The chocolate industry has been fraught with ethical dilemmas since the beginning of its existence. From imperialism where Europeans co-opted the traditions of Mesoamericans to the reliance on slavery for cacao production chocolate producers have engaged in problematic and exploitive practices in order to build their companies and brands. As present-day American and Europeans become more aware of this troubled past and still troubled present, they are demanding more from chocolate brands. This has manifested itself most commonly in the form of fair trade certification but it has also taken the form of chocolate producers trying to connect their brands to what they perceive as the authentic origins of their cacao beans. Through packaging and advertisements, chocolate producers try to convince their consumers that they care about the West African cacao farmers and Mesoamerican cultural origins of cacao that are responsible for the products they sell today. However, their efforts are often misguided, insufficient and sometimes even harmful.
One such example is a set of Divine Chocolate advertisements featuring the Ghanaian farmers that grow and harvest their cacao. Divine Chocolate is a London-based fair trade chocolate company that is co-owned by Ghanaian farmers like those featured in the ads (Leissle 137, 123). Their advertisements attempt to convey this fact while combating negative stereotypes of Ghana, and Africa more generally. Scholar Kristy Leissle believes they achieve this goal, but, in reality, the representation of the cacao farmers is mostly superficial and still ultimately exists to cater to a Western audience. Another example is Taza chocolate, a Somerville based chocolate manufacturer, that sells stoneground chocolate inspired by the founder’s trip to Mexico (“Our Founders – Taza Chocolate”). Taza chocolate is an example of a chocolate producer that tries to tie itself to the origins of cacao in Mexico as a part of its branding and marketing strategy. However, the result is just another chocolate company that has appropriated Mexican culture for its own benefit without paying real and meaningful reparations to the communities it takes from. I will be discussing the effectiveness of Divine and Taza in truly providing representation and compensation to Ghanaian cacao farmers and Mexican chocolate makers, respectively, for their, often involuntary, contributions to the chocolate companies.
Each advertisement in this series features a Ghanaian farmer in a westernized version of African dress standing in front of “images of Ghana’s agricultural economy: cocoa drying tables, plantain trees, coconut trees, mud buildings, and dusty roads” (Leissle 128). The women pose with one hand on their hip, the other holding a piece of chocolate and finally a caption including the name of the farmer along with the claim that they are a co-owner of Divine. Additionally, each advertisement has a tag line. In the ones pictured it says “Equality Treat” and “Decadently Decent” while others say “Serious Chocolate Appeal” (Leissle 124-126, 128). By photographing the farmers in Ghana in what appears to be African dress, Divine is implying that they are presenting an authentic representation of the lifestyles of the Ghanaian farmers. Divine also paints themselves as more ethical with the use of the tag lines as well as the declaration that these farmers own part of the company.
While these photographs may appear authentic to naïve Western eyes, they are not accurate reflections of the lives of these farmers. Kristy Leissle observes that “Despite its ‘African’ appearance to viewers outside the continent, these textiles and dress styles are historically hybrid designs” (Leissle 129). Divine Chocolate presumably tried to imitate traditional Ghanaian dress when they dressed the farmers for these advertisements. However, the women are wearing “Dutch wax print cloth” and not traditional Ghanaian dress (Leissle 136). In fact, the clothes were provided by Divine and St. Luke’s, an advertising agency in London (Leissles 124). Both of these companies are based in London, so achieving traditional Ghanaian dress would be nearly impossible without incorporating the input of either the farmers themselves or other Ghanaians, which is not what Divine did.
Leissle suggests that this lack of authenticity is acceptable because “their clothing and fashion suggest that they are cosmopolitan participants of this exchange” (Leissle 128). Leissle seems to think that Divine might not be aiming for authenticity but instead for representing the farmers as worldly and engaged in the chocolate production industry. This theory is supported by the fact that their farmers are co-owners of the company. However, this is a midguided goal if Divine is trying to be an ethical company. This viewpoint still privileges Western society rather than sincerely helping and uplifting cacao farmers. By portraying this cosmopolitan factor as admirable and desirable, Divine is suggesting that Ghanaian farmers find ultimate value in being a part of the European economy of chocolate production and not in other ways like the Ghanaian economy.
