout the industry. The cacao tree is notoriously difficult to grow, “refusing to bear fruit outside a band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator” and demanding very specific growing conditions (Coe 19). But putting aside the many logistical and environmental issues faced by cacao farmers, whose livelihood depends upon the successful cultivation of cacao, there are also more sinister issues that affect farmers, and in turn, threaten the availability and quality of chocolate as we know it. Corruption throughout the supply chain and by the governments of the countries that grow cacao has led to the extreme poverty of many cacao farmers, despite initiatives seemingly introduced to combat these problems, and has resulted in the trafficking of and dependence upon child labor, gender inequality, the interference of expensive cooperatives that often take profits from the farmers while making it harder for them to compete in the marketplace, and ultimately, lower quality beans being produced. Though there is no easy fix for the social injustice and numerous ethical problems, we as consumers can help facilitate industry change by spreading knowledge about these atrocities and making educated purchasing decisions, in addition to committing to become more mindful of the origins of our food.

Children working with cacao. Attribution: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Children harvesting cacao. Attribution: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Evidence of child trafficking and slavery in the cacao industry began to emerge in the 1990s, and by the 2000s it was beginning to get noticed by the public. “Traffickers preyed on children at bus stops in Mali, promising riches on cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire. Once children got to the farm, they survived on little food, little or no pay and endured regular beatings. There were no chains and no irons, but, unable to leave their place of work, they were effectively slaves, harvesting the beans that were the key ingredient for chocolate” (Ryan, 44). Children were found to be doing dangerous tasks, using harmful chemicals and machetes without being afforded any training or protection, often resulting in, “injury and sickness, musculoskeletal disorders, sprains, lacerations, fractures, eye injuries, rashes, and respiratory irritation” (Martin). In 2009, a study conducted by Tulane University found that, “more than 800,000 children in Ghana had worked on cocoa-related activities in the previous twelve months,” (Ryan, 49). However, an important distinction to note is that many of the children were found not to be trafficked slaves but children working on family farms and plantations, contributing to the livelihood and economic success of their families and communities. This is often a cultural norm for many underdeveloped regions where poverty is a reality, and where there is no extra money to hire laborers to do the work. In addition to child labor, there is the issue of gender discrimination. Women in Ghana, “receive lower incomes than men, with many below the local poverty line or minimum wage” (Barrientos), despite the fact that women were found to be critical in caring for the early crops, and in the processes of fermenting and drying the cacao beans. “Within the chocolate industry these activities [performed by women] are seen as critical for ensuring productivity and quality” of the cacao (Barrientos). In an attempt to find a solution to some of these problems that result in injustice on the farming end of the supply chain, Gwendolyn Mikell theorizes that policies are needed, “that explicitly recognize that rural vibrancy contributes to national stability” by working to lessen the gap between the rural and the urban, “allowing local agricultural organizations to address local socio-economic needs as well as facilitate national economic linkages”, encouraging a gender-balanced labor force through policy, and depending more heavily on domestic instead of imported food (253). This proposed solution, though admirable, still begs the question, how do we encourage these policies that connect the different segments of the chocolate production industry in a way that does not exploit anyone, and provides economic opportunity for all? Do we, as consumers, even have any power to encourage such policy implementations, so far removed from the beginning of the process? Isn’t it those in power who must ultimately choose to make these changes, at their own economic expense, for the sake of humanity?

The Fair Trade credential was offered as a solution to help farmers receive fair prices, but instead has appeared to often contribute to the problem, creating another layer of middlemen in the form of cooperatives that take profits from farmers via large membership fees, and make it even more difficult for small farms who cannot afford membership to compete. The nonprofit organization’s website claims that, “Fair Trade goods are just that. Fair. From far-away farms to your shopping cart, products that bear our logo come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated”, and purchasing fair trade products has become a popular way for customers to feel good, believing they are helping to deliver a solution to rural poverty through their purchasing decisions. The reality, however, is much different. “Countries ranked by the World Bank as upper middle-income account for 54% of producer organisations having received Fair Trade certification against 21% in the case of low-income countries. As for least developed countries, they only account for 13.5% of effective certification demand. Whatever definition of poverty and economic vulnerability is used, the conclusion is the same: Fair Trade tends to exclude the poorest countries” (Samba Sylla). Finally, most consumers assume that Fair Trade beans are of a higher quality, when the reality is that the best beans fetch the highest prices as specialty beans, and therefore it is the lesser quality beans that end up certified as Fair Trade (Nolan, Sekulovic, Rao).

Click here to watch the Fair Trade Shell Game.

