Fair Trade: The Honorable Marketing Tool

Chocolate is a heartbreaker.
Chocolate is a heartbreaker.

Chocolate is no longer a delicacy. In America, we expect chocolate to be available instantly, everywhere, at any time. The same can be said for any food: fruit, bread, or meat, but chocolate has always had a political and social context that set it apart from normal food. People have reacted to chocolate with a mixture of adoration and revulsion. Adoration for its taste, its texture, its associations with love, and revulsion towards its exotic origins, its supposed effect as an aphrodisiac, and among more enlightened consumers its long and bloody history as a product of slavery. I believe that one could say that for most of the 20th century, when chocolate became affordable to all classes of Americans and most of the racial and sexual myths were dispelled, chocolate was not looked at in a political light by the majority of consumers – although hints of it still showed up in advertising:

And it is for that precise reason that chocolate was able to be easily dominated by the major corporations – Hershey, Mars, Nestle and the rest, through their many rivalries and fluctuations (Brenner 194). But starting in the 1980s, fair trade and artisan chocolate began to gain popularity – chocolate made by smaller companies or individuals, made with more actual chocolate, and supposedly more collaboration with the farmers who actually grow the cacao that becomes the product. The promise of higher quality and fairer business practices made buying artisan chocolate a political act – by purchasing a bar of chocolate, one demonstrates their liberal credentials and their superior appreciation of food. The same goes for the people who make the chocolate. Raised on boring mainstream brands, they try to refashion the things they love to fit their own expectations. Quoth Rick Mast, the founder of a Brooklyn-based chocolate manufacturer:

We are chocolate nerds. We have to get out of that world and think, ‘What is it that we are really trying to do?’ What I am trying to do is introduce craft chocolate to that ten-year-old girl whose whole life is in front of her and whose life I think would be better with a Mast brothers bar than with a Hershey bar. (Williams/Eber 148)

The brothers Mast.
The brothers Mast.

It’s this feeling of do-gooding that has allowed artisan and fair trade chocolate to maintain a niche in the marketplace. Hershey isn’t about to go out of business, but they were forced to respond to the implications by contrast that their chocolate is made unfairly. In 2013, the company announced on their website their plan to use only cocoa certified by fair trade organizations by the year 2020:


Outside of ethics, it demonstrates that marketing products as fair trade is good for business and a company’s image. Why not?  It helps both the producers’ lives and the consumer’s ego.


But how fair is fair trade, exactly? Part of marketing is hype, illusion, and overstatement. The “fair trade” marking on the wrapper alleviates the buyer’s guilt in supporting a notoriously unfair industry. Now that people are more aware of the process that goes into chocolate labor, the fair trade certificate is an important part of the competition against the chocolate megacorporations. In some cases, however, the hype is nothing but hype. The trade may be fairer than some, but it isn’t perfect. Products are certified as fair trade by various private organizations, one being Fair Trade USA. On their website, they state that their goal is to

empower family farmers and workers around the world, while enriching the lives of those struggling in poverty. Rather than creating dependency on aid, we use a market-based approach that empowers farmers to get a fair price for their harvest, helps workers create safe working conditions, provides a decent living wage and guarantees the right to organize.

Men at work.
Men at work.

Historically, farmers have been underpaid for their labor, if they have been paid at all. It was considered standard practice for companies to pay pennies to farmers for chocolate that would be sold for five dollars or more. Fair trade tries to push some of that balance back to the farmers. This, however, means that fair trade chocolatiers are forced to sell their chocolate at higher prices in order to make a profit. For an increasing number of consumers, these higher prices are worth it for the guarantee that workers are being treated fairly. Another quote from the good folks at Fair Trade USA:

As Americans become increasingly concerned about the state of the world and look for opportunities to use their power in the marketplace to make a positive difference, we seek to provide an avenue for consumers to vote with their dollar. As we educate and inspire more and more consumers, we hope to be a force for change. We believe the rise of the Conscious Consumer will cause a fundamental shift in the way companies do business and create a historic opportunity to reward companies that embrace sustainability.