Their advertisements also cater to a Western audience by making them feel good for helping the Ghanaian farmers by buying Divine Chocolate. Consequently, Divine is perpetuating the harmful stereotypes associated with all of Africa in their advertisements. Kristy Leissle praises these ads for being “bold” (127) disruptions of the normal representations of Ghanaian women in the beginning paragraph of her article:
By representing these Ghanaian women as glamorous business owners, the images invite viewers to see them as potent actors in transnational exchanges of cocoa and chocolate, and as beneficiaries of these exchanges, in contrast to analyses that focus on market exploitation by the nation state or corporate actors. The images pose a challenge to narratives that cast Africa as continually on the losing side of harmful binaries – primitive/civilized, traditional/modern – and in an eternal developmental lag. Instead, they offer an alluring female figure that envisions and promotes Africa’s roles in industrial production and luxury consumption (121).
However, it is not showing the farmers as “actors” because there is no suggestion that the farmers sought out this deal with Divine. Divine Chocolate allowed the women to be co-owners as a way to market their product as more ethical and thus more appealing to a more conscious consumer pool. There is no direct action on the part of the Ghanaian farmers; they are the receivers of what Divine wants consumers to see as their generosity. There is definitely still “market exploitation” because by basing their ultimate manufacturing and production in Europe and not Ghana, Divine Chocolate is doing little to drastically impact the lives of the farmers in the way that they need to truly say they are an “equality treat.”
Ultimately the farmers are used as pawns for the profit of Divine Chocolate, which is not a new phenomenon. Emma Robertson synthesizes the work of other scholars Jan Pieterse and Anandi Ramamurthy when she recounts:
As Jan Pieterse demonstrates, products made available through the use of slave labour, such as coffee and cocoa, often used, and many still use, images of black people to enhance their luxury status…According to Ramamurthy, in her impressively nuanced study of race in British advertising, support for indirect rule in West African (as being favourable to cocoa production) resulted in the Quaker chocolate firms adopting images of Africans as ‘peasant producer[s]…with the appearance of potential development.’ Furthermore, the Sao Tome and Principe slavery scandal of the early twentieth century encouraged the Quaker manufacturers to use more ‘positive’ images of Africans (Robertson 36)
Divine is using images of black people, as Pieterse observes, and shows the Ghanaian farms as producers “with the appearance of potential development” as Ramamurthy observes. Even more disturbing is the fact that Ramamurthy observed this in a response to support for imperialistic policies in Africa, which shows a connection between that imagery and the exploitation of Africans. Furthermore, all of this is on the assumption that as co-owners, the farmers are getting a fair compensation and that they have access to the chocolate they help produce. However, as Emma Roberston reveals, “Such romanticized narratives of chocolate may be pleasurable to those lucky enough to be able to consume them. However, they are largely divorced from the material conditions of production” (Robertson 2). Even though Divine does a very good job of making us believe their Ghanaian farmers have this, ultimately the ads are made for the European consumer Divine is selling to, so they will make it look as good as possible.
Finally, Divine played into stereotypes of black people in the way they asked the farmers to pose. According to Leissle, the theme of the photoshoot was “‘women with attitude’” (124). Black women specifically are thought to have attitude problems and as a result are often described as disrespectful, rude and sassy. In fact, Leissle describes the farmers as having a “sassy assertion of confidence” in their poses (134). While the way she describes the poses puts them in a positive light, the added context that these are Black women that have been asked to pose “with attitude” and “sass” reveals that Divine still probably sees the women in a stereotypical light.
There is a plethora of chocolate bars on the market that claim ties to the Mesoamerican origins of cacao. However, more often than not there is an enormous amount of erasure of Mesoamerican culture and history of imperialism that has denigrated those areas by these companies. As Emma Robertson notes
In the light of recent marketing campaigns for luxury fairtrade chocolate such as ‘Mayan Gold’, it is important to recognise the ways in which ethical consumption today may smooth over the inequalities of the imperial past, and bypass an awareness of the processes of industrial manufacture, by drawing on ancient, mystical and exotic imaginings of the origins of cocoa (5).