Though many of these issues have gained some backseat media attention for decades, they are still not widely known to the majority of American consumers. As we have shifted from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, many people are simply overloaded with too much information. “According to a 2011 study, on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers’ worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986”, despite the fact that, “the processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited” (Levitin). It is therefore reasonable to assume that things that are farthest removed from us personally will garner the least amount of our attention. Many Americans do not even know how chocolate is made, let alone are familiar thumbSurveywith industry issues, and have become complacent about the origins of our food. In an attempt to gather some basic information about how much my contemporaries know about the chocolate industry, I created and posted a Chocolate Survey on social media, inviting my chocolate-loving friends to participate. Of the 24 respondents, 50% claimed to know how chocolate was made, while only 37.5% were aware of any production problems or ethical dilemmas within the chocolate industry. It is also worth noting that 75% of respondents would willingly pay more for chocolate if they had knowledge that farmers were not being fairly compensated and that higher prices were a solution to this issue. Most people, at the core, want to do the right thing.

Another barrier to becoming an informed consumer is the difficulty of extracting information about our food. Even consumers who are aware of the problems that exist in the food supply chain will have an incredibly difficult, and often unsuccessful, time finding out where their food comes from, even if they make the attempt. I reached out to a popular Connecticut chocolate company that was a staple in my childhood, to inquire as to how much they knew about the production and origin of their beans. Though the company representative was polite and forthcoming with a response, it was vague and indicated that while most of their beans came from West Africa and Indonesia, the specifics depended on “type” and constituted proprietary information, though I was assured that their farms did not accept beans derived under abusive or illegal conditions. I was also sent a link to a video about how chocolate is made, but it was a generic video that did not provide information about the beans their company purchases. When a company claims the origin of their product is “proprietary”, it creates another unfortunate roadblock for consumers who are interested in and actively attempting to make informed purchasing decisions.

It can be frustrating for the enlightened consumer to determine how to best avoid contributing to these complex problems in our food supply chain, but there are productive steps in the right direction that may be taken. According to journalist Orla Ryan, “consumers increasingly want to know where their products come from and understandably don’t want to buy goods made by children. But, this problem is too complex to solve with a simple consumer initiative… child labour is an economic problem. Solve the poverty and you solve the child labour problem” (54). However, it is not necessarily true that consumer initiatives cannot solve complex problems in big industries; McDonald’s discontinuation of of the use of ammonium hydroxide in its hamburgers, in response to the “pink slime” uproar by consumers, is one example (Johnson). In both cases, and in most cases, economics and greed are at the root of these issues. Though there is obvious risk in boycotting product from nations where underpaid farmers rely on what little wages they receive in order to survive, putting consumer pressure on some of the big companies may be necessary to induce the change that will eventually better serve all cacao farmers in the future. Though the Harkin-Engel Protocol, “an international agreement aimed at ending the worst forms of child labor” (Martin), was signed in 2001, fifteen years later it is unclear if it has resulted in any change at all. It is unlikely that Big Industry will make any changes resulting in less profit for them unless they are left without a choice, which can only come about with pressure from consumers. Supporting organizations who have taken on this challenge is one thing that can be done. Concerned consumers should consider joining the campaigns of organizations such as Anti-Slavery International, who are fighting for the end of child labor use in the cacao industry. Gathering friends and peers together and hosting a screening of “The Dark Side of Chocolate” is one way to make these issues known to others, as suggested by the International Labor Rights Forum. Social media is also a very effective method for promulgating information. Sharing articles and data about the issues facing the chocolate industry on Facebook, Twitter, and other networking sites is a good way to ensure awareness of these critically important matters.

An example of a tool designed for circulation on popular social media sites, in an attempt to bring attention to the issues facing Chocolate
An example of a tool designed for circulation on popular social media sites, in an attempt to bring attention to the issues facing Chocolate

Though not always effective, consumer boycotts can also be successful if executed strategically by people committed to following through. Harvard Business Review describes the strategies undertaken by successful boycotters who have created industry change through their initiatives. Consumer passion is the first necessary ingredient, “the main driver being moral outrage” (Diermeier). “The cost of participation must be low” (Diermeier), which is why successful activists will often choose one particular offending company to boycott, enabling the public to easily participate. The issues should also be easy for the general public to understand and follow, and the successful involvement of the media is the final critical ingredient in a successful boycott (Diermeier).

Another thing the concerned consumer can do is strive to seek out small, ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate companies that have a direct connection to the farmers who grow their beans, keeping in mind that there will likely be a higher cost associated with doing business with a small company trying to compete with the large industry players. In a Q & A session with the founders of Rogue Chocolatier, Colin Gasko explained that he can’t ever know for certain when his next batch of beans will arrive due to the market competition; that even if he has a relationship with a particular farmer, he could never ask that farmer to do business with him if it would be in the best interest of the farmer to do business with a company offering a higher wage that can better support the farmer and his family. Informed and concerned consumers should be willing to pay a high price to reward small companies for doing what they can to combat these numerous issues in the chocolate industry. Additionally, artisan chocolate companies are striving to bring back the nuances and deep flavors of the beans that have been lost due to industrialization. Large industrialized companies are more concerned about consistency than quality, as they are selling a brand and want their product to always taste the same, even if it’s always sub par. “The artisans do something very different. The artisans are much more attune to the flavor profile of each individual batch of beans. So they’re working on a small scale because they’re working with batches from one farm, one plantation, or a cooperative, fine-tuning the chocolate to bring out the best flavor of that bean” (Leissle).

