The 9 Buck Bar: Assessing Modern Market Tactics for Food Justice in the Chocolate Supply Chains

Resistance to the Historical Accumulation of Injustice

            Next to something called a “Chia Squeeze Smart Snack Pouch,” I found a nine-dollar chocolate bar. Made with pepper sourced from a single remote valley and possessing enough Fair Trade certification stamps to nearly cover the back of the packaging, it looked both mouthwatering and virtuous. I had come into this Whole Food knock off to get a couple onions and some greens, I just couldn’t bear to spend most folks hourly wage on a chocolate bar. I didn’t walk away though. I spent another minute staring longingly at that bar and its artisanal cousins that sat, in all senses, a few feet to the left of the mainstream bars.

Many of the struggles to remake the modern chocolate and agrifood supply chains are contained in my moments of both indecision and longing. Successful branding, educational and cultural shifts have encouraged me both to value offbeat or “foodie” flavors like pink pepper while creating moral imperatives for virtuous and globally responsible individual level purchasing decisions. Yet those values, simultaneously moral and aesthetic, are associated strongly with a desire for the rare, obscure, limited and small. Desire for multiple levels of assurance of the ethical and environmental cleanliness of an agricultural commodity like cacao significantly and maybe necessarily prevents economies of scale, while the aesthetic values of “artisanal” and “small batch” explicitly discourage it. Combined with ethical global labor demands to pay a higher up front cost for the commodity itself, the price of that nine-dollar bar isn’t just hipster bait, it is likely a necessary result of trying to balance this variety of competing values within an entrepreneurial, consumer capitalist model.

My chemical reaction to chocolate’s theobromine stew and my bank account balance are both moderately low so it is perhaps little surprise that I chose not to buy the bar. Other factors like taking this class, strong concern for global labor conditions and a conscious attempt to unlearn the dominance of conventional food price-points make me an ideal potential customer for similar tokens of virtuous consumption. The non-essential nature of high end chocolate and their small maximum market share due to high price points speak to the potential limitations of these transformations but demand to be compared to alternatives in dealing with chocolate’s dark global history.

How successful can changes in modern production and consumption practices be in altering patterns of racial, gendered and economic inequality embedded in the history of chocolate? I conceptualize the scope of the problem of chocolate’s history within the larger structural phenomena of slavery, expropriation and export oriented restructuring. It is perhaps unfair to evaluate relatively small resistance tactics within global capitalist civil society against the massive weight of historical, structural violence but I do this here for a reason.

“Time does not pass but accumulates” (Baucom 2003, 23-8). The super highways of modern food networks have been laid down in the ruts of colonialism’s cart paths. Cacao’s introduction to the West was through the violence of colonialism, its initial post-Columbian cultivation based in the networks of West Indies chattel slavery, and its introduction to West Africa was driven by the colonial need for export oriented agricultural and the mechanisms of “War Capitalism” (Beckert 2014, 12). These various violences did not end with the passing of the years but leave scars on the land and bodies that persist. Particular forms of poverty, inequality and violence within the food system often act as positive feedbacks for others. Tales of migrant labor exploitation in Ghana cannot be considered outside of colonial Germany’s reshaping of neighboring Togo to end subsistence farming and switch to cotton monocroping, leaving farmers directly exposed to global price fluctuations (Beckert 2014, 501). It was Ghana’s own colonial history that originally helped spark cacao growing through increased demand for export oriented crops.

A helpful how-to book from 1901.
A helpful how-to book from 1901.

A cacao pod or a chocolate bar can hold no moral responsibility for these horrors. In fact, the resistance of Theobroma Cacao to intensive, large scale monocroping probably worked to prevent its integration into colonial economies on the scale of cotton or sugar. Even the largest scale corporate agents in the modern chocolate supply chain like Nestle or Hershey’s can only be held responsible at most for the labor exploitation that have existed directly within their historical supply chains. But the path that chocolate has cut through out the globe, like so many export-oriented commodities, needs to be considered in its total historical scale. Because, sadly, we will not find a bad actor to hold responsible or pay restitution, historical structural level analysis is avoided. Accepting the scope of the problem is necessary to evaluate tactics for resistance.

