Making ethical eating choices is very important; as consumers, we are responsible for choosing products that do as little harm to the world as possible. Thankfully, with things like chocolate, a little research can go a long way: simply googling “ethical chocolate buying” leads to dozens of online listings of chocolate companies that give a little extra thought to the environment, fairness of trade, or social justice.
However, what happens when you don’t have time to do your research? What happens when there’s no Google to access? The answer, my friends, is a series of questions.
Below, within the context of a monologue-led short story, you will be introduced to just one group of these questions. By examining the price of a product, what kind of business creates that product, and how the product is certified, these questions can let any consumer make better decisions.
These questions can easily be adapted to any situation. But they’re especially effective when making an impulsive chocolate purchase.
It’s Wednesday and where are you again? Where you always are, Wednesday nights. At the grocery store. Grocery shopping.
Your cart is full and you’re waiting to check out.
“Mom, can I have a Snickers?” says your 9-year-old. You look down and see her eyes locked on the tiers of candy bars and gum surrounding you. There is a little bit of spittle at a corner of her mouth.
You want to say “No”. You even consider saying an all caps “NO” with a small but powerful shake of the head for emphasis. Your 9-year-old doesn’t need the 27 grams of sugar in a Snickers bar. Right now or ever. The monstrous current rate of child obesity is linked to sugar and, though that rate has plateaued in recent years, it’s nowhere close to decreasing.
But another look at the colorful chocolates rocks your resolve. The chocolate industry spends millions of dollars on advertising a year; Hershey’s alone spent $668 million on advertising in 2013. And these millions are put to very good use. You think of the pleasure and luxury the chocolate ads have made you associate with chocolate. You think of how chocolate is basically has its own holiday, Valentine’s Day. You think about how yummy chocolate is.
(You also imagine yourself over sexualized and seduced, like the women in an alarmingly large percentage of chocolate advertisements. That seduction feels kind of good and you worry about the implications of you thinking so.source: https://static01.nyt.com/images/2009/11/16/business/energy-environment/16adnews1/popup.jpg)
Sensing that your resolve is wavering, the 9-year-old lobs another “Mom, can I have a Snickers bar?”
The resolve gives way with a sharp Crack!. “Okay,” you say to the 9-year-old.
A GOLDEN QUESTION APPEARS IN THE AIR FOR 10 SECONDS. “YOU MUST CHOOSE THE BEST CHOCOLATE!” YELL THE QUESTION, TWICE. THEN THE QUESTION ASKS: DOES THE PRICE MATCH THE PRODUCT?
“Thanks, guiding question”, you say. You say it quietly though, so as not to startle your 9-year-old.
The little sticker next to the Snickers bar reads 75 cents. You know there’s no way 75 cents is enough for the cacao farmer who’s grown the cacao beans for the Snicker’s chocolate. Especially since the farmer is probably only getting 3 perfect of the profit from the 75 cents, or even less. You glance at the other chocolate bars in the checkout aisle, noting that they also all cost about a dollar. This chocolate must not be the best choice.
(You remember this handy diagram as well. Most chocolate purchases support all the wrong people, you think. 43% to retailers? What kind of a ridiculous system is that?source: Martin, Carla. “Introduction to Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Cambridge. 27 Feb. 2016. Lecture.)
WITH A MUSICAL FLOURISH, ANOTHER GOLDEN QUESTION APPEARS IN THE AIR: QUESTION 2: HOW WELL KNOWN IS THE BRAND?
Unfortunately, today’s large companies are more likely to be working towards a profit than worrying about how that profit affects the world around them. Capitalism rewards that kind of stuff, you know.
You think back to the lawsuits three of the five biggest chocolate companies- Hershey, Mars, and Nestle -faced in 2015: buying chocolate from farmers using the worst forms of child labor.  You look down at your 9-year-old. You imagine her smuggled across some border, forced to work long hours. You shiver. You decide that maybe supporting these large, potentially problematic brands is not for you.
(Turns out supporting slavery isn’t a recipe for good night sleeps. source: http://laborrightsblog.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341bf90b53ef013483af2d4a970c-800wi)
At just this moment, a fellow shopper, passing buy, drops QUESTION 3: WHAT KINDS OF CERTIFICATION DOES THE PRODUCT HAVE?
None. Looking at the chocolates in the checkout aisle, you realize they are all made by huge chocolate companies and are certification-free. If you’re going to get the right chocolate, you’ll have to try a little harder.
“Wait, just a second, honey. I’ll be right back,” you whisper to your 9-year-old. You whisper loudly and both the woman in front of you, with her 14 single-serving yogurts, and the cashier can hear. Then you dash back into the store.
Soon you’re in the Official Sweets Aisle, the aisle where the sweets are. Dozens of chocolate brands stare back at you. How to choose a good chocolate? You’re at a loss again. You guess the same rules apply here as back there, with the 9-year-old and the checkout aisle: cheap, uncertified chocolates from well-known brands are likely neither high quality nor ethically sourced.