Click here to get a glimpse of the Rogue Chocolatier operations when they were starting out in Minneapolis, courtesy of Martha Stewart

There is no simple answer that will address and correct the many complex social justice and ethical issues that affect the chocolate industry. Poverty-stricken farmers deserve to earn not only a liveable wage but a profit, selling the cacao beans that fetch billions of dollars in revenue each year for those further up the supply chain. It is only by becoming and staying informed of these issues, spreading knowledge to others, participating in strategically executed boycotts, and making deliberate purchasing decisions that we can hope to make a change for the better and work toward creating a system that is fair for everyone, and one that preserves the nuances and quality of chocolate-making that has been threatened so many times by chocolate-making on an industrial scale. It is the decision of every consumer to become part of the problem or part of the solution. I choose the latter, and hope that one day companies will have no choice but to enact real changes that lead to not only to a healthier, higher quality product, but to economic freedom for all segments of this billion dollar industry.

Footnote for Maggie: Regarding the chocolate meme as a social networking tool: it is cited below as per the wikimedia image guidelines, which indicate they hold true whether or not I alter the image (which I did, with the text overlay). Also, I’m still not able to add any new tags, so I cannot add the most appropriate tags to this post.

Works Cited:

aaas119e43. Private Correspondence with chocolate company, “Inquiry and response regarding origin of company’s beans”. Email. 17 Apr. 2015.

aaas119e43. Chocolate Survey. Survey Monkey. 7 May 2015. Web.

Anti-Slavery International. Website. 11 May 2015. http://www.antislavery.org/

Barrientos, Stephanie. “Women in cocoa production: where is the gender equity?” The Guardian. 8 Mar. 2013. Web. 11 May 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/women-cocoa-production-gender-equity

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2013. London. Print.

Diermeier, Daniel. “When Do Company Boycotts Work?” Harvard Business Review. 6 Aug. 2012. Web. 12 May 2015. https://hbr.org/2012/08/when-do-company-boycotts-work

Fair Trade USA. Website. 11 May 2015. http://fairtradeusa.org/

Gasko, Colin. Q&A, Rogue Chocolatier. Harvard Extension School. Cambridge, MA. 6 May 2015. Classroom interview.

International Labor Rights Forum. Website. 11 May 2015. http://www.laborrights.org/

Johnson, M. Alex. “McDonald’s drops use of gooey ammonia-based ‘pink slime’ in hamburger meat.” NBC News. 31 Jan. 2012. Web. 13 May 2015. http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/01/31/10282876-mcdonalds-drops-use-of-gooey-ammonia-based-pink-slime-in-hamburger-meat

Kurkdjian, O. & Co. NV (Fotostudio), photographer unknown. “Harvesting Cacao,” 1890-1917. Tropenmuseum. Wikimedia.org. Web. 12 May 2015. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACOLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_Het_oogsten_van_cacao_TMnr_60022625.jpg

Leissle, Kristy, Lauren and Bob Ridgely. “Bean to Bar, a film about Artisan Chocolate.” Online Video. 2013. Indieflix.com. 10 May 2015. https://indieflix.com/indie-films/bean-to-bar-a-film-about-artisan-chocolate-36641/

Levitin, Daniel J. “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain.” The New York Times. 9 Aug. 2014. 12 May 2015. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/opinion/sunday/hit-the-reset-button-in-your-brain.html

Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. “Rogue Chocolatier.” Online Video. 7 May 2015. http://www.marthastewart.com/250124/martha-tours-rogue-chocolatier-minneapolis#250124

Martin, Carla. “AAAS E-119 Lecture 8: Modern Day Slavery.” Google Slides, iSite, Slide 17. 25 Mar. 2015. Web. 11 May 2015.

Mikell, Gwendolyn. Cocoa and Chaos in Ghana. New York: Paragon House, 1989. Print.

Nolan, Markham, Dusan Sekulovic, and Sara Rao. “The Fair Trade Shell Game.” Vocativ. 20 Dec. 2013. Web. 11 May 2015. http://www.vocativ.com/video/money/business/fair-trade-shell-game/

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. London: Zed Books, 2011. Print.

Samba Sylla, Ndongo. “Fairtrade is an unjust movement that serves the rich.” The Guardian. 4 Sept. 2014. Web. 12 May 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/05/fairtrade-unjust-movement-serves-rich

Unknown Photographer. Chocolate. Wikimedia. 5 May 2015. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chocolate02.jpg#file

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