As a chocolate manufacturer, Taza chocolate has tried to emulate the Mexican process of chocolate production and was founded because the founder wanted to bring stone ground chocolate, which he discovered on a trip to Mexico, to America (Taza website). To truly accomplish this ethically, he needs to not only be authentic in order to live up to the claims of Mexican-inspired chocolate but also needs to give back to the community that he is borrowing and profiting off of, with special attention to the history of imperialism.
Marie Sarita Gaytán writes about the authenticity of Mexican restaurants in the Northeast and
argue[s] that the accomplishment of Mexican authenticity, whether maintained by Mexican owners or performed by large restaurant chains, is a social construction. However, despite its socially created qualities, performances of authenticity and ethnicity affect not only how individuals understand each other, but illustrate the challenges faced by different groups of people in the commercial production and consumption of identity (315).
She argues that this is the case because companies attempting to achieve Mexican authenticity submit to the will of the consumer, which inhibits their ability to be able to be authentic. She studies Mexican restaurants primarily owned and operated by Mexican immigrants or first generation Mexican-Americans who would presumably be both the most authentic and most passionate about sticking true to that authenticity. She expands on this later in her essay when she says “While they are able to display personal values associated with their presentation of ethnic heritage, they must also make concessions to fulfill certain customer expectations…Customers desired the ‘illusion of authenticity’ regardless of modifications pertaining to the use of spices, methods of preparation, and styles of service” (326). If those with Mexican heritage are unable to truly achieve and maintain authenticity, then it seems nearly impossible for Taza Chocolate, with a White American founder with no claim to Mexican heritage, to be authentic to Mexican chocolate production. However, the founder Alex Whitmore, did an apprenticeship in Mexico to learn how chocolate was produced so that he could reproduce it in America and their chocolate production process is captured in a video on their website (“About Taza – Taza Chocolate”).
The next video is chocolate being made in Mexico by Chocolate Mayordomo De Oaxaca, a Mexican chocolate company.
There are a lot of similarities between the videos, which suggests that Taza has made a significant effort to stay true to the authentic Mexican chocolate production process.
Taza does not appropriately give back to the communities it is profiting off of. It claims to source its beans ethically and pay fair wages to the farmers, but that will not truly change the lives in the way that Whitmore’s co-opting of their culture is changing his life. In order to do that, he could move manufacturing to Mexico itself and import into Massachusetts. That would truly give Mexico its fair share of the profit, especially given the history of imperialism that has allowed Whitmore to profit off of someone else’s culture.
With a rise in conscious consumers, the fairly infamous chocolate industry has seen an expansion in advertisements and packaging geared towards the ethical consumer. Unfortunately, many of these efforts do not accomplish what the companies intend. The companies still prioritize the Western consumer over the Ghanaian and Mexican producers, in the case of Divine and Taza chocolate, which continues to skew the power structure and equality. However, these companies sell themselves as ethical while profiting off of the producers in unequal and unfair ways much like those they claim to denounce. It takes a radical reversal of power given the history of imperialism and slavery for these companies to truly represent and uplift the communities they are profiting off of and claiming to help.
“About Taza – Taza Chocolate.” Taza Chocolate | Organic Stone Ground Chocolate for Bold
“File:Making Chocolate in Oaxaca.ogv – Wikipedia Commons.” Wikipedia
Gaytán, Marie Sarita. “From Sombreros to Sincronizadas: Authenticity, Ethnicity, and the
Mexican Restaurant Industry.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, vol. 37, no. 3, June 2008, 314-341.
Leissle, Kristy. “Cosmopolitan cocoa farmers: refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate
advertisements.” Journal of African Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, December 2012, 121-139.
“Our Founders – Taza Chocolate.” Taza Chocolate | Organic Stone Ground Chocolate for
Bold Flavor. https://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/about-taza.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history.
Manchester University Press, 2009.