You crouch down in front of the chocolates and peer intently at their wrappers. After a couple of minutes of peering, you notice small stickers- certifications- on the labels.
(This is the more nuanced than you realize. With extra research, you would be able to see just how complicated companies’ relationships with certification truly is:source: http://www.greenamerica.org/programs/fairtrade/whatyoucando/images/ScorecardFinal.png)
In front of you, there’s Fair Trade, which basically promises fair working conditions and a slightly higher pay than other chocolates. There are a couple of organic certifications, which look so nice and mean the products weren’t grown with many pesticides. There’s also a Direct Trade sticker, meaning the chocolate was made with products directly sourced from farmers.
ANOTHER QUESTION APPEARS AND TAPS YOU ON THE BACK, IMPATIENTLY. THIS GOLDEN QUESTION DOES A LITTLE DANCE AS WELL. IT’S QUESTION 4: WHAT DO THE CERTIFICATION REALLY MEAN?
You dance along with the question for a little bit. Then “thanks, question,” you say. You’ve been saying that a lot lately.
You know the certifications promise only what they seem to promise. Organic certification usually indirectly means workers will work in better conditions (since they’ll be working with less toxic chemicals), but, says nothing about better wages or working conditions overall. And Direct Trade certification simply means a product is made with products directly sourced from farmers.
You also think back to the rumors swirling around Fair Trade. Apparently, Fair Trade has a very noticeable lack of real proof of impact. Apparently, Fair Trade is just (hyperbolically) a certification created by a bunch of well-intended hippies and surrounded by greatly exaggerated “science”. It’s just the free market, making messes again.
What are you supposed to do now? You glance down the aisle, notice the FOUR BIG QUESTIONS gathered at the end. They can’t help you any longer. But they have guided you far enough. At least you’re far away from the problems of the cheap checkout aisle chocolates now.
You smile at the questions. They smile back. You reach for a small, bean to bar, organic and direct trade chocolate. The chocolate promises decent wages on the label on its back. It’d be best to do some extra research, but this is good for now.
You dash back towards the checkout line and your 9-year-old.
You know that the questions could have all come up to you in a different order. You know that not all questions apply in all situations. You know that, sometimes, larger companies can certify their chocolates and smaller companies can claim benefits without being that good for the world around them.
But these questions are good to start with.
You have tried your best.
Asking question is, generally, good. And questioning the price of the chocolate (and what that could mean for the amount of money received by the cacao farmers), the size of the chocolate companies, and what certifications are present and what they mean, provides an easy way to consider the implications of any purchase of chocolate. The considerations presented in the short story above are only some of many. But they’re important and, as a group, definitely provide good guidance for those trying to be careful with their consumption.
Of course, purchases all have many effects. And when choosing the right chocolate, “right” can be defined in many ways. Chocolate could be “right” ethically, nutritionally, or even taste wise (as shallow as that sounds compared to the other two categories).
Regardless of what kind of “right” chocolate you’re looking for, one thing is clear: it’s not always easy to make the choices that lead to that “right”. The chain of production and consumption is very large in our hyper-globalized world. Chocolate goes through many steps before reaching consumers. This staggering amount of steps is all related to the industrialization of food; preservation, mechanization, retailing, wholesaling, and transportation are all developments that have added more people and steps to the chocolate making process.And partially because of how large production has become, when information available to consumers, it is often misleading or blatantly inaccurate.
However, it’s important not to give up. So feel free to really take to heart the little short story above! With greater general education, and more questions like the FOUR BIG QUESTIONS we can make progress. We can try and make better choices about what we eat.
 Fed Up. Dir. Stephanie Soechtig. The Weinstein Company, 2014.
 Schultz, E. J. “Hershey Plans to Triple Digital Ad Spending.” Advertising Age Digital RSS. Crain Communications, 31 Jan. 2013. Web. 02 May 2016.
 Henderson, Amy. “How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated For Life.”Smithsonian. Smithsonian, 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 02 May 2016.
 Martin, Carla. “Valentine’s Day: Women Being Seduced By Chocolate.”Bittersweet Notes. WordPress, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 May 2016.
 Martin, Carla. “Introduction to Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Cambridge. 27 Feb. 2016. Lecture.
 Neiburg, Oliver. “Mars, Nestlé and Hershey Face Fresh Cocoa Child Labor Class Action Lawsuits.” ConfectioneryNews.com. William Reed, 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 04 May 2016.
 Martin, Carla. “Alternative Trade and Virtuous Localization/Globalization.” Cambridge. 6 April. 2016. Lecture.
 Sylla, Ndongo Samba. Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. N.p.: Ohio UP, 2014. Print.
 Martin, Carla. “The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market.” Cambridge. 9 March. 2016. Lecture.
“Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.” Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry. Food Empowerment Project. Web. 03 May 2016.