Obviously current volumes of fair trade consumption, even including the many products outside of chocolate, cannot overcome this scale of historical inequity in global agrifood systems, but what is the maximum potential from virtuous consumption given time to grow? The direct results of fair trade chocolate and other products as a unique consumer items for reversing the problems of the past will be very limited but could have positive effects in two ways. First, their role in providing the short term survival of already export dependent populations which, though fostering mutually beneficial relationship with small producers in the US and elsewhere is not inconsequential. But second and more generally, fostering a culture that is aware of the basic structure and existence of global supply chains, which could demand increasing layers of transparency from all levels of food producers could be a first step towards meaningful change in the sector. As I’ll discuss later, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act is a small baby step in this direction.

Much like Guthman’s organic salad mix, I think that even in the long term artisanal and fair/direct trade chocolate represents a “niche product not necessarily representing a critique of industrial food” (Guthman 2013, 497). The significant price limitations discussed above pose some further problems. Chocolate’s long history as an object of desire only became an easily accessible commodity though global economic transformation. Access to chocolate was demanded not simply for its pleasurable input of caffeine, sugar and theobromine but because of the rare and exotic treat it represented. Mintz would go so far as to say that access to sugar and the like “may have been one of the very rare ways in which British workers of the mid-nineteenth century achieved the fulfillment of the promises implicit in the political philosophy of a century earlier” (Mintz 1983, 163). Even if there were attempts to put into place an increased payment-to-farmer structure throughout the industry, if it lead to driving chocolate access out of reach of practically any segment of the population consumer backlash would cause new lost cost producers to sprout up. The ability to purchase low-cost chocolate is relegated to the lowest rung of perceptions of reasonable capitalist consumer access and so, as a core pleasure food for many, any price increase caused by increased fair trade must be minor to take hold industry wide. Not to mention that any direct collusion on the part of major market players agreeing to increase the global market price of cacao, through even indirect means, could be vulnerable to anti-trust claims.

If intentional higher pricing to cacao farmers on a broad scale is infeasible, companies could still increasingly adopt increased certification standards as a value-added marker to attract consumers. This, however, still relies on an ultimately limited amount of consumer demand. That is, the number of people who are willing and able to pay a premium for a “more just” chocolate product limits it. It is possible that increased diffusion of labeling and product information could increase that demand but that would have to happen though external means, not just by increasing the proportion of chocolate on the market labeled “fair trade.” Increased fair pricing for a sole commodity like chocolate does not guarantee an increase in distributive justice let alone other metrics of overall success. Like that organic salad mix, increased prices could fuel increased production and crop switching “contributing to the logic of intensification” (Guthman 2013, 501).

Many critics of other form of virtuous consumption like “green consumerism” charge that it merely reinforces existing market ideologies that allow consumers to feel virtuous while doing nothing to address underlying structural problems (Scales 2014). Because I think that new consumer offerings that use their “justness” as a value added selling point have very little potential to challenge the current terms of the chocolate system broadly I agree with these critics in part. Yet their assumption seems to be that but for these small steam valves of virtuous purchasing the average upper-middle class consumer might otherwise participate in some other, more radial or anti-capitalist rebellion. I find that unlikely. While it is true that many of this access to fair trade certified products and the rise of slow food/locavore food movements came after the fall of the more radical anti-globalization movements at the turn of the century, I believe that they are more likely to be echos of the incomplete success, rather than causal failure, that those movements represented. Intersecting concerns over environmental, labor and cultural preservation have been increasingly mainstreamed in consumer capitalism for good or ill. My own sense is that this aesthetic turn towards quality, authenticity, and uniqueness in food networks is an exploitable moment for food justice activism, though one that could easily turn conservative.