This upbeat message highlights an important and slightly unpleasant fact  – it is the consumer that has to force companies to emphasize humanity over profits, because they won’t do it on their own. And while the majority of the attention over the injustices of the chocolate industry focuses on the exploitation of labor overseas, the situation in America is generally ignored.

Delicious Theo Chocolate.
Delicious Theo Chocolate.

This week I went to my parents’ house and looked at the chocolate in their freezer and cupboard. There was a mix of fair trade and “traditional” chocolate. Hershey’s was well represented with chocolate bars in the freezer and chocolate syrup in the fridge. But there was also a bar of Theo chocolate, which proudly trumpeted its “fair trade approved” status on the wrapper. Due to this image of fairness, the Theo company, which was founded in 2005, has over the last decade become one of the most successful chocolatiers. In 2013, Theo chocolate was accused by the International Labor Rights Forum of conspiring to impede worker efforts to unionize in their Seattle factory…

including hiring a union avoidance consultant and implementing a union avoidance plan… then to replace the union established a parallel structure, the Round Table, which management would control and dominate.

Theo denied the charges, and the complaint appears to have been ignored by the media as well – there seem to be no follow-up stories or updates since the first reports. While the issue of unions in affluent Seattle may seem petty compared to the struggles faced by farmers in South America and Africa, I think this example shows how media and public attention change issues more than the conscience of companies. If the media had decided this story was worthy of attention, who knows what the outcome might have been? As it stands, the labor practices seem to have gone on as before.

The selection at Whole Foods.
The selection at Whole Foods.

Although there has been some overlap in recent years, artisan chocolate is more easily found in “upscale” supermarkets, such as Whole Foods, than “mainstream” purchasing centers such as CVS. As it was done hundreds of years ago in Europe, chocolate is becoming a symbol of the elite, marketing to people with more money and more intelligence on the workings of the world. No one can deny that fair trade is a superior system to slavery. My objection is that it still falls into the idea of the “white man’s burden” – that it is up to the poorer regions of the world to sweat and work in the fields while the “creative” people in the First World twirl around in their confectionaries with their precious chocolates. In her review of the cocoa business in Ghana, Gwendolyn Mikell states: There is a growing indication that despite the increases in food, cocoa and other agricultural production, dependence upon external market institutions remain. (253). European and American companies have twisted the original vision of chocolate into an ogre that plunders from the people who invented it. Mass growing of cacao would be impossible to accomplish in America due to the climate – only a few places, such as Hawaii or Florida, are capable of growing the bean. That’s convenient, because the cost of paying workers to grow cacao in America, no matter how low paying the job, would bankrupt the corporations who need to produce mass amounts of crops to satisfy the public demand. What I ask is why the countries that produce cocoa for exportation cannot create the actual chocolate themselves? Should America be the boss of the world, and whole continents become her labor resources?

Give these guys more money!
Give these guys more money!

It is disillusioning when the things we enjoy turn out to be deeply problematic. The way cacao farming has become the only means of survival for the entire population of countries that may never eat a chocolate bar in their lives is infuriating, and there’s no  one else to blame but the production system itself, which cuts costs wherever possible, primarily in countries without the necessary infrastructure to fight or publicize it but even in America when they can. Fair trade means well, but it is just an extension of a system that needs to undergo reform from the ground up, not just adjusted here and there. And the people best qualified to do that are not twirly-headed chocolatiers and reformers and committees, but the people who control the chocolate itself. They have the means, and they should use them.


Brenner, Joe. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. New York: Random House, 1999.

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

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

Williams, Pam, and Jim Eber. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor Pub., 2012.


Fair Trade Certified Logo from https://www.lacascoffee.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/295547-Fair_Trade_Certified_logo_2012.jpg

Cocoa farmers from http://www.ghananewsagency.org/assets/images/Cocoa%20farmers.jpg

Whole Foods from http://bitofthegoodstuff.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Whole-Foods-Kensington-the-chocolate-aisle.jpg

Chocolate heart from http://www.glo-pamperparties.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/chocolate_heart.jpg

Mast brothers from http://nonabrooklyn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/mastbrothers3.jpg

Theo Chocolate from https://kokobuzz.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/phinney-collection-3-208.jpg

Working men from http://nilsenreport.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/cocoa-farmers.jpg


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