Lead by a white upper middle class, the foodie revolution does not have the type of leadership that bends towards justice. Much like Slow Food, there is an inherent conservativism in the focus on the artisanal and homemade (Levkoe 2013). To re-site labor hours into the home traditionally means feminized labor and, despite different gender roles being taken on by variously sexed people in alternative argifood movements, racial exclusions from the benefits of these movements are prominent (Slocum 2007; Guthman 2008). Flipping though the websites of artisanal chocolate makers shows a range of smiling white faces under 50, mostly making goods priced only for the upper middle class. Here we find a problem with integrating chocolate in particular into rebellious food movements: the non-essential nature of the food crop and its export oriented cultivation.

For reasons open to debate, the commodities that are most deeply embedded in slave labor and colonial plantation agriculture are non-essential food crops. Sugar, cotton, cacao and spices all have unique ecological niches, mostly tied to the global south and cannot be integrated into growing locavore movements. Attempts to reduce both labor abuses and ecological damage by re-siting food production with a small radius of its consumption simply isn’t possible for these commodities that have caused and continue to cause great harm. This is not to diminish serious labor abuses that take place with the labor-intensive US produce and meat production sectors. That is simply a newer manifestation of the ongoing themes of high demand for agricultural labor coupled with strong power of purchasers leading to strong downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Much of what was true for kidnapped Africans in sugar and cacao production under War Capitalism is now true for undocumented immigrants in tomato and celery production under Late Capitalism. Only the violence that regulates labor has changed; from the non-state whip to state regulated scarcity.

When defining the food justice platform Levcoe states that “food is an essential commodity” yet chocolate is not. Unlike the produce and grains that the locavore movement attempts to recapture, chocolate is not the bread of life. It is not a source of significant survival calories, rare nutrients or proteins. It’s possible health benefits are marginal gains that could be experienced only by individuals who have already overcame the core caloric and nutrient deficiencies that have plagued all of humanity until the last century and avoided accidental death or health problems from the overconsumption of calories. Levcoe’s definition of food justice movements holds that they “promote a strategy of food security where all people have access to adequate amounts of safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate food produce in an environmentally sustainable way and provided in a manner that promotes human dignity” (Levcoe 2013, 589). This leaves little room for a progressive chocolate politics. I think Levcoe’s definition is overly restrictive however if its read to exclude the labor practices that make possible survival in parts of the world already racked by expropriation and export oriented economies.

A demand for fair trade in chocolate and all other non-essential agricultural commodities is necessary for local food security, especially where subsistence agriculture is not possible due to legacies of colonial expropriation and proletarianization. Understanding the structural legacies of global agricultural transformation is crucial to see the accumulation of history, the repeating and deepening paths of racism and inequality. In this way, despite the massive limitations of demands for particular fair trade products I think it is worthwhile if only because it begins to make visible the limitations of current supply chains and the very real material challenges that any globally integrated trading revolution will have in creating macro-level change. I want to conclude this post with a discussion of the challenges and promises of supply chain visibility projects.

Despite being fueled largely by racialized panics over human trafficking and child slavery (viewed as cultural practices separate from the daily workings of international capitalist commodity production), legislation and activism to put pressure on companies to take responsibility for their global supply chains is increasing. The mostly-toothless California Transparency in Supply Chains Act is an interesting example of how legislation can start to demand increased disclosures of supply chain management practices and can assist activists in investigating particular labor abuses. Obviously this does little to address the basic global inequalities that fuel under compensated labor in countries with little regulatory oversight, but it does point towards a possible political opening to strategically exploit the human trafficking discourse to gain mechanisms for increasing fair trade and general labor practices globally.

Hershey chose to do their  labor exploitation disclosure in front of a river of melted chocolate.
Hershey chose to do their labor exploitation disclosure in front of a river of melted chocolate.

The increased presence of country of origins labels of artisanal chocolate has the possibility to spill up into the broader market much like formerly irrelevant strain details like “Arabica beans” have become a staple of McDonald’s commercial or how “GMO-free” has become Chipotle’s new mantra. A food culture surrounding chocolate that expects more details, even if not at a higher price point, can mean a slow unveiling of supply chains. This visibility politics could allow for increased global solidarities between activists, increasing digital linkages, and more opportunities to hold particular actors responsible for their horizontal integration. Success in this arena seems deeply distant though perhaps still slightly closer than scaling up international fair trade pricing regimes. It will require both increased voluntary compliance from industry groups as a results of changing consumer expectation trickling in from elite chocolate bars as well as broader legislative moves to decrease trade secret laws surrounding supply chains.

Visibility is not an absolute solution to anything however as Leissle so well shows in her article on West Africa and artisanal chocolate. Despite it being “the foundation upon which the modern candy industry grew,” West Africa suffering from existing racialized biases that make it unattractive sadly particularly to those “conscious consumers” that direct trade chocolate tries to court (Leissle 2013). This problem’s “complex imbrication of trade logistics, bean strain, and representational politics” is one of the finest example of the problems inherent in attempting to reverse the accumulation of histories of inequality. These economic and racial problem don’t layer neatly but mix and sediment in material and cultural feedbacks. The farmers of Ivory Coast cannot simply change their cacao strains more than the consumers of America can stop associating Africa with violence and disorder. A politics of resistance based solely on visibility will fail to produce radical change and will fall prey to existing biases of representation.

KnowTheChain.org's logo begins in West Africa, for good or ill.
KnowTheChain.org’s logo begins in West Africa, for good or ill.

There is a further crucial tension here between the values of local, small scale, artisanal and those requiring detailed compliance with an extensive regime of traceability, labeling and data access. The spread of extremely low cost RFID chips, smart phones and internet connectivity to even extremely remote regions makes this perhaps not an insurmountable task but one that is parasitic upon the spread of various new forms of capitalist dependency even as it tries to clean up some of its historical legacy. I mean that not as a rejection of these tactics but to point out that there is no pure tactic of resistance. The phone we use to scan a barcode to investigate its origin or tweet to a farmer halfway around the world may have been assembled in exploitative conditions using rare earth minerals extracted from environmentally destructive mines. We are all constantly caught in a world of commodities, a world created by networks of capital so complex that we can’t grab hold. We have to resist from the messy places we are in. A politics of visibility and transparency in supply chains is a light in the darkness, but only so that we can see the dirt on our clothes.

Fair trade labeling and small scale, direct trade, artisanal production of chocolate will not undo the structural history of inequality within the industry but they may at least hold place for us. The nine dollar white pepper bar will not alter histories of colonialism but they may provide a better livelihood for a few while we continue to fight to change the overwhelming structure of the global food system. They may help slowly change consumer expectations and change the behaviors of large producers, if only in ways that do not change the bottom line. These gains are drops in the bucket but we need every drop.

Works Cited

Baucom, Ian. 2005. Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History. USA: Duke.

Beckert, Sven. 2014. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Knopf.

Guthman, Julie. 2008. “If They Only Knew”: Color Blindness and Universalism in California Alternative Food Institutions. The Professional Geographer, Volume 60, Issue 3.

Guthman, Julie. 2013. “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘Yuppie Chow’”. In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carlole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge.

Leissle, Kristy. 2013. Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 22-31.

Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. USA: Penguin.

Pilcher, Jeffrey. 2013. “Taco Bell, Maseca and Slow Food: A Postmodern Apocalypse for Mexico’s Peasant Cuisine?”. In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carlole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge.

Scales, I. R. 2014. Green Consumption, Ecolabelling and Capitalism’s Environmental Limits. Geography Compass, 8: 477–489.

Slocum, Rachel. 2007. Whiteness, space and alternative food practice. Geoforum. Volume 38, Issue 3, May 2007, Pages 520